William Congreve is best remembered as a playwright and the author of The Way of The World. Born in 1670 in England, his father’s military career meant that William grew up in Ireland, where he studied alongside friend and fellow writer, Jonathan Swift.
Initially set on a law career, Congreve gave it up for writing. As a consequence, he became a successful playwright (under John Dryden’s tutelage) while still in his twenties. In fact, his last play, The Way of the World was produced when he was around thirty. After that, he disappeared from the literary world to work in government. But amongst the work he left behind is the novella Incognita which he wrote while at university.
Incognita is a delightful piece of late seventeenth-century writing, a romance and a masquerade, a story of mistaken and assumed identities. Set in Florence during nuptial festivities, the story sees the heroes Aurelian and Hippolito arriving in the former’s native city. The two young men attend some festivities, including a masquerade. Hippolito borrows a costume, and the two arrive as strangers.
Separating for the rest of the night, they fall under the spell of two masked women. And so begins a series of deceptions. Hippolito discovers the costume he borrowed belongs to a man who killed someone else. The young woman he encounters, Leonora, sees his costume and believes him to be her cousin, warning him that he ought to leave before someone takes revenge. He doesn’t correct her mistake and they leave, after which he asks how he might contact her the next day.
Aurelian has fallen for a different woman who delights him with her quick wit, and who offers him the choice of knowing her name or seeing her face. He asks to see her face, only later realising that without her name, it will be difficult to find her.
There’s an inevitability to the proceedings, and the reader will no doubt guess where things are going. The twists and turns might seem somewhat contrived, and yet everything that happens fits perfectly within the story.
Occasionally, the narrator speaks to us in asides and draws our attention to some point or piece of background information. It’s easy to imagine this story performed on a stage as the seventeenth-century romantic comedy, which is not surprising given the later career of the writer. According to Congreve himself, Incognita was “an essay begun and finished in the idler hours of a fortnight’s time.” Sadly, it also serves as a reminder of what Congreve was capable of, and what literature lost when he abandoned his career.
Please note, the cover image at the top of this page is from the 2003 Hesperus edition of this novella, which is now out of print. Other versions of Incognita by William Congreve are available. A longer version of this review was published online in 2005.