Image of Hannah Cowley


Lifetime: 1743 - 1809 Passed: ≈ 215 years ago


Poet, Playwright



Hannah Cowley

Hannah Cowley was an English playwright and poet. Although Cowley's plays and poetry did not enjoy wide popularity after the 19th century, critic Melinda Finberg rates her as "one of the foremost playwrights of the late eighteenth century" whose "skill in writing fluid, sparkling dialogue and creating sprightly, memorable comic characters compares favourably with her better-known contemporaries, Goldsmith and Sheridan." Cowley's plays were produced frequently in her lifetime. The major themes of her plays – including her first, The Runaway (1776), and her major success, which is being revived, The Belle's Stratagem (1780) – revolve around marriage and how women strive to overcome the injustices imposed by family life and social custom.

Born Hannah Parkhouse, she was the daughter of Hannah (née Richards) and Philip Parkhouse, a bookseller in Tiverton, Devon. Sources disagree about some details of her married life, citing her marriage date as either 1768 or 1772 and claiming she had either three or four children. Shortly after her marriage to Thomas Cowley, the couple moved to London, where Thomas worked as an official in the Stamp Office and as a part-time journalist.

The introduction to her 1813 collected works gives an account of how Cowley was struck by a sudden desire to write while attending a play with her husband. "So delighted with this?" she boasted to him. "Why I could write as well myself!" Thomas teased her, but by the middle of the next day Cowley showed him the first act of her comedy The Runaway. If the substance of the story is true, this visit to the theatre could have occurred no later than 1775, for the rest of The Runaway was written, sent to the actor-manager David Garrick and produced at Drury Lane theatre by 15 February 1776.

The Runaway enjoyed 17 performances in its first season at Drury Lane and 39 in London by 1800, a success that encouraged Cowley to write more, though her mentor Garrick retired after the 1776 season. She wrote her next two plays, the farce Who’s the Dupe? and the tragedy Albina, before the year was out.

With the Hannah More controversy behind her, Cowley wrote her most popular and enduring comedy, The Belle's Stratagem, which was produced at Covent Garden in 1780. It was performed 28 nights in its first season and 118 times in London before 1800, a respectable success that consolidated her family's financial position.

Her next play, The World as it Goes; or, a Party at Montpelier (later entitled Second Thoughts Are Best) was a flop, but she continued to write until 1794, seeing seven more plays into production: Which is the Man?, A Bold Stroke for a Husband, More Ways Than One, A School for Greybeards, or, The Mourning Bride, The Fate of Sparta, or, The Rival Kings, A Day in Turkey, or, The Russian Slaves, and The Town Before You. None of these matched the success of her earlier plays.

In 1783, Thomas Cowley accepted a job with the British East India Company. He moved to India and left Hannah in London to raise their children; Thomas died there in 1797, never having returned to England.

Books by Hannah Cowley

The Belle's Stratagem Cover image

The Belle's Stratagem

Family Romantic Comics Royalty Relationships Fun

The Belle's Stratagem is a romantic comedy of manners, the most successful work of its playwright, Hannah Cowley. It received its premiere on 22 February 1780, presented by David Garrick, filling the 2,000-seat Drury Lane theatre. The play became a m...

A Bold Stroke for a Husband Cover image

A Bold Stroke for a Husband

Play Social Satire Comics Act

It is a Restoration comedy, a genre of play that was popular in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, characterized by its witty dialogue, sexual intrigue, and social satire. The play was well received in its time and is still performed...

The Runaway Cover image

The Runaway

Marriage Romantic Drama Love Young adult fiction Friendship Feminism Empowerment Support

The play tells the story of Harriet, a young woman who runs away from home to escape an arranged marriage. She finds herself in the company of a group of eccentric characters, including a dashing young man, a wealthy merchant, and a wise old woman. T...

Who's the Dupe Cover image

Who's the Dupe

Comedy Drama
Play Love Friendship Witty Humorous Fiction Relationships Dialogue Hilarious

is a captivating and humorous book that will leave young readers guessing until the very end. Written by Hannah Cowley, this comedic masterpiece is sure to entertain and delight readers of all ages. Set in a vibrant world of mistaken identities and...

Which is the Man? Cover image

Which is the Man?

Play Love Human Behaviors Relationships Humanity Immersive Wits Complex Entertainment

This is a comedic play that invites readers to immerse themselves in a world of wit and confusion. Written in [insert publication year if notable], this play showcases Cowley's mastery of the genre and her ability to craft characters that both entert...

School for Greybeards; or, The Mourning Bride Cover image

School for Greybeards; or, The Mourning Bride

Cowley: "I offer the following Comedy to the public, under a circumstance which has given my mind the most exquisite uneasiness. On the morning after the first representation, it was observed by the papers that there had been persons present at the T...

Town Before You Cover image

Town Before You

Impoverished Lords. Rich Lords and Ladies with no sense; other folk with Big Plans. Charlatans. Fools. Buffoons. Disguises. Clever Wives and cleverer Servants. A good time will be had by all in this 1795 comedy. - Summary by ToddHW Cast list: Tip...