The City Heiress

The City Heiress is a play by Aphra Behn produced in 1682. The play conforms to the general rules of Restoration comedy, but it also keeps Behn's own highly Royalist political point of view.

The play concerns the "seditious knight" Sir Timothy Treat-all and his Tory nephew Tom Wilding both vying for the affections of Charlot, the eponymous city (London) heiress. Treat-all keeps an open house for all of those who oppose the king, and he has disinherited Wilding.

Wilding launches a complex scheme to triumph over Treat-all. First, he introduces his mistress to Treat-all as Charlot, allowing Treat-all to woo her. This allows him to court the real Charlot himself, and it allows his mistress to move up to a wealthy knight. Then, during a staged entertainment, Wilding assumes a disguise and pretends to be a Polish nobleman. He offers Treat-all the throne of Poland. The greedy Treat-all accepts. Then, Wilding arranges for a burglary, where he and Treat-all both end up bound, and the burglars take all of Treat-all's papers. The burglars are Wilding's confidantes, and the papers contain evidence of Treat-all's treason. Wilding thereby marries Charlot, Treat-all marries Wilding's former mistress, and Treat-all is forced by blackmail to treat Wilding well and to leave him his estates.

The City Heiress was one of Behn's plays singled out by satirists for scorn. Referring to the epilogue, Robert Gould sarcastically asked,

"The City Heiress, by chast Sappho Writ:
Where the Lewd Widow comes, with brazen Face,
Just reeking from a Stallion's rank Embrace
T'acquaint the Audience with her Filthy Case.
Where can you find a Scene for juster Praise,
In Shakespear, Johnson, or in Fletcher's Plays?" -- The Play-House, a Satyr

Other Restoration comedies were as frank with their sexuality, and others had women choosing their lovers on the basis of their wit (while wits choose theirs on the basis of money), but Behn's characters do not moderate their desires in their comedic solutions. Further, Treat-all's punishment is poverty and subjugation, rather than being hanged; and Wilding's goal is luxury, rather than moral justice. The distinctions are subtle, but it was not merely Behn's sex that made the play offensive to moralizing poets of the 1690s and the first decade of the 18th century.


Aphra Behn is a very frequently studied author, and there is a great deal of online scholarship on Behn.

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