Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Congreve, William (1670-1729)
CONGREVE, WILLIAM (1670–1729), dramatist, was born at Bardsey, near Leeds, where he was baptised on 10 Feb. 1669–70—a fact first ascertained by Malone (Life of Dryden, i. 225). He was the son Congreve; his mother's maiden name Browning. His grandfather, Richard Congreve, was a cavalier named for the order of the Royal Oak, whose wife was Anne FitzHerbert. The family had been long settled at Stretton in Staffordshire. Congreve's father was an officer, who soon after the son's birth was appointed to command the garrison at Youghal, where he also became agent for the estates of the Earl of Cork, and ultimately moved to Lismore. Congreve was educated at Kilkenny school, where he was a school-fellow of Swift, his senior by two years. He was entered at Trinity College, Dublin, on 5 April 1685, where, like Swift, he was a pupil of St. George Ashe [q. v.] Swift, who took his B.A. on 13 Feb. 1686, resided at Dublin till the revolution. They were therefore contemporaries at college, and formed an enduring friendship.
Congreve, on leaving Dublin, entered the Middle Temple, but soon deserted Law for literature. His first publication was a poor novel called 'Incognita, or Love and Duty reconciled,' by Cleophil, written 'in the idler hours of a fortnight's time.' His first play, the 'Old Bachelor,' was brought out in January 1692–3. It was written, as he says in the dedication, nearly four years previously, in order (reply to Collier) to 'amuse himself in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness.' Dryden pronounced it to be the best first play he had ever seen; and the players, to whom he had at first read it so badly that they almost rejected it, soon changed their opinion. The manager granted him the 'privilege of the house' for six months before it was acted, a then unprecedented compliment. Its great success prompted him to produce the 'Double Dealer,' first performed in November 1693. This met with some opposition, and some ladies were scandalised. Queen Mary, however, came to see it, and was afterwards present at a new performance of the 'Old Bachelor,' when Congreve wrote a new prologue for the occasion. Dryden had generously welcomed Congreve, who helped him in the translation of Juvenal (1692), and to Congreve Dryden now addressed a famous epistle, in which he declares Congreve to be the equal of Shakespeare, and pathetically bequeaths his memory to the care of the 'dear friend' who is to succeed to his laurels, a bequest acknowledged by Congreve in his preface to Dryden's plays (1718). Dryden also acknowledges (in 1697) Congreve's services in revising the translation of Virgil, in which he was also helped by Addison and Walsh.
Betterton [q. v.] and other players revolted from Drury Lane, and obtained permission to open a new theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields. It was opened on 30 April 1695, the first performance being Congreve's 'Love for Love.' The brilliant success of this comedy was acknowledged by a share in the house, on condition of Congreve's promise to produce a new play every year. On 12 July 1695 Congreve was appointed by Charles Montagu, afterwards earl of Halifax, 'commissioner for licensing hackney coaches,' a small office, which he held till 13 Oct. 1707. His next production was the 'Mourning Bride,' acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields, 'for thirteen days without interruption,' in 1697. The success saved the company, though the tragedy is generally regarded as an unlucky excursion into an uncongenial field. Johnson always maintained that the description of a cathedral in this play (act ii. sc. 1) was superior to anything in Shakespeare Boswell, 16 Oct. 1769, and Life of Congreve), In the same year Congreve was attacked by Jeremy Collier [q. v.] in a 'View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage.' He replied in a pamphlet called 'Amendment of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations' (from his four plays). Although the critical principles laid down by Collier are not such as would be now admitted, he was generally thought to have the best both of the argument and of the wit. Nor can it be doubted that he was attacking a serious evil. Congreve felt the blow. His last play, the 'Way of the World,' was produced, again at Lincoln's Inn Fields, in 1700. Congreve declares in the dedication that he did not expect success, as he had not written to suit the prevailing taste. The play was coolly received, and it is said that Congreve told the audience to their faces that they need not take the trouble to disapprove, as he meant to write no more. The play succeeded better after a time; but Congreve abandoned his career. In 1705 a new theatre was built for the same company by Vanbrugh, and Congrove was for a time Vanbrugh's colleague in the management. He did nothing, however, beyond writing 'a prologue or so, and one or two miserable bits of operas' (Leigh Hunt) (the 'Judgment of Paris,' a masque, and 'Semele, an Opera,' neither performed).
