The School for Scandal explores the role money played in a family’s reputation for the wealthy members of late eighteenth-century British high society. Flashy displays of wealth boosted the stature of a family, and huge sums of money could be procured on loan with reference to a family name. The play examines the way this free-spending lifestyle impacts relationships between the older and younger generation and between men and women.
The ability to borrow seemingly endless amounts of money was a result of the economics of the time. Britain was leading the world into the Industrial Revolution and also expanding its colonial empire overseas. Investments in factories and railroads being built in England or in the African slave trade could make a family’s fortune grow exponentially over a single generation. In the case of the Surface family, Sir Oliver Surface has been abroad in the East Indies for the last sixteen years and has become fabulously wealthy. He has, in all likelihood, participated in business exporting goods like teas, coffee, spices, and silks from British colonies to England and the rest of the world. This colonial trade occurred on extremely unequal terms: British colonialists took goods from their colonies and payed little in return, pocketing enormous profits and oppressing locals in in the process.
The play is not focused on this global economic picture, though. Instead it takes the view of society at the time—associating great wealth with reputation and “honor” (however dishonorable the means of acquiring that wealth might have been)—and examines the way this fabulous wealth impacted relationships at home in England. It particularly focuses on the importance the wealthy placed on handing down their money to a young man who would respect and perpetuate the family legacy. Because of this, the Surface brothers are tested by Sir Oliver to see who has the good character he wishes to see in an heir.
In this context, it may seem strange that Sir Oliver chooses the wasteful Charles as his heir, instead of the penny-pinching Joseph, even after Charles sells the family portraits on the cheap to raise money. But Sir Oliver sees that Charles actually has a deeper respect for the family’s honor than Joseph, who is self-interested to the core.
Charles has racked up huge debts, promising lenders that he will be able to pay them back by making reference to his family’s good name and known wealth and even saying that they can collect their loans when his uncle dies. While this might seem like bad behavior, it also has the effect of increasing the Surface family’s reputation for possessing great wealth. In fact, it was probably expressly to create this reputation that Sir Oliver sent his young nephews huge sums of money in the first place. A truly aristocratic gentleman of the time was not expected to concern himself with trifles like bills, but rather to host lavish parties, support poor relatives, and remain true to his family’s heritage and “honor.”
When Charles sells the family portraits at auction, his saving grace with Sir Oliver is that he refuses to sell his uncle’s portrait to the broker “Premium” (Sir Oliver in disguise) out of a sentiment of loyalty to his benefactor. Later, when Charles is contrite and offers no excuses for having sold the rest of the family portraits, he shows that he knew all along that selling the rest of the family portraits was not in keeping with the family honor. His brother Joseph, on the other hand, shows no honorable family sentiment. He sells his father’s house, which ought to have sentimental value to him, and might have sold it to a stranger had Charles not stepped in to buy it.
In the two brothers’ dealings with “Premium” and “poor Stanley” (both of whom are actually Sir Oliver in disguise) they reveal their real family feeling or lack thereof. Poor Stanley appeals to Joseph for money and suggests that having a poor relative may reflect poorly on the family name, but Joseph gives him nothing and even goes so far as to says that he has not received the fortune from Sir Oliver that he is reputed to have. To have poor relatives in need was a kind of demerit for a family’s reputation, and to deny Sir Oliver’s generosity was to destroy the reputation for wealth that Sir Oliver had hoped to create by sending that money to his nephews in the first place. Charles, on the other hand, is moved by family feeling to immediately send money to Stanley once he gets some from the broker Premium, despite having many pressing debts of his own to pay. This not only shows that Charles is generous, but also that he has a grasp of the reputational importance of money: if Stanley can pay his debts because of the generosity of his relative Charles Surface, that will be a boon to the family’s reputation. This, in turn, will allow Charles to continue to receive loans from moneylenders.
In the end, Charles will be able to pay off his debts, because he will both be Sir Oliver’s heir and receive the dowry from the heiress Maria when he marries her. If he continues to live the extravagant life he has led as a young bachelor, he may quickly run through all of the family’s money—but Sir Oliver believes that Charles’s dedication to his family honor will cause him to reform his behavior. The play suggests that this is traditional and proper: Sir Oliver and his brother followed this same path from bad behavior to respectability in their youths.
