2/19 Popular Fiction by Women, 1660-1730 (Haywood (2) and Davys)
The readings for this week might more comfortably fit into Johnson’s definition for the novel: “a small tale, generally of love” (quoted xi). The novels by Haywood and Davys give us a flavor of the erotic tale, the amatory fiction, the seduction narrative about which so has been written. As with the novels from last week, we will examine these texts as examples of early eighteenth-century fiction, and try to evaluate them in light of the standards set forth by Watt and the heuristic models identified by McKeon. Also, let us consider the history of reception and the problems for contemporary students of the novel – particularly the novel written by early women – given the failure of literary history to account for their successes. To that end, we can reconsider a number of questions from last week.
I. Eliza Haywood 1693-1756
One of the most successful novelists of her era, Haywood’s Love in Excess (1719) sold as many copies as the other three most popular fictions of the first half of the century: Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe and Pamela. What does such company suggest about Haywood’s achievement in fiction? How then do we account for a lack of equal treatment in the history of literature?
The editors provide some strategies for reading these fictions. “Joining the critics giving new attention to the non-realist novel, they have revealed unions of form and content and effective statements of personal and public engagement worthy of serious attention.” Haywood’s stories are “a sustained critique of her society, male-female relationships, and class politics, and that these characteristics should be recognized and integrated into studies of the eroticism and wild fantasies also typical of her texts” (xiii).
In what ways are such insights helpful for reading Haywood’s stories for today? What statements does she make about her society? What is the effect of the tension between profound social criticism and the sheer eroticism of the texts?
The British Recluse (1722)
For each of the stories, place it in historical context and summarize the content by recording setting, characters, conflicts and outcome.
Letters between lovers make up a generous portion of this tale. The conversation of love certainly dominates the stories the women tell each other. The rhetoric of love has always seemed to me bound up within the hermeneutic of truth, and it is so in precisely gendered ways. Here and in the other stories, examine the rhetorical structure of the letters written between men and women. How would you describe the language of desire? Can you discern a "grammar" of gender; i.e. certain linguistic formulations or rules that correlate with codes of gender? How does this change after the act of "carnal knowledge"? What are the implications? How do these rhetorical strategies compare with claims to historicity or other problems ascertaining truth?
The editors note how many of these stories resonate with modern experience. What evidence does this story provide for the relevant issues of women's lives? I.e. the reality of pregnancy? (183)
Examine the problematic solution of suicide in Cleomira's narrative.
How does Cleomira's desire to be known as dead compare with Ardelisa's of Aubin's story? What is the metaphoric significance?
Note the naming of characters in Belinda's story. How does this compare with Cleomira's? What are the implications? Evaluate Haywood's strategies of naming here and in Fantomina in light of Watt's claims for formal realism or McKeon's questions of truth.
Note how the stories become stories of interpretation – how does one read the signs of the lover? What is true or believable? In terms of Watt's claims for the novel – teaching the populace about sexual mores – and McKeon's claims – mediating and making intelligible certain social and epistemological problems – how can we read this theme?
Why do these women continue to love the man that abuses and deceives them? What does it mean – symbolically, epistemologically – for the source of their suffering to be one and the same man?
How does the femino-centric conclusion of the novel compare with the conclusion of others? Evaluate this in light of the editors' generalization that women writers tend to “present a tragic absolutism at work in social and moral circumstances that pushes them to narrate the inevitable effects without possibility of satisfactory resolution” (xvi).
Eliza Haywood's short story takes up the problems of a specifically gendered virtue, chastity, and exposes the hypocrisy of the beