The Female Wits

The Female Wits book jackets
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One of Virago’s earliest historical non fiction works, The Female Wits is a thick large format book consisting of biographies & playtexts of 17th & 18th century women.

The idea for the book came from two original research projects Fidelis had done at university: A practical study of the first staging of Congreve’s The Way of the World at Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1700, and her dissertation on Acting and Society in Restoration London.

It is hard to express now how ground breaking this book was.  No one knew about the women playwrights, with the possible execption of Aphra Behn, who was more famous for having been a spy.  There were no reference books to go to, only a handful of papers written in obscure journals.  Whenever Fidelis mentioned to book she was greeted with jovial retorts like “The Female Wits? That’ll be a thin book!”

Due to high production costs people tried to persuade her to cut it down to a short scholarly biographical work, but she persevered, knowing that the important thing was to get the scripts out into the world again, for the first time in 300 years.

When Fidelis wrote this book there was nowhere else where you could read the works of these “lost” women, unless you went to the British Library special collection, where many of the plays were kept under strict supervision as, when first catalogued, they had been classified as obscene.  Others were regarded as too rare or fragile to be touched except in white gloves.

When Fidelis was doing the research for The Female Wits, computers still took up a large room, so there was no question of using a laptop. The original plays were too fragile to photocopy, too precious to be let out of the reading room into the typing area. As a result this book was a real labour of love – the plays had to be copied out in pencil and then the notes typed up each evening at home.

It was not an easy ride in any way.  One Oxbridge professor even threatened the publisher to damn the book if Viargo didn’t stop publication.

When The Female Wits came out in 1981, Fidelis was asked to speak at universities all over the world, and also the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

People were astonished and delighted and a whole new world of womens’ studies opened up.


Fidelis unearthed several further facts about the lives of the female playwrights, both for the second printing and a later book Female Playwrights of the Restoration.

Lively and persuasive…a useful interesting book. Harpers & Queen

Overdue and delightful resurrection of women playwrights of the Restoration. The Times

A bold attempt to assert an alternative tradition to the accepted canon…of late seventeenth century plays. New Society

A useful book in a very handy paperback format. The Daily Telegraph

It is not often that one book is responsible for so much theatrical pleasure. Times Literary Supplement


Some years later Fidelis whipped up a theatrical event based on the book.

Together with 3 actresses Fidelis performs a show based on The Female Wits.

The show premiered as a Platform at the Royal National Theatre in 1992, with a cast of Fidelis, Celia Imrie, Rosalind Knight and Selina Cadell

A whirlwind theatrical lecture, encompassing the lives and plays of the celebrated female playwrights of the late seventeenth century, a performance of The Female Wits lasts anything from 45 minutes to an hour and a half (depending on the demands of the venue).

Since its first performance The Female Wits has played at:

  • The Lilian Baylis Theatre at Sadlers Wells
  • The University of Utrecht
  • The British Library
  • and festivals in Amsterdam, Eastbourne, Birmingham, Chipping Norton, The Dordogne, Nottingham, Loughborough, Walton on Thames, Newark and Bodmin.

Fidelis has also presented an abridged solo version at:

  • University of Texas at Austin
  • Stanford University
  • Glasgow University
  • Liverpool University
  • the QEII, QM2
  • and various other venues.