Aimwell. Who’s that Lady Bountiful you mentioned?

Boniface. Ods my life, sir, we’ll drink her health. -- [Drinks.] My Lady Bountiful is one of the best of women. Her last husband, Sir Charles Bountiful, left her worth a thousand pound a year; and, I believe, she lays out one-half on’t in charitable uses for the good of her neighbours. She cures rheumatisms, ruptures, and broken shins in men; green-sickness, obstructions, and fits of the mother, in women; the king’s evil, chincough, and chilblains, in children: in short, she has cured more people in and about Lichfield within ten years than the doctors have killed in twenty; and that’s a bold word.

A figure created in a play in 1707, and whose name is resonant to the present day. Yet today the associations are rather different, I think. When we speak of someone playing Lady Bountiful there's some implied condescension, as if she's the grand lady doling out favours to villagers who are expected to be jolly grateful. But this negative connotation doesn't appear in the play, though it would be very easy to play her that way if you wanted.

The Irish actor turned playwright George Farquhar died in April 1707 aged about 30; he survived just long enough to know that his final comedy, The Beaux' Stratagem, was a tremendous hit in London. A gift of 20 guineas from the actor Robert Wilks enabled him to finish it: Farquhar died in poverty.

Lady Bountiful is described in the dramatis personae as "An old, civil, Country Gentlewoman, that cures all her neighbours of all distempers, and foolishly fond of her son, Squire Sullen." (She was played by a Mrs Powell in the first performance.) She does not really have a central part in the play, though she's the one whose name has lived on. Her country house near Lichfield in Staffordshire is the scene of the resolution, where the two beaux of the title, Aimwell and Archer, make their plays for the younger women. The other three women are all related to Lady Bountiful: Dorinda is her daughter by her second marriage, Mrs Sullen her daughter-in-law by her first, and Cherry daughter of Boniface the innkeeper is her goddaughter.

The stratagem is that Aimwell is pretending to be his elder brother Lord Aimwell, and his impecunious friend Archer is pretending to be his servant; Aimwell feigns a fainting fit to get into Lady Bountiful's house, and she chafes his wrists and orders Hungary water and smelling salts, all the usual cures. She seems to be quite serious about this, and it is perhaps noteworthy that she doesn't spot that he's faking. So, if you wanted to play her badly, there's your entry, but a straight reading of the play shows Lady Bountiful as simply good and respectable.

One final point: her bounty in The Beaux' Stratagem is all in the form of healing the sick, never in dispensing money, nor in more abstract forms of benevolence like choosing tomorrow's weather (as Lady Catherine de Bourgh gives the impression of doing in Pride and Prejudice.)

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