For years studies of the early British novel were dominated by criticism of
the works of canonical writers like Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry
Fielding. Jane Austen was heralded as the mother of women’s fiction, a lone
female voice breaking into the masculine world of letters to introduce the
illustrious line of nineteenth-century female authors who followed her. More
recently, however, scholars have rediscovered the work of women novelists like
Eliza Haywood, whose fiction was as popular as that of Defoe and whose literary
career spanned almost 40 years. For this reason alone Haywood’s The
Injur’d Husband (1722) and Lasselia (1723)--published together in
one volume as part of the University Press of Kentucky’s series,
Eighteenth-Century Novels by Women--should prove of interest to Jane Austen
fans. The revival of such texts not only places Austen’s work in a more
accurate context, but allows us to more fully appreciate her novels as part of a
longstanding tradition of women’s fiction.
Jerry Beasley’s introductory remarks serve as an illuminating guide to this tradition. Consisting of two major sections, a biographical sketch and a commentary on the two novels, the introduction first dispels some of the myths surrounding Haywood’s life. One such myth revolves around the critical response to Haywood’s early work, particularly to her thinly veiled portraits of contemporary figures in her “scandal novels,” tales of amorous intrigues involving court personalities. The reactions of Jonathan Swift, who called Haywood “a stupid, infamous, scribbling woman,” and of Alexander Pope, who attacked her in his satiric poem The Dunciad, were representative of the period’s misogynistic attacks on women writers. But, as Beasley observes, these criticisms did not diminish Haywood’s popularity, nor did they force her into literary exile as critics once believed. In fact, her amazing output is one of the marvels of 18th-century literature: beginning with Love in Excess (1719–20), Haywood published more than thirty novels, a biography, and four translations during the 1720s alone. Over the course of her career, which ended with her death in 1756, she produced poems, plays, conduct books, and pamphlets, started a publishing business, and edited periodicals, including The Female Spectator, the first monthly magazine written by a woman for women. As Beasley rightly points out, the achievements of Haywood “helped create a legacy without which later generations of female authors might well have needed to find something else to do.”
During the 1720s, amatory fiction like The Injur’d Husband and Lasselia dominated the literary marketplace. Read against Austen’s discreet and subtle prose, these two novels appear striking in their explicit treatment of female sexual desire. But Haywood and Austen aren’t so different, really. Both suggest that female passion--more particularly the indulgence of passion--carries a great cost for women. The eponymous heroine of Lasselia (subtitled The Self-Abandon’d) provides a ready example of a woman caught between desire and discretion. As such Lasselia can be read as a prototype for both Marianne and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Just as Marianne suffers a sudden and nearly fatal attraction for Willoughby, Lasselia falls madly in love with the handsome, accomplished--and married--Monsieur de l’Amye; like Elinor, Lasselia restrains her passion (for a time at least), recognizing that her feelings are “not consistent with Virtue, nor Discretion.” Lasselia’s discretion is no match for her love, however, and she succumbs to the “dangerous Charmer.” Rather than condemn Lasselia’s actions, Haywood’s narrator remains sympathetic, explaining that her heroine’s downfall occurs only after a stormy battle between her sense and sensibility: “the long Suppression of a Passion which she had always consider’d as fruitless, now on a sudden let loose, was beyond the Power of Reason to restrain.”
The Injur’d Husband; or, the Mistaken Resentment also explores the tug of war between abandonment and restraint. Rather than presenting an internal struggle, however, The Injur’d Husband depicts two women possessed of diametrically opposed characters: the notorious Baroness de Tortillée and the virtuous Montamour. The former--manipulative, cunning, and willing to go to any length to obtain the men she desires--numbers among the early novel’s greatest villainesses. She is, in fact, a female rake who treats men as sexual objects and abandons them once her conquest is assured. Unfortunately for Montamour, her fiancé Beauclair catches the eye of the baroness, who schemes to discredit and then supplant Montamour in his affections. As Beasley points out, Beauclair’s seduction is surprisingly easy for a man supposedly devoted to Montamour. But like the book’s misleading title (Baron de Tortillée, the injured husband, plays only a minor role), Beauclair’s two-dimensionality suggests that Haywood’s concerns are not with male characters. It’s the Baroness de Tortillée and Montamour who drive the plot and draw the reader into the text.
In light of the significance of Haywood’s fiction for the development of the novel, the University Press of Kentucky has done a great service by making two of her early works available to general readers. But The Injur’d Husband and Lasselia impart more than critical insights into the novel’s history and women’s role in that history. They’re plain fun to read--something Haywood’s contemporaries understood, and a pleasure we can now enjoy for ourselves.
Candace Ward teaches 18th-Century literature and women's studies at Illinois State University. She has recently been granted a Fulbright fellowship to pursue her research on women's sentimental fiction and tropical fever at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica.
JASNA News v.18, no. 2, Spring 2002, p. 20
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