1678 image of Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge-Walks; or, The Yeoman of Kent
A Critical Edition

1678 image: Tunbridge Wells (2)

Critical Introduction to Tunbridge-Walks

The Author: Thomas Baker | Tunbridge-Walks and the London Stage | Gender Class and Character in the Play | People and Places Behind the Play

The Author: Thomas Bakcr

Thomas Baker (1680/81-1749)
The Humour of the Age (1701)
Tunbridge-Walks (1703)
An Act at Oxford (1704) revised to Hampstead Heath (1705) only 3 perf.
The Fine Lady’s Airs (1708) 5 perf.
The Female Tatler (1709-10)

Little is known of Thomas Baker, the author of the 1703 play Tunbridge-Walks—and scholars disagree on the little that is known. The author of four plays produced between 1701 and 1708, including Tunbridge-Walks, Baker has also been credited by some with having produced the satirical periodical, the Female Tatler, before abandoning all literary activity in 1711. He seems to have worn many hats (or, perhaps, masks): playwright, essayist, attorney, schoolmaster, and clergyman. The eighteenth-century theatrical dictionary Biographia Dramatica paints him as the model for Tunbridge-Walks’ effeminate fop, Maiden, but John Harrington Smith claims that “nothing…more improbable than this could…be imagined” (Smith, Introduction). Also unlikely, according to Smith, is the report found in several sources (Chetwood; Baker, David, “Tunbridge Walks”; “Baker, (Thomas)”) that Baker died of Morbus Pediculosus, a skin disease particular to beggars and others exposed to extremely unsanitary conditions (Introduction). Much of this material is indeed suspect. It seems clearer that Baker practiced law while working as a playwright, though he may not have had a degree in law (ODNB; Smith, Introduction), and that he disappeared rather abruptly from the London literary scene.

Though Baker’s life remains something of a mystery, we may perhaps construct some sense of his character from his literary productions, particularly the Dedications, Prologues, and Epilogues to his plays, and those he wrote for others’ works. These documents reveal a man who increasingly saw himself engaged in a struggle with contemporary theatrical tastes, and the contemporary theatrical reform movement. Eventually he seems to have given up the struggle and retired to live in relative obscurity. Baker felt compelled (and sometimes was compelled) to defend his work against the clerics and moralists who sought to prove that the theatre in general, and Restoration comedy in particular, were licentious and immoral. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is Tunbridge-Walks, his least bawdy play that was most successful.

Thomas Baker, Playwright

In the first decade of the eighteenth century, Thomas Baker and his London audiences were caught in a transition between the waning bawdy Restoration-style comedy and emerging sentimental and moralistic styles. Pamphlets such as Jeremy Collier’s Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), in which plays were represented as lewd and licentious, had inspired a movement calling for reform or even abolition of the theatre. This movement, led—as Baker points out in his dedication to An Act at Oxford—mainly by Non-conformist Protestants (9), fragmented audiences. The Restoration stew of stock characters, sexual innuendo, and satirical topicality could no longer be counted on to please. J.L. Styan’s observation that “Restoration comedy was a kind of improvised charade,” in which the interaction of the players and the audience held the key to the play’s success, was perhaps more true than ever at this vexed moment (2).

Baker’s first comedy, The Humour of the Age, apparently struck the right chord—it premiered in March 1701 to an appreciative audience. But in the Prologue, Baker muses on the changing preferences of London audiences:

 . . .  your Tasts so strange of late we find,
New Authors have small hopes to prove you kind.
Now ‘tis not Sense, and Wit best entertains,
 Nor what’s writ most by Rule, most Favour gains:
 But he that has most Whimsies in his Brains. (12-16)

Baker’s distinction between newfangled “Whimsies” and traditional “Sense, and Wit,” and “Rule” is, no doubt, a bit of special pleading. Nevertheless it is clear that he is having difficulty sizing up the expectations of audiences. In his Dedication to Humour of the Age, Baker again emphasizes the “hazardous” nature of the playwriting “Enterprize,” defending the “Sense and Wit” of Restoration-style comedy against the “Knavery and Hypocrisy” he attributes to newer styles of drama and their proponents:

[F]or a man that thinks in this Age, to raise his Credit by writing, exposes his Sense by so hazardous an Enterprize, he may as well expect to raise his Means by buying Stock when ‘tis got to the highest Value; for Sense and Wit are as much out of Fashion, as Knavery and Hypocrisy are in. (ii)

What justice there might be in Baker’s characterizations of the contending styles is open to debate. What seems clear, however, is that even at the beginning of his playwriting career, he was sensible of the volatility of the London theatrical scene. His anxiety turned out to be well grounded: the actors performing his play were charged with immorality, though they were eventually acquitted (ODNB, Baker).

In Baker’s next endeavour—Tunbridge-Walks, or The Yeoman of Kent, which premiered in January of 1703—he seems to have come closest to  mollifying the uncertain humour of theatrical audiences It was the most successful of his plays, receiving regular performances up until the mid-century (ODNB, Baker). Choosing Tunbridge, the spa town south of London, as the setting for his play, Baker parodied the intermingling of social classes and diverse attitudes, and represented onstage the heterogeneous theatre audience created by changing habits of residence in and around London (Loftis 101).