From this time he lived at his ease. In 1710 he published the first collected edition of his works, in three vols, octavo. A promise of Tonson to pay him twenty guineas on publication is m the British Museum (Addit. MS. 28275, f. 12) He was commissioner of wine licenses from December 1705 till December 1714. At the last date he became secretary for Jamaica. According to the 'General Dictionary' Lord Halifax gave him a 'place in the pipe-office,' a 'patent place in the customs of 600l. a year,' and the Jamaica secretaryship, worth 700l. a year. He is said to have been latterly in receipt of 1,200l. a year. Swift, in his verses on 'Dr. Delany and Dr. Carteret,' says that
Congreve spent on writing plays
And one poor office half his days.
But Swift when writing satire did not stick to prosaic accuracy. Congreve, at any rate, was universally flattered and admired. He is always spoken of by contemporaries as a leader of literature, and had the wisdom or the good feeling to keep on terms with rival authors. He never, it is said, hurt anybody's feelings in conversation. Swift, while at Sir W. Temple's in 1693, addressed a remarkable poem to his more prosperous friend, and always speaks of him with special kindliness. Many meetings are noticed in the 'Journal to Stella.' It is odd that Congreve was almost solitary in disliking the 'Tale of a Tub' (Monck Berkeley, Literary Relics, p. 340). Steele dedicated his miscellanies to him, and when assailed by Tickell in 1722 addressed his vindication (prefixed to the 'Drummer') to Congreve as the natural arbiter in a point of literary honour. Pope paid him a higher compliment, by concluding the translation of the 'Iliad' with a dedication to him. Pope was anxious to avoid committing himself to either party, and Congreve's fame was sufficient to make him a worthy representative of national literature. Swift (letter to Pope, 10 Jan. 1721) repeats the famous reply of Harley to Halifax when Congreve was afraid of being turned out by the tories in 1711—
Non obtusa adeo gestamus pectora Pœni,
Nec tam aversus equos Tyrià Sol jungit ab urbe.
Voltaire visited him in his last years, and was disgusted by his affectation of desiring to be regarded as a gentleman instead of an author, a sentiment which is susceptible of more than one explanation (Lettres sur les Anglais). Congreve was a member of the Kit-Cat Club (Spence, Anecdotes, p. 338), and according to Pope and Tonson, he, Garth, and Vanbrugh were the 'three most honest-hearted real good men' of the poetical members (ib. p. 46). Lady Mary W. Montagu addressed a poem to him of rather questionable delicacy.
Congreve was evidently a man of pleasure, and petted in good society. His relations to Mrs. Bracegirdle [q. v.], who always acted his heroines, and spoke a prologue or epilogue in his plays, were ambiguous, but in any case very intimate. He became in later years the special favourite of the second Duchess of Marlborough, and was constantly at her house. He had, according to Swift (to Pope, 13 Feb. 1729), 'squandered away a very good constitution in his younger days.' In 1710, as we learn from the 'Journal to Stella,' he was nearly blind from cataract, and he suffered much from gout. Probably his bad health helped to weaken his literary activity. Like Byron, he seems to have combined epicurean tastes with the 'good old gentlemanly vice,' avarice. An attack of gout in the stomach was nearly fatal in the summer of 1726 (Arbuthnot to Swift, 20 Sept. 1726). He had gone to drink the waters at Bath in the summer of 1728 with the Duchess of Marlborough and Gay. He there received some internal injury from the upsetting of his carriage, and died at his house, in Surrey Street, Strand, on 19 Jan. 1728–9.