The play also looks at a related dynamic between the husband and wife: Sir Peter Teazle and Lady Teazle. Having spent most of his life as a conservative bachelor, Sir Peter objects to his wife’s demands for great sums of money. But, unlike the relationship between the Surface brothers and Sir Oliver, Lady Teazle is already Sir Teazle’s choice to represent his family name. She is his wife and heir. When she tells him that she should have a great deal of money to spend lavishly, she is not necessarily being greedy, but is also looking after their family’s name and reputation by acting the part of a lady of fashion.
When Sir Teazle demands greater authority over his wife’s spending habits, then, she says that instead of marrying her he “should have adopted her” if he wanted authority. Unlike a young ward, a wife in their society was supposed to spend exorbitantly to display the family’s wealth and bring credit to its name. Midway through the play, Sir Peter changes his mind and makes arrangements for his wife to have the money she wants. This generosity convinces her of his real love and respect for her.
For both the Teazles and the Surface brothers, spending great quantities of money is a way to assert the family’s stature and “honor.” Since money was controlled at this time exclusively by men, allowing women and young people large allowances was also a way to show both the wealth of a family and the generosity of its patriarch.
Family Honor and Money ThemeTracker
Family Honor and Money Quotes in The School for Scandal
SIR PETER. When an old bachelor marries a young wife, what is he to expect? ‘Tis now six months since Lady Teazle made me the happiest of men—and I have been the most miserable dog ever since! We tifted a little going to church, and fairly quarrelled before the bells had done ringing. I was more than once nearly choked with gall during the honeymoon, and had lost all comfort in life before my friends had done wishing me joy. Yet I chose with caution—a girl bred wholly in the country, who never knew luxury beyond one silk gown, nor dissipation above the annual gala of a race ball. Yet now she plays her part in all the extravagant fopperies of the fashion and the town, with as ready a grace as if she had never seen a bush or a grass-plot out of Grosvenor Square! I am sneered at by all my acquaintance, and paragraphed in the newspapers. She dissipates my fortune, and contradicts all my humours; yet, the worst of it is, I doubt I love her, or I should never bear all this. However, I'll never be weak enough to own it.
ROWLEY. You know, Sir Peter, I have always taken the liberty to differ with you on the subject of these two young gentlemen. I only wish you may not be deceived in your opinion of the elder. For Charles, my life on't! he will retrieve his errors yet. Their worthy father, once my honoured master, was, at his years, nearly as wild a spark; yet, when he died, he did not leave a more benevolent heart to lament his loss.
SIR PETER. You are wrong, Master Rowley. On their father's death, you know, I acted as a kind of guardian to them both, till their uncle Sir Oliver's liberality gave them an early independence: of course, no person could have more opportunities of judging of their hearts, and I was never mistaken in my life. Joseph is indeed a model for the young men of the age. He is a man of sentiment, and acts up to the sentiments he professes; but for the other, take my word for't, if he had any grain of virtue by descent, he has dissipated it with the rest of his inheritance. Ah! my old friend, Sir Oliver, will be deeply mortified when he finds how part of his bounty has been misapplied.
LADY TEAZLE. My extravagance! I'm sure I'm not more extravagant than a woman of fashion ought to be.
SIR PETER. No, no, madam, you shall throw away no more sums on such unmeaning luxury. 'Slife! to spend as much to furnish your dressingroom with flowers in winter as would suffice to turn the Pantheon into a greenhouse, and give a fête champêtre at Christmas.
LADY TEAZLE. And am I to blame, Sir Peter, because flowers are dear in cold weather? You should find fault with the climate, and not with me. For my part, I'm sure, I wish it was spring all the year round, and that roses grew under our feet!
SIR OLIVER. Sir, I understand you have lately had great dealings with my nephew, Charles.
MOSES. Yes, Sir Oliver, I have done all I could for him; but he was ruined before he came to me for assistance.
SIR OLIVER. That was unlucky, truly; for you have had no opportunity of showing your talents.
MOSES. None at all; I hadn't the pleasure of knowing his distresses till he was some thousands worse than nothing.
SIR OLIVER. Unfortunate, indeed! –But I suppose you have done all in your power for him, honest Moses?
