Read CHAPTER VIII of The Life and Romances of Mrs. Eliza Haywood, free online book, by George Frisbie Whicher, on


Though Eliza Haywood produced nothing which the world has not willingly let die, yet at least the obituary of her works deserves to be recorded in the history of fiction. Of the many kinds of writing attempted by her during the thirty-six years of her literary adventuring none, considered absolutely, is superior to the novels of her last period. “Betsy Thoughtless” contains at once her best developed characters, most extensive plot, and most nearly realistic setting. But before it was sent to press in 1751, Richardson, Fielding, and Sarah Fielding had established themselves in public favor, and Smollett was already known as their peer. Even in company with “David Simple” Eliza Haywood’s most notable effort could not hope to shine. The value, then, of what is, all in all, her best work is greatly lessened by the obvious inferiority of her productions to the masterpieces of the age. As a writer of amatory romances and scandal novels, on the contrary, Mrs. Haywood was surpassed by none of her contemporaries. The immense reputation that she acquired in her own day has deservedly vanished, for though her tales undoubtedly helped to frame the novel of manners, they were properly discarded as useless lumber when once the new species of writing had taken tangible form. Perhaps they are chiefly significant to the modern student, not as revealing now and then the first feeble stirrings of realism, but as showing the last throes of sensational extravagance. The very extreme to which writers of the Haywoodian type carried breathless adventure, warm intrigue, and soul-thrilling passion exhausted the possibilities of their method and made progress possible only in a new direction.

On the technical development of the modern novel the roman a clef can hardly have exercised a strong influence. Nor can the lampoons in Mrs. Haywood’s anthologies of scandal be valued highly as attempts to characterize. To draw a portrait from the life is not to create a character, still less when the lines are distorted by satire. But the caricaturing of fine ladies and gentlemen cannot have been without effect as a corrective to the glittering atmosphere of courtly life that still permeated the pages of the short, debased romances. The characters of the scandal novels were still princes and courtiers, but their exploits were more licentious than the lowest pothouse amours of picaros and their doxies. The chivalrous conventions of the heroic romances had degenerated into the formalities of gallantry, the exalted modesty of romantic heroines had sunk into a fearful regard for shaky reputations, and the picture of genteel life was filled with scenes of fraud, violence, and vice. As the writers of anti-romances in the previous century had found a delicately malicious pleasure in exhibiting characters drawn from humble and rustic life performing the ceremonies and professing the sentiments of a good breeding foreign to their social position, so the scandal-mongering authors like Mrs. Haywood helped to make apparent the hollowness of the aristocratic conventions even as practiced by the aristocracy and the incongruity of applying exalted ideals derived from an outworn system of chivalry to everyday ladies and gentleman of the Georgian age. Undoubtedly the writers of romans a clef did not bargain for this effect, for they clung to their princes and court ladies till the last, leaving to more able pens the task of making heroes and heroines out of cobblers and kitchen wenches. But in representing people of quality as the “vilest and silliest part of the nation” Mrs. Haywood and her ilk prepared their readers to welcome characters drawn from their own station in society, and paved the way for that “confounding of all ranks and making a jest of order,” which, though deplored by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was nevertheless a condition of progress toward realism.

Quite apart from the slight merit of her writings, the very fact of Mrs. Haywood’s long career as a woman of letters would entitle her to much consideration. About the middle of the seventeenth century women romancers, like women poets, were elegant triflers, content to add the lustre of wit to their other charms. While Mme de La Fayette was gaining the plaudits of the urbane world for the délicatesse of “La Princesse de Cleves” and the eccentric Duchess of Newcastle was employing her genius upon the fantastic, philosophical “Description of a New World, called the Blazing World” (1668), women of another stamp were beginning to write fiction. With the advent of Mme de Villedieu in France and her more celebrated contemporary, Mrs. Behn, in England, literature became a profession whereby women could command a livelihood. The pioneer romancieres were commonly adventuresses in life as in letters, needy widows like Mrs. Behn, Mme de Gomez, and Mrs. Mary Davys, or cast mistresses like Mme de Villedieu, Mile de La Force, and Mrs. Manley, who cultivated Minerva when Venus proved unpropitious. But although the divine Astraea won recognition from easy-going John Dryden and approbation from the profligate wits of Charles II’s court, her memory was little honored by the coterie about Pope and Swift. When even the lofty ideals and trenchant style of Mary Astell served as a target for the ridicule of Mr. Bickerstaff ’s friends, it was not remarkable that such authoresses as Mrs. Manley and Mrs. Haywood should be dismissed from notice as infamous scribbling women. Inded the position of women novelists was anything but assured at the beginning of the eighteenth century. They had to support the disfavor and even the malign attacks of established men of letters who scouted the pretensions of the inelegant to literary fame, and following the lead of Boileau, discredited the romance as absurd and unclassical. Moreover, the moral soundness of fictitious fables was questioned by scrupulous readers, and the amatory tales turned out in profusion by most of the female romancers were not calculated to reassure the pious, even though prefaced by assertions of didactic aim and tagged with an exemplary moral. Nevertheless the tribe of women who earned their living chiefly by the proceeds of their pens rapidly increased.

Mrs. Haywood, as we have seen, looked to the booksellers for support when her husband disclaimed her. Of all the amazons of prose fiction who in a long struggle with neglect and disparagement demonstrated the fitness of their sex to follow the novelist’s calling, none was more persistent, more adaptable, or more closely identified with the development of the novel than she. Mrs. Behn and Mrs. Manley must be given credit as pioneers in fiction, but much of their best work was written for the stage. Eliza Haywood, on the other hand, added little to her reputation by her few dramatic performances. She achieved her successes first and last as a writer of romances and novels, and unlike Mrs. Aubin and her other rivals continued to maintain her position as a popular author over a considerable period of time. During the thirty-six years of her activity the romances of Defoe and of Mrs. Jane Barker gave place to the novels of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett, yet the “female veteran” kept abreast of the changes in the taste of her public and even contributed slightly to produce them. Nor was her progress accomplished without numerous difficulties and discouragements. In spite of all, however, Mrs. Haywood remained devoted to her calling and was still scribbling when the great Dr. Johnson crowned the brows of Mrs. Charlotte Lennox to celebrate the publication of “The Life of Harriot Stuart” (1750). After such recognition a career in letters was open to women without reproach. Though unlaureled by any lexicographer, and despised by the virtuous Mrs. Lennox, Mrs. Haywood, nevertheless, had done yeoman service in preparing the way for modest Fanny Burney and quiet Jane Austen. Moreover she was the only one of the old tribe of romancieres who survived to join the new school of lady novelists, and in her tabloid fiction rather than in the criminal biography, or the voyage imaginaire, or the periodical essay, may best be studied the obscure but essential link between the “voluminous extravagances” of the “Parthenissa” kind and the hardly less long-winded histories of “Pamela” and “Clarissa.”