The body lay in state in the Jerusalem Chamber and was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey. A monument was erected in the abbey by the Duchess of Marlborough, with an inscription of her own writing, and a hideous cenotaph was erected at Stowe by Lord Cobham. It was reported that the duchess afterwards had a figure of ivory or wax made in his likeness, which was placed at her table, addressed as if alive, served with food, and treated for 'an imaginary sore on its leg.' The story, if it has any foundation, would imply partial insanity. Congreve left 10,000l., the bulk of his fortune, to the duchess, a legacy of 200l. to Mrs. Bracegirdle, and an annuity of 20l. to Anne Jellatt, besides a few small sums to his relations. Young says (Spence, p. 376) that the duchess showed him a diamond necklace which she had bought for 7,000l. from Congrieve's bequest, and remarks that it should have been better if the money had been left to Mrs. Bracegirdle.
Besides his plays, Congreve wrote minor poems, congratulatory and facetious, which Johnson (followed by Leigh Hunt ) declares to be generally 'despicable.' He wrote a letter upon humour in comedy, published in the works of Dennis, to whom it was first addressed, he contributed to the 'Tatler' the character of Lady Elizabeth Hastings (the famous phrase, 'To love her is a liberal education'—attributed to Congreve by Lady Hunt—occurs in No. 49, by Steele). Congreve has been excellently criticised by Hazlitt, 'Lectures on the Comic Writers,' Charles Lamb, 'On the Artificial Comedy of the last Century,' and by Leigh Hunt, in whose essay the others are reprinted. Hazlitt's judgment that Congreve's is 'the highest model of comic dialogue' has been generally accepted, with the occasional deduction that the strain of his perpetual epigrams becomes tiresome. Hunt, a sympathetic and acute critic, admits that Lamb's famous defence of Congreve against the charge of immorality is more ingenious than sound. The characters, instead of being mere creations of fancy, are only too faithful portraits of the men (and women) of the town in his day. Congreve's defects are to be sought not so much in the external blemishes pointed out by Collier as in the absence of real refinement of feeling. His characters, as Voltaire observes, talk like men of fashion, while their actions are those of knaves. Lamb's audacious praise of him for excluding any pretensions to good feeling in his persons might be accepted if it implied (as he urges) a mere 'privation of moral light.' But, although a 'single gush of moral feeling' would, as Lamb says, be felt as a discord, a perpetual gush of cynical sentiment is quite in harmony. His wit is saturnine, and a perpetual exposition of the baser kind of what passes for worldly wisdom. The atmosphere of his plays is asphyxiating. There is consequently an absence of real gaiety from his scenes and of true charm in his characters, while the teasing intricacy of his plots makes it (as Hunt observes) impossible to remember them even though just read and noted for the purpose. It is therefore almost cruel to suggest a comparison between Congreve and Molière, the model of the true comic spirit. The faults are sufficient to account for the neglect of Congreve by modern readers in spite of the exalted eulogies—not too exalted for the purely literary merits of his pointed and and vigorous dialogue—bestowed upon him by the best judges of his own time and by some over-generous critics of the present day.
[Sam Hayman's New Handbook for Youghal (1858), pp. 53, 65; Giles Jacob's Poetical Register (1719). pp. 41-8 (information acknowledged from Congreve); Memoirs by Charles Wilson (pseudonym for one of Curll's scribblers), 1730 (a catchpenny book which includes the early novel, the reply to Collier, and a few letters); Life in General Dictionary, vol. iv., with infomation from Southerne; Monck Berkeley's Literary Relics, 317-89 (letters to Joseph Kealey); Victor Moyle's Works (1727), pp. 227, 231; letters to Moyle; Cibber's Lives, iv. 83-98; Cibber's Apology (1740), 161, 224, 236, 262, 263; Davies's Dramatic Miscellanies, iii. 330-407, Johnson’s Lives of the Posts; Genest’s History of the Stage, vol. ii.; Leigh Hunt's Introduction to Dramatic Works of Congreve, &c., and Macaulay's Review, reprinted in his Essays. Leigh Hunt prints some original letters; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. ix. 418, 8rd ser. v. 132, xi. 280.]