Tom Wilding and the Pox
The protagonist of The City Heiress is not the City Heiress. Nor is it Sir Timothy Treat-All. The first scene sets up a dispute between Sir Timothy and his nephew, Tom Wilding, and it immediately becomes obvious that, because of his youth, charm, and wit, we are to identify with the rakish, beseeching Tom and not his “resolv’d, deaf, and obdurate” uncle who refuses to continue to pay for Tom’s debts. Tom, a spendthrift with three romantic interests and a venereal disease to boot, is an odd choice for a protagonist, but it cannot be the demurely doting Charlot, or the aging and hypocritical Sir Timothy, nor can it be the whining Sir Charles Meriwill or the duped Lady Galliard. Diana might give Tom a run for his money, but it is Tom whom everyone in the play wants—wants what he has, wants to be more like him, or wants his person.
However clear it is that Tom is universally “wanted” by the characters in the play, it seems strange to the audience that he gets what he wants. Often in such plays, the bulk of the madcap action relies on the trickster getting away with his tricks, but barely, by the seat of his pants. Tom almost never gets away with his tricks; before he even tries to seduce them, Lady Galliard, Charlot, and Diana know all about his other lovers, his pennilessness, his lies. It seems that almost everyone at Sir Timothy’s dinner recognizes Tom in his disguise at some point or another, except for Sir Timothy. He is continually being unmasked by people around him, and things still turn out exactly as he would have them.
His venereal disease is an instance of this. Pox abounds in this play; it is used as a curse by almost every male character in the play. Clacket says that she has concealed the names of his “wicked diseases” and procured “filthy surgeons” for him. His uncle makes reference to paying for “Pocky doctors.” It seems like everyone knows he has the pox. Reference is even made to Tom’s pox in the presence of each of his romantic interests—yet they still want to sleep with him. Diana sums it up, “I must love a Wit, with a Pox, when I might have had so many Fools of Fortune.”
This makes me, as an audience member, ask “Why must she love him?” It is inconceivable that Tom should be successful in his conquests, given all his negative qualities and his ineptitude at secrecy and deceit. However, his rhetoric always saves the day. He is able to spin the truth (that he’s poor, that he’s a philanderer, that he’s diseased) and make every situation seem like he engineered it. His conquests believe that he loves them when it is obvious that he does not. His verbal vomit is the cure for any other illness he spreads. It seems that, in this play, love really is blind—but it is a syphilitic blindness caused by Tom’s infectious rhetoric.