Perhaps encouraged by the success of Tunbridge-Walks, Baker became more daring with his third play, An Act at Oxford (1704). But here he misjudged—the play was banned, presumably because of its satirical treatment of the University and its scene of attempted rape. Baker speaks of the charges against his play in the Dedication of the printed version, railing against the hypocrisy of

some of the Great Sticklers against the Theatre, [who] hate to see any Act but themselves, and can’t endure to be out-done in Personating Men of Religion, Justice, and Loyalty, by those that tread the Stage: But their Living in a Practice which they can’t bear to see Represented, plainly evinces they think there is no Sin but Scandal. (viii-ix)

Baker’s attempt to cast aspersions on the integrity of his opponents seems to have failed—his less volatile rewrite the play, Hampstead Heath, fizzled. Heath’s Prologue makes no effort to disguise Baker’s simmering indignation:

Who scarce wou’d write, or who for Action drudge,
When ev’ry mounted Foretop is a Judge:
Wit must seem flat, and Sense but heavy Stuff
To Noddles cram’d with Dighton’s musty snuff… (iii)

Baker’s fourth and last play, The Fine Lady’s Airs (1708), was more popular, but “proved . . .  too satirical for the taste of the time,” though it was revived at least once, in 1747 (ODNB; Oulton 45). After writing a prologue for Susanna Centlivre’s popular play The Busie Body, which premiered in May 1709, Baker disassociated himself from the theatre by choosing a career path “more serviceable to the Publick, and beneficial to my self” (Baker, A Fine Lady’s Airs “Dedication”) but most likely continued to satirize society as a journalist. 

Thomas Baker, The Journalist

Some have suggested that, following Baker’s disenchantment with playwriting, he may, either individually or in partnership with Delarivier Manley, have adopted the pseudonym of Mrs. Crackenthorpe in the tri-weekly periodical, The Female Tatler, modeled on Addison and Steele’s Tatler (Anderson; Graham; Morgan; Smith, “Thomas Baker”).  The Female Tatler began circulation on July 8, 1709, publishing satirical portraits, gossip, and mock advertisements (ODNB, Baker).  It was sufficiently successful that when Mrs. Crackenthorpe changed printers after a little more than a month, the original printer continued to issue a fake Female Tatler.  If Baker hoped to distance himself from the scorn and criticism he experienced as a playwright by turning to journalism and assuming a female persona, he was probably disappointed. According to a rival paper, The British Apollo, Baker suffered a beating after The Female Tatler ridiculed a prominent London family (Morgan viii). Whether or not Baker was involved with The Female Tatler this incident could only have increased his bitterness. Whoever “Mrs Crackenthorpe” was, she seems to have abandoned the fray soon after this incident.  In November, after suffering repeated attacks by rival publications and a presentment by the Court (Anderson 357), “Mrs. Crackenthorpe” elegantly resigned because of an “Affront offer’d to her by some rude Citizens, altogether unacquainted with her Person” (Female Tatler, Oct. 31, 1709-Nov. 2, 1709).  The paper continued to publish until at least the spring of 1710 (Morgan v).

Baker The Obscure

As a comedic and satirical playwright and journalist writing in a time when theatrical taste was moving away from “exposing Vice and Folly” (Baker, Act at Oxford 7) towards portraits of respectability, seriousness, and exemplary morality, Baker eventually became disillusioned. His resistance against theatrical moral reform limited him as a playwright to the Restoration comic style which, “because of significant changes in the conditions of performance by the end of the seventeenth century, especially in the predisposition of the audience, … was relatively short-lived” (Styan 2). As a result, Baker seems to have have left London altogether for a position in Bedfordshire where he worked as a schoolmaster and vicar until his death in 1749 (Victoria History, 2: 181 n.; 3: 128). One of the few surviving descriptions of Baker in his later years, by his successor at Bolnhurst, implies that his self-imposed exile did not relieve his troubles, but rather, turned his disappointment into a well-seasoned bitterness: “Baker was a man of strange turn, imperious and clamorous upon topics of no service towards the promoting of true religion in his parish and not a little addicted to stiff and dividing principles” (M/s 39B101). Though removed from London society, Baker seems to have been determined to remain fractious to the last.

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Tunbridge Walks and the London Stage

Thomas Baker’s most successful play, Tunbridge-Walks, premiered at the Drury Lane Theatre Royal in January 1703. Drury Lane was then one of two theatres operating in London. The other was Lincoln’s Inn Fields, under the management of Thomas Betterton, one of the period’s most well-known actors. Betterton and several other leading actors had left Drury Lane in 1695 because of disagreements with manager Christopher Rich over the payment and treatment of actors. However, despite Rich’s focus on profit and the poor and spotty pay, the actors who made up the original cast of Tunbridge-Walks had remained with Rich after the split, probably because with the departure of principal actors left starring roles for them to fill. In 1703, then, the cast of Tunbridge-Walks consisted mostly of actors who had once played second-fiddle to those like Betterton, but who had since come into their own as the principal actors at Drury Lane (Dobbs 63-4).

Robert Wilks, who played Reynard, was on his way to becoming one of the most famous actors of his time; he would also become a manager at Drury Lane. A handsome, and his critics suggest, a vain man, Wilks was rumored to have fathered the illegitimate daughter of Jane Rogers, the popular actress who portrayed Belinda, before moving on to a relationship with another woman after the child was born. There certainly was animosity between Wilks and Rogers by 1712, when she tried to turn an audience against him for his role in giving a part to another actress that she felt was rightfully hers. Unfortunately, since there are no dates attached to the rumoured affair, it is impossible to know whether Reynard and Belinda were played by lovers in 1703, or if the romance between the two actors was over by that time. Either way there must have been a certain chemistry between the two.