CHARLES. Not much, indeed; unless you have a mind to the family pictures. I have got a room full of ancestors above, and if you have a taste for paintings, egad', you shall have 'em a bargain.
SIR OLIVER. Hey! what the devil! sure, you wouldn't sell your forefathers, would you?
CHARLES. Every man of them to the best bidder.
SIR OLIVER. What! your great-uncles and aunts?
CHARLES. Ay, and my great-grandfathers and grandmothers too.
SIR OLIVER. Now I give him up. [Aside.] What the plague, have you no bowels for your own kindred? Odd's life, do you take me for Shylock in the play, that you would raise money of me on your own flesh and blood?
CHARLES. Nay, my little broker, don't be angry: what need you care if you have your money's worth?
SIR OLIVER. Well, I'll be the purchaser: I think I can dispose of the family canvas. Oh, I'll never forgive him this! never!
CHARLES. Bravo, Careless! —Well, here’s my great-uncle, Sir Richard Raveline, a marvelous good general in his day, I assure you. He served in all the Duke of Marlborough’s wars, and got that cut over his eye at the battle of Malplaquet. —What say you, Mr. Premium? —look at him—there’s a hero! not cut out of his feathers, as your modern clipped captains are, but enveloped in wig and regimentals, as a general should be. What do you bid?
MOSES. Mr. Premium would have you speak.
CHARLES. Why, then, he shall have him for ten pounds, and I’m sure that’s not dear for a staff officer.
SIR OLIVER. Heaven deliver me! his famous uncle Richard for ten pounds! [Aside.] —Well, sir, I take him at that.
MOSES. Well, sir, I think, as Sir Peter said, you have seen Mr. Charles in high glory; 'tis great pity he's so extravagant.
SIR OLIVER. True, but he would not sell my picture.
MOSES. And loves wine and women so much.
SIR OLIVER. But he would not sell my picture.
MOSES. And games so deep.
SIR OLIVER. But he would not sell my picture. —Oh, here's Rowley.
ROWLEY. So, Sir Oliver, I find you have made a purchase—
SIR OLIVER. Yes; yes, our young rake has parted with his ancestors like old tapestry.
ROWLEY. And here has he commissioned me to re-deliver you part of the purchase-money—I mean, though, in your necessitous character of old Stanley.
MOSES. Ah! there is the pity of all; he is so damned charitable.
ROWLEY. And I left a hosier and two tailors in the hall, who, I'm sure, won't be paid, and this hundred would satisfy them.
SIR OLIVER. Well, well, I'll pay his debts, and his benevolence too.
SIR OLIVER. I was, sir —so nearly that my present poverty, I fear, may do discredit to her wealthy children, else I should not have presumed to trouble you.
JOSEPH. Dear sir, there needs no apology:—he that is in distress, though a stranger, has a right to claim kindred with the wealthy. I am sure I wish I was of that class, and had it in my power to offer you even a small relief.
SIR OLIVER. If your uncle, Sir Oliver, were here, I should have a friend.
JOSEPH. I wish he was, Sir, with all my heart: you should not want an advocate with him, believe me, sir.
SIR OLIVER. I should not need one—my distresses would recommend me. But I imagined his bounty would enable you to become the agent of his charity.
JOSEPH. My dear sir, you were strangely misinformed. Sir Oliver is a worthy man, a very worthy man; but avarice, Mr. Stanley, is the vice of age. I will tell you, my good sir, in confidence, what he has done for me has been a mere nothing; though people, I know, have thought otherwise, and, for my part, I never chose to contradict the report.
SIR OLIVER. Odd’s heart, no more can I; nor with gravity either. —Sir Peter, do you know the rogue bargained with me for all his ancestors; sold me judges and generals by the foot, and maiden aunts as cheap as broken china.
CHARLES. To be sure, Sir Oliver, I did make a little free with the family canvas, that’s the truth on’t. My ancestors may rise in judgment against me, there’s no denying it; but believe me sincere when I tell you—and upon my soul I would not say so if I was not—that if I do not appear mortiﬁed at the exposure of my follies, it is because I feel at this moment the warmest satisfaction in seeing you, my liberal benefactor.