William Wycherley, a well-known 17th century English dramatist, was, for a time, in the favour of King Charles II. But His Majesty’s esteem was not to last, as Fate stepped in at a most inconvenient moment for the young playwright.
It was late spring in 1679, 19 years after the Restoration of the English monarchy had begun. King Charles II desired a fitting education for his son, the Duke of Richmond, and he could think of no better man in the kingdom to act as the Duke’s governor than his loyal subject, William Wycherley. In return for his services, the King promised to pay Wycherley the generous sum of £1,500 per annum – the equivalent of around £3m in today’s money, based on average earnings. Needless to say, Wycherley quickly agreed, and dreamed of the golden future that awaited him. But sadly for him, such a destiny never came to pass.
Shortly after his meeting with the King, Wycherley, who had recently suffered ill health, went to meet up with his good friend, Robert Fairbeard Esq. of Gray’s Inn, London. They took a carriage to Tunbridge Wells to breathe the clean air and sample the purifying waters. Whilst there, the pair entered a quaint little bookshop on the corner of an old, cobbled street. It was here they encountered a beautiful young woman who was enquiring of the bookseller whether she might purchase a copy of the well-known comedy, “The Plain Dealer”, written by a certain dramatist named William Wycherley. On hearing this request, a delighted Mr. Fairbeard cleared his throat and cast a cheeky glance at his friend.
“Madam,” he announced to the surprised lady, “since you are here for the Plain Dealer, there he is for you!”
With that, he pushed Wycherley forward.
“Yes,” said Wycherley, blushing at the lady’s radiant beauty. ”This lady can bear plain dealing, for she appears to me to be so accomplished at speaking her mind, that what would be compliment said to others, would be plain speaking if spoken to her.”
“No, truly, sir,” said the lady, ”I am not without my faults, any more than the rest of my sex. But yet I love plain dealing, and am never more fond of plain dealing than when plain dealing points out my faults.”
The trio soon became engaged in deep conversation about how much of a plain dealer the lady really was; a most unusual quality to find in a woman, who, it transpired, was none other than the young, rich – and recently widowed – Countess of Drogheda.
“Then, Madam,” said Fairbeard, “you and the Plain Dealer seem designed by Heaven for each other.”
Wycherley was captivated by the Countess’ beauty, and he offered to walk her home. After a period of courting, the Countess agreed to marry the besotted playwright. But Wycherley failed to disclose his plans of impending matrimony to the King, for he feared the monarch would not approve, and would at once withdraw his generous offer of well-paid employment. So instead the couple married in secret. When the King inevitably found out, he was rendered so furious by the deception, he refused to allow his son to be educated by such a deceitful man.
“Plain dealer, indeed!” the King was heard to roar down his corridors of power.
But worse was yet to come for poor Wycherley, for his marriage to the beautiful Countess was not a happy one. His new wife was prone to jealous fits of rage, and had a temper like a wild storm. She always demanded that her husband was never to be out of her sight, not even for a single moment. If he ever left their Bow Street lodgings alone, then he was only permitted to visit the Cock Tavern across the road from their house, and only on condition that he kept the window open so that the Countess could keep a watchful eye on him, so she could be sure that he was not in the company of other women.
The green-eyed Countless settled her vast estate and fortune upon her husband, but after her death, the playwright’s title was disputed, and all his legal costs and countless other debts were unexpectedly thrust upon him. Unable to pay, he was hauled off to the grim Fleet Gaol, where he remained incarcerated for seven long years; his own father refusing to assist him. Then fortune unexpectedly seemed to smile upon the playwright once more, for the late monarch’s brother, King James II, suddenly ordered Wycherley’s immediate release, and promised to pay all his outstanding debts.
It transpired that the King had recently been impressed by a performance of one of a certain play penned by the gaoled dramatist…
Once again, The Plain Dealer had changed the course of William Wycherley’s life.
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