William Pinkethman (Squib) and William Bullock (Maiden) were a pair of popular comedic actors who often acted together as fools who would tease and torment each other, as Squib and Maiden do in this play. Evidence suggests that much of both actors’ comic talent was physical. Playwright and journalist Richard Steele, a fan of the pair, remarks that

when the judgment of any good author directs him to write a beating for Mr. Bullock from Mr. William Pinkethman, or for Mr. William Pinkethman from Mr. Bullock, those excellent players seem to be in their most shining circumstances, and please me more, but with a different sort of delight, than that which I receive from those grave scenes of Brutus and Cassius. (Female Tatler 7)

Given the duo’s reputation for slapstick comedy, scenes like the Tavern scene in Tunbridge-Walks must have involved a good deal of comic stage business. Aside from their team shenanigans, Pinkethman was known for speaking prologues, as he does in Tunbridge-Walks, and Bullock for playing women, or men dressed as women, a talent that qualified him to play the effeminate Maiden.

While the entire cast of Tunbridge-Walks was relatively well-known at the time, the other actor worth knowing in some detail is Susanna Verbruggen, who played the witty Hillaria. Verbruggen was a popular comedic actress whose talents enabled her to play both pretty young heroines and unattractive spinsters, as well as transvestite breeches” roles, which required her to dress as a man. She was around 37 years old in 1703, and although all accounts suggest she was a very attractive woman, it is interesting to imagine Hillaria as not so very young. Tunbridge-Walks was one of Verbruggen’s final plays, as she died in childbirth later in 1703.

Tunbridge-Walks was the second of Baker’s plays to be performed at Drury Lane. The first, The Humour o’ the Age (1701), was censored for obscenity, and several of the actors involved were charged. Tunbridge-Walks was a very successful play, published in the year it was first performed. It was revived regularly throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. In the years between its premier in 1703 and the end of Queen Anne’s reign in 1714 it was mounted at least twenty six times, putting it on the list of the most popular plays of the period (Kavenik 72). It was republished seven times in London and Dublin between 1703 and 1764, including two separate London editions in 1736. Despite its contemporary success, Tunbridge-Walks had fallen out of popularity by the end of the eighteenth century, and no new edition has appeared since 1764.

Like most works of literature, Tunbridge-Walks to some extent a product of its time. The turn of the eighteenth century marks a change in the political, social and economic atmosphere in England. Since 1660, England had been through the restoration of Charles II, the brief reign of James II, and the “Glorious Revolution” that brought the protestant King William of Orange to the throne. In 1703 Queen Anne had been on the throne for a year and England was at war with France and its allies, attempting to limit France’s growing power on the continent and Spain’s continuing influence in the new world. In his dedication of Tunbridge-Walks to John Howe, paymaster of the forces, Baker makes reference to the war and to contemporary debates over the establishment of a standing army. Baker’s characterization of Captain Squib may be seen as an intervention in that debate. During the period between wars from 1697 to 1702, while argument over a standing army was raging, the stereotype of the cowardly militia officer was a popular one. Kevin Gardner argues that by making a mockery of the insufficient and inadequate militia and promoting soldiers as heroes, playwrights of the period helped to promote the eventual establishment of the standing army.

The play follows the ancient formula in which young love is frustrated by an interfering parent who must be circumvented if love is to triumph. But Tunbridge-Walks also responds to changing theatrical tastes and to the emerging conventions of the eighteenth-century stage. The best example of how comedy was changing at the turn of the century is the growing disapproval of coarse sexual humor. Bawdy humour was common on the Restoration stage but was slowly losing favour, though older plays continued to be acted and enjoyed for years. The address to the author by the mysterious C. W., claims that the  play contains, “No Smutty Jests, but Wit without Offence” (see in context), then goes on rather cheekily to suggest that Baker is “not to Blame, if Envious Fools will find / Scandal and Lewdness which were ne’er design’d” (see in context). In making audience responsible for any potentially indecent interpretation of the play, the lines implicitly respond to the obscenity charges against Baker’s earlier play, The Humour o’ the Age. The modern reader can decide for herself whether Tunbridge-Walks is as free from “Scandal and Lewdness” as C.W. maintains; nevertheless it is safe to say that scenes like the one in which an ostensibly love-mad Reynard “Tumbles” Hillaria’s maid,  Lucy, offer the opportunity for some bawdy stage business.

There are several theories concerning the rise of moral outrage at the end of the
seventeenth century. One suggestion is that theatrical audiences were increasingly made up of women, who demanded more decorous entertainment (Smith, Gay Couple 132-137). Prologues to plays written during the 1690s and following express a sense of frustration with trying to satisfy what appears to have been a predominantly male taste for lewd jokes, while at the same time refraining from offending the ladies. Another factor may have been the influence and tastes of the reigning monarch. When Charles II was restored, he brought with him a love of theatre influenced by his time in France; women were for the first time allowed to act on the English stage, which may have added to Restoration plays' sexualized content. Although Restoration theatre faced criticism even in its hey-day, the theatre's rather liberal morality continued pretty much unabated until the reign of William and Mary. William disregarded the theatre it and Mary, oddly, supported both rather immoral plays and Christian moralist groups that opposed them. Frances Kavenik explains Mary’s “complex relationship with the theatre” (68) by noting that she had enjoyed acting at court in her youth, but felt her responsibility as a role model for her people. Susan Owen suggests that the plays of the Restoration were met with “a reaction of titillation and relish [which] co-existed with moral disapproval” (44). The 1702 succession of Queen Anne, a strongly religious monarch with no personal interest in the theatre (Kavenik 66), saw the ascendancy of moral disapproval as well.

Two important voices of moral reform at the turn of the century were Anglican clergyman Jeremy Collier, author of the influential pamphlet, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, and the playwright and journalist Richard Steele. Collier’s attack on the theatre is part of a tradition of religious antitheatricalism that reaches back at least to Shakespeare’s time. Steele, however, is very much a man of his time, whose “whiggish views of the importance of trade to the nation” led him to champion the merchant class in his plays, making them moral exemplars instead of the butts of sexual jokes, as was common in the Restoration (Loftis 111). Steele’s turn-of-the-century plays contest the assumption that the landed gentry had an inherent right to wealth and status and that the rising business and merchant class, the citizens or “cits” of restoration plays, made themselves ridiculous by affecting gentility. J. Douglas Canfield points out that the popular restoration conceit of the cit cuckolded by the aristocratic rake “is a special reaffirmation of class dominance” (27). The pervasively nasty portrayal of the cit in restoration comedy reveals an underlying sense of aristocratic vulnerability, and an anxiety about growing mercantile influence. As John Loftis points out, the aristocracy was hardly independent of the merchant class: many marriages took place between aristocrats who needed money and merchants who wanted titles, while aristocratic younger sons often went into trade themselves. With resolutions like the cross-class marriage of Belinda and Reynard in Tunbridge Walks, these realities begin increasingly to register in the drama at the end of the seventeenth century (Loftis 100). 

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Gender Class and Character in Tunbridge-Walks

The drama of the Restoration and the eighteenth century was an intricate reflection of contemporary concerns regarding gender and class. Dramatic representations of masculinity and femininity, status and worth, were rooted in the ideological tensions arising from the restoration of the Stuart monarchy (Mangan 96). English society was changing and these changes were reflected on the stage. As a version of the classic Restoration comedy of wit, Baker’s Tunbridge-Walks revolves around a pair of wits, male and female, who “outwit those who stand in their way . . . expose and ridicule those who are less witty that they . . . [and] often try to outwit each other” (Fujimura 66). Still, Baker’s play departs from convention in several ways. The female wit of the play is Hillaria, and the most obvious contender for the role of male wit is her brother Reynard; together they plot to secure their financial futures. Reynard satisfies the role of male wit by deceiving his future father-in-law and marrying Belinda, though he manages to do so only through Hillaria’s scheming. Hillaria banters her way into a profitable marriage with her devoted suitor Loveworth after declaring (or perhaps confessing) her chastity. Both characters deploy their wits in an apparent celebration of amoral independence, but the play’s resolution eventually reinforces traditional values of domesticity, rusticity and patriarchy. Tunbridge-Walks incorporates the stock characters of Restoration comedy, the fop, the rake, the lady wit, and the country bumpkin, who function according to type, but with variations that point to the play’s awareness of, and hesitant participation in, the changing values of the society and the stage.

The Fop

Restoration and eighteenth century drama was “crammed full of fops” (Staves 415) and Tunbridge-Walks’ Mr. Maiden is a particularly extravagant one. A fop is a person, generally a man, who is “foolishly attentive to and vain of his appearance; a pretender to wit, wisdom, or accomplishments” (OED). Fops are characterized by their “refusal to fight, extreme complaisance, sexual passivity, avoidance of drunkenness, fondness for the company of women, concern with fashion, interest in dancing and singing, and delicacy of all kinds” (Staves 421). Though stage fops were stock comic characters, foppery was also a historical phenomenon (Staves 414); Restoration theatre-goers often claimed to be able to identify prominent local characters; popular actors of fop roles changed their performances over the years to reflect current styles and personages. This element of verisimilitude probably added to audiences’ enjoyment of the fop figure.  

In Restoration comedies the fop was a foil for the rake; his effeminacy was mocked in order to celebrate the rake’s virility and masculine spirit. As time progressed, however, the fop began to be taken more seriously, as the concept of the ideal male changed from headstrong young devil to civilized, sensitive, and moral young man. This new “male gender role that eschewed the violence of the rake for the domesticity of the faithful husband, who avoided smut, drunkenness, and violence  . . . also put aside those extravagances of the fop that were now associated with the molly” (Trumbach 166). By the 1720s, after Tunbridge-Walks was written, the characteristics of the Restoration fop would be divided between the new exemplary hero and the demonized molly, or male prostitute.

The Restoration fop represents a feminization of the masculine role. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the qualities that defined ideal gendered behaviors for men and women shifted toward the feminine (Lowenthal 179). In earlier seventeenth century and Restoration comedies the sacrifice of the fop to the comedic needs of the play represented a protest against this changing gender definition (Staves 419). Though fops are effeminate characters, they are seldom explicitly or exclusively homosexual.  Because they often function as the rakes’ competition, fops are necessarily “heterosexual threats . . . possess[ing] a menacing social potency” (Gill, “Gender” 204). They are idle threats, however, because the fop never ends up married to the heroine. George Haggerty makes the point that “success must always elude the fop. Not necessarily interested in homosexual intercourse, yet more interested in impressing the rakes than the ladies (Haggerty 50), the fop is ridiculed his extravagant behavior and his aristocratic pretensions.

Baker’s Mr. Maiden is one of the few “explicitly homosexual” fops of the period (Staves 415).  He “[loves] mightily to go abroad in Women’s Clothes,” asserts that he has “never [lain] with a Woman in [his] life” (2.42), and appears more frightened than anything when he realizes that Hillaria wants to marry him. When Squib asks about his “[a]ccomplishments . . . with the Ladies” (1.39) Maiden replies that he “can Sing and Dance” and “dress a Lady up” (1.40). He also comments, suggestively, that a “Gentleman took a fancy to [him], and left [him] an Estate” (1.40), though this turns out to be part of a plot to make him ridiculous. Though today Maiden’s sexuality would remove him from the marriage market, he presents a threat to the other males in Baker’s play.  Maiden remarks, “whenever I marry, I don’t doubt of a good Fortune” (5.59), and Squib clearly views him as a threat, telling him, “if you offer Love to any thing that’s under Fifty . . . I’le cut your Throat” (1.45).

In Tunbridge-Walks, Maiden’s status as an object of ridicule culminates in his exposure as a poor milliner, rather than a gentleman of estate. Maiden’s class and economic status is crucial to his eventual humiliation. Characters in early eighteenth-century plays are generally “acutely aware of social distinctions” (Loftis 100) and those of the upper class are realistically painted as wary of the encroachment of merchants into the ranks of the gentry. Reynard explains to his friends that “some Gentlemen . . . brought [Maiden] hither to make him ridiculous” (5.52).  Before his true identity is revealed, Maiden is ridiculed as a fop; at the end of the play, however, he is mocked even more viciously as a merchant-class pretender to gentility. Where the fop is concerned, then, the ideologies of masculinity and gentility in the play are mutually reinforcing.

The Rake

Another point at which Baker departs somewhat from Restoration norms is in his characterization of the rake figure. The rake was an ideal of masculinity that enjoyed its heyday in the Restoration, a “sexually predatory male, whose goal [was] to have as many affairs in as short a time as possible” (Mangan 107). The rake is portrayed as an amoral hedonist; nevertheless his customary attraction to the heroine “betrays a clear preference for the established class dictates and customary social decorum” she embodies (Gill, “Gender” 196). The rake was normally contrasted with the fop; the effeminate man’s sexual passivity served to accentuate the natural appetite of the rake (Staves 422).  By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the rake was going out of style, replaced by variations on the sentimental or exemplary hero, who exhibited more refined behavior. Baker’s play treads the line between the two traditions: celebrating rake Reynard’s wit and deceit in the pursuit of his prize, and mocking and humiliating fop Maiden; but also honoring gentleman Loveworth’s loyalty, perseverance, and courage and punishing through humiliation and failure the false rake, Squib. Loveworth’s progression from apparent rake at the beginning of the play to sincere and faithful lover by the end is perhaps an appropriate illustration of the movement of comedy away from the rake hero toward the sentimental hero.

There are two candidates for the rake figure in Baker’s Tunbridge-Walks. Reynard is closer to the conventional rake, winning his bride Belinda by deceit. Nevertheless his admirable qualities--his intelligence and wit, his ingenuity his genuine admiration for Belinda, and his constancy in pursuing her--soften the picture considerably. A scheming fortune hunter who claims that Belinda’s “Fortune is the chiefest Bait” (3.8) and that “Conscience, and Honesty . . . are obliterated now-a-days” (5.10-5.11), Reynard also admits to loving Belinda, and though he dupes her father to win her hand, he eventually agrees to live under Woodcock’s rule. While Reynard does not fully embody the womanizing spirit of many Restoration rakes, and while he requires the assistance of his sister to outwit Woodcock, his character, his self-confidence, and his aristocratic background qualify him as a rake.

Squib affects the womanizing spirit that Reynard lacks, but he is missing other essential qualities of the rake. Though he claims “a Stock of Mistresses” (4.71) the audience is given leave to doubt his word. Challenged by Loveworth and revealed as a coward, Squib’s primary adversary is Maiden. The two pretenders play off of each other as Squib threatens and bullies Maiden with one breath, and coaxes him to the tavern for a “Bumper of Barcelona” (3.26) with the next. His masculinity seems to depend on Maiden’s effeminacy. When Squib is unmasked as a merchant the audience is encouraged to associate his cowardice, exaggeration, and brutish behavior with his inferior social rank. The unmaskings of Squib and Maiden work in concert to instruct the audience in an ideal of masculinity neither character approaches. In the end it is Reynard’s wit, Loveworth’s faithfulness and courage, and even Woodcock’s Kentish honesty and eventual kindness that are promoted as truly masculine, while Squib and Maiden are exposed as frauds.

The Lady Wit

While Reynard is not quite the epitome of rakishness, his sister Hillaria is a true lady wit. The lady wit in the seventeenth century was the mistress of the male wit, or the rake-hero; they schemed together to achieve their ends, usually marriage. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, plays increasingly tended to pair the lively, witty heroine with the serious hero, and the lively hero with the serious heroine, with the intent of domesticating both. Baker follows this formula in Tunbridge-Walks. The position of women in restoration comedies was a complicated one, tied to conceptions of morality, as well as of class. While the lady wit is definitely flirtatious and seems unconcerned with morality, she “walks a fine linguistic line: she engages in provocative banter but never indecorous innuendo” (Gill, “Gender” 198-9). Importantly, the conventional lady wit, unlike her male counterpart, always maintains her virginity, so that she can make an acceptable wife in the end (Gill, “Gender” 196). Critics suggest that the popularity of the witty female reflects a desire to see “a marriage of intellectual equals whose guarded admissions to one another seem to suggest genuine affection” (Gill, “Gender” 196). Audiences enjoyed seeing clever men and witty women make intellectually stimulating matches that had the potential to be about more than money. Further, according to Jessica Munns, “where there had been a tacit consensus that females are subordinate, there was now an increasing awareness that such subordination was a social rather than natural or inevitable inequality” (144). The lady wit reflects this growing awareness, in that her wit is equal or even superior to that of her male counterpart; she also shows that gender subordination is alive and well, by sacrificing her independent spirit and capitulating to marriage.

In Tunbridge Walks, Baker makes Hillaria the brains of his play, and then marries her to Loveworth in what looks like a last resort. Though Loveworth has pursued Hillaria throughout the play, she somehow finds it necessary, in the final act, to convince him of her worth as a wife: “I’le tell you one thing, I am a Maid . . . and since I bring you nothing, I’le manage your Estate . . . prudently” (5.82). If Hillaria is tamed, it is not by Loveworth, but by a social and dramatic need for the transformation of the shrewd coquette into a woman of loyalty and virtue. While Loveworth is sincere and faithful, he is no match for Hillaria in terms of wit. In fact, Hillaria is without a worthy match in the play: Squib and Maiden are too foolish, Reynard turns out to be her brother, and Woodcock, the only man in the play who can hold his own against Hillaria, is indifferent to her charms. In the end she accepts Loveworth  more or less by default: “Psha! my old Suitor, Mr. Loveworth, how insipid is a Fellow’s Company one has been acquainted with a Month; I begin now to hate him so very heartily, that the Devil take me, if I don’t—marry him” (4.22). It is, however, part of the traditional lady wit’s character to claim that she will never marry the man who courts her, and then to finally decide that she loves him after all. Hillaria’s marriage is perhaps the play’s strongest indication of the subordination of women.

Belinda is the sentimental heroine of the play. She admires Hillaria and “[hates] the Country” (2.2), but she is “fix’d, never to Marry without [her father’s] Consent” (2.76). Conspiring with Hillaria and Reynard, she manages to obey her father’s decree while defying his wishes. Belinda approaches the ideal comic heroine of theatrical moralists: chaste, naïve, rich.  Initially tractable, she is the ultimately the instrument of Reynard’s domestication. By playing on her father’s foibles Belinda gains the man she desires and the promise of a secure life, though she is denied the excitement of London society. Hillaria finally gains the same security only by admitting how much she is like Belinda: chaste and willing to bend to the realities of married life. Belinda chooses marriage with Reynard; Hillaria, with no money and no living parents, has no other option than to marry Loveworth.

The Country Bumpkin

Much of the play’s action and energy revolves around Woodcock, the blocking figure who must be duped for the comedic happy ending to take place. The generic odds are stacked against Woodcock from the beginning. Wealthy countrymen, lacking gentility but possessed of attractive daughters and tempting fortunes, were typically the satiric butts and victims of the town wits’ jokes and plots in Restoration comedy (Canfield 97-120; Corman 59). Woodcock, though, is a typical country bumpkin only in his stubborn rural chauvinism, for he turns out to be the most acute male character in the play, a stronger candidate for the “male wit” role that the urbane Reynard. He matches Reynard’s and Loveworth’s logic when they try to prove the city better than the country, he immediately sees through Reynard’s feigned madness, and he recognizes Hillaria’s sudden interest in a country life as an bid for his fortune. In the end, Woodcock’s parochialism is his downfall: he fails to see through Reynard’s rustic attire and Kentish accent. Worried that Belinda will elope with a town wit, he abandons all precautions and presses her to marry the disguised Reynard. The irony of the situation is that Woodcock’s mistrust of the urban characters is entirely well-founded. Reynard and Hillaria are unscrupulous fortune hunters, and Reynard does win Belinda’s hand through fraud and deception. In the end, though, Woodcock clings to a good deal of patriarchal authority. Reynard and Belinda may marry in spite of him, but they are compelled to live and raise their offspring on his terms if they hope to benefit from his fortune. Thus, Woodcock is, in important respects, a departure from the stereotypical country bumpkin and blocking father figure. Unlike the urban pretenders, Maiden and Squib, he is outwitted but not undone. His own wit and grudging good will entitle him to take charge of the future.

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People and Places Behind Tunbridge-Walks

As Richard Perkinson noted in 1936, Tunbridge-Walks; or, the Yeoman of Kent is one of many seventeenth century and early eighteenth century comedies that “utilize a popular locale as the background for a...comedy of the manners and intrigues of habitués for which the localities were thought characteristic” (270). Perkinson observes that “provincial locales,” like the spa town or Tunbridge Wells, Kent are “a ground upon which [dramatists] can display the conflict between country and city” (286). Tunbridge-Walks does present this conflict, but it also moves beyond rural-urban rivalries to display the love/hate relationship between England and the continent.

Tunbridge Wells as a Watering-Place

Spas—resorts where people traveled to drink or bathe in waters from natural springs, first for medicinal reasons and later for recreation—earned their name from the continental resort city of Spa in what is now Belgium. At least in part, it was tension between England and the continent in the seventeenth century, along with promotion by opportunistic English physicians, which fostered a “homegrown” spa culture in England (Hembry 40-43). Tunbridge Wells, a town that eventually grew up around a single spring “discovered” by Dudley, Lord North around 1606 (Burr 4-16), was one of the first of these mineral springs to be discovered and promoted in England for vacationers seeking diversion and health. Visits by royalty in the seventeenth century helped make Tunbridge Wells one of two of England’s most popular resorts, a rival to Bath (Hembry 79-93). In the decades leading up to Thomas Baker’s Tunbridge-Walks, Tunbridge Wells had come to attract an eclectic mix of people—rich and not-so-rich, titled and untitled, Londoners and local country folk—all gathered in pursuit of the chalybeate waters’ health benefits as well as the amusements and society that had sprung up around them (Gomez-Lara; Hembry 82). Benjamin Allen, who published a series of medical pamphlets in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, described the Tunbridge Wells water was “about four Grains lighter than the German Spaw, to which it is preferable on that account. The Ground above and about this Spring, is a cemented Rock; and the Spring is large, of long use, and much celebrated and frequented” (26).  Allen recommends the “homegrown” waters over the Continental ones, and encourages people to drink the waters at the site because of the limited duration of their medicinal “Virtue” (26).

The “walks” of the play’s title adjoined the main street leading to the wells. People would stroll along the upper and lower walks to socialize and amuse themselves, to see people, and to be seen. In 1697, the travel writer Celia Fiennes reported that the walks were lined not only by lodging houses, but also by a market, shops, taverns, coffee-houses, gambling rooms, bowling greens, and chapels for both Anglicans and Presbyterians (Fiennes 133-35). At the time the play was written, the walks had only recently been paved with the distinctive pantiles for which the walks were later named.  

While the waters were believed to have positive effects for both men and women, their reputation for increasing female fertility and healing reproductive ailments helped to created a sexually charged atmosphere at early-modern spas (Gomez-Lara; Allen; Savidge; Hembry). Encounters between the sexes were also facilitated by the crush for lodgings, which placed men and women in close proximity. The purging effects of the waters, and the prodigious consumption recommended in the medical literature, prompted further relaxation of decorum. During the stroll along the walks, “evacuation” was periodically necessary (in Act III of Tunbridge Walks, Maiden excuses himself from Hillaria’s company to “step into the backyard.”). This provided an occasion for a certain amount of voyeurism (Gomez-Lara 213-216). The atmosphere of freedom was not, however, free from social stigma: close proximity meant indiscretions were readily observable, and spa patrons were subject to word-of-mouth gossip and ridicule in printed lampoons (in Tunbridge Walks, Maiden is the target of an anonymous lampoon). A 1702 sermon preached at Tunbridge Wells condemns the indiscretions prevalent at the spa, and urges patrons to “avoid all contumelious Reflections on the Company, whether it be by verbal Affronts, or especially by defamatory Writings” (Nicholls 17).

The spas were also known for their mixing of social classes, accepted as a necessary, though temporary feature of spa life (Gomez-Lara 208, 218-219; Borsay, English Urban Renaissance 271-291). This social mixing was encouraged by subscription-based entertainments, open-room architecture, and the ringing of the bells to announce new visitors (Borsay 271-274). Not surprisingly, watering-places became marriage markets (Gomez-Lara 219-220; Borsay 243-248). As Baker’s play suggests, Tunbridge Wells could be a site for both respectable courtship and seduction. Since clothing was a key indicator of rank, pretenders could thrive if they could dress and act convincingly (Borsay 238-241), and hasty marriages like that between Belinda and Reynard were not entirely unusual. Baker uses the setting of Tunbridge Wells to explore satirically the dynamics of rank and status, as well as the ways in which marriages were conducted. Wealth (like Woodcock’s) increasingly competed with birth as an indicator of status. The rigid boundaries between classes were beginning to soften, as marriage increasingly served to rescue impoverished members of the gentry like Reynard and Hillaria from insolvency (Borsay 244).

The (Yeo)Men of Kent

As emphasized in the title of the play, Woodcock is an independent country landowner, or yeoman, specifically from Kent. Baker’s play differs from many spa comedies in exploiting a rich body of local lore, stereotype, and history. As the “garden of England,” known for its proud, wealthy landowners, Kent is a particularly fertile setting for such a comedy. A fourteenth century rhyme conveys the stereotype embodied in Woodcock’s character:

A Knight of Cales,
A Nobleman of Wales,
And a Laird of the North Countree;
A Yeoman of Kent
With his yearly rent
Will buy them out all three. (Church 27)

Kent’s “steely soil” produced not only the healing waters of Tunbridge Wells, but also—with its hops, fruit, and grain and its proximity to London Markets—substantial wealth. This wealth, along with the distinctive landholding and inheritance customs of the county and the legend of Kent’s solitary resistance to the Norman Conquest, gave the men of Kent both pride and leverage. A century after Baker’s play, a nationalistic sonnet by Wordsworth capitalizes on the perception, making the men of Kent an emblem of English pride:

Left single, in bold parley, ye, of yore,
Did from the Norman win a gallant wreath;
Confirmed the charters that were yours before;—
No parleying now! In Britain is one breath;
We all are with you now from shore to shore:—
Ye men of Kent, ’tis victory or death!

Woodcock’s rejection of Reynard as a suitor for Belinda rests not only on his scorn for London and Londoners, but also on his insistence that “[the] Woodcocks of Kent are an Ancient Family, and were the first that oppos’d William the Conquerour; therefore I’le have my Name kept up” (1.15).

Hillaria’s scheme to help her brother to win Belinda’s hand also exploits Kentish local lore. Reynard selects of Romney Marsh, an isolated region of Kent known chiefly for sheep farming and smuggling (Darton 183) as the site of his fictitious estate. Woodcock sees in this “A most convenient Place for my Owling Trade, exporting Wool, and running French Goods” (4.28). Moreover Reynard’s affected rustic dialect echoes the “Wooing Song of a Yeoman of Kent’s Sonne,” a courting song that can be traced back to at least 1611:

Ich am my vather’s eldest zonne,
     My mouther eke doth love me well!
For Ich can can bravely clout my shoone,
     And Ich full well can ring a bell.

Ich have been twice our Whitson Lord,
     Ich have had ladies many vare;
And eke thou hast my heart in hold,
     And in my minde zeemes passing rare. (Dixon 153-154: 7-10, 25-28)

Reynard’s adoption of an exaggerated Kentish dialect and Woodcock’s stereotypical local chauvinism combine to add a certain plausibility to the play’s conventionally absurd deception.

Connections with—and Disconnections from—the Continent

Woodcock’s prejudices link the rivalry between rural and urban dwellers to the fabled English xenophobia. His rigid view of class and regional segregation makes him a fool in a society that combines traditional culture based on local custom with continental fashion and cosmopolitan attitudes influenced by the “Urban Renaissance” (Borsay 286). Baker’s Kentish setting naturally foregrounds English ambivalence toward France and the continent. William III's liberal immigration policies were still under hot debate, and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) had heightened fears of a French invasion (which would inevitably come through Kent), even as France was driving British fashion. Centres of leisure like Tunbridge Wells were “fashionable provincial society’s window on the world outside” with their “imported theatrical and musical performers and musical clubs and festivals influenced by cosmopolitan ideas” (Borsay 286).  Reynard remarks on the abundance of “slender Court-Ladies, with French Scarffs, French Aprons, French Night-Cloaths, and French Complexions” (1.4), while Woodcock complains that his “Country is the Seat of Plagues . . . more pester’d with French Folks, and Presbyterians, than the Egyptians were with the Frogs and Lice” (2.43).

The English were also concerned about the influence of their former Protestant ally the United Provinces (i.e., The Netherlands), which had become a major military and economic rival since the 1660s (Black, European Warfare 210). Even during times of uneasy alliance (as when the play was written) a climate of mistrust prevailed between England and the Netherlands. During the seventeenth century England had received many Protestant refugees from the low countries and many more Dutch Protestants came over with William of Orange in 1688 (Statt 168-173). Protestant though they might have been, these immigrants, including Dutch Calvinists and French Huguenots, were a source of discomfort for many Anglicans, already concerned about English Protestant dissenters. As Daniel Statt writes, “after 1689 the religious side of the immigration question became a facet of the ideological and party fissures of English society. Many observers harbored sincere fears for the stability of church and state; others used religious arguments to cloak cultural animosities, economic self-interest, and political partisanship” (Foreigners and Englishmen 101). The simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of the Dutch presence in England is reflected in the play, in Maiden’s boast to have “dress’d up last Winter in my Lady Fussock’s Cherry-colour Damask, sat a whole Play in the Front-Seat of the Box, and [been] . . . taken for a Dutch Woman of Quality” (2.42). The effeminate Maiden in drag might not pass for an English woman, but with the distortion of gender norms attributed to the Dutch, his femaleness could not be assuredly denied (see Kietzman 98).

Throughout the play, Baker sets the rural against the urban, with frequent allusions to a larger context involving England’s religious and national identity, domestic and foreign cultures, and changing class structures. In Tunbridge Wells, there was always the risk of the lower orders infiltrating the ranks of the rich, as we see repeatedly in the play, and Baker focuses on these interactions, partly mocking the pretenders, partly emphasizing the difficulty of maintaining an imagined purity in class, lineage, religion, and culture. The marriage between Reynard and Belinda is a union of opposites—gentry and commons, country and city—but it is an uneasy union, achieved only through deception, and the future towards which it points is an uncertain one.

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This account, as published in the “Tunbridge Walks” entry of the 1782 Biographica Dramatica (Baker, David,“Tunbridge-Walks”), is almost identical to that published in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1778-83 (“Baker, (Thomas)”). Other parts of the Biographica Dramatica entries for Thomas Baker use verbatim wording from earlier accounts of Baker.

For more details on the cast, see Highfill’s Biographical Dictionary.

“‘Breeches’ parts for actresses embodied [a] contradiction for women: on the one hand, women could dress and fight as men; on the other, we know from contemporary accounts that the audience saw such parts as a chance to revel in the titillating sight of the actresses’ legs” (Owen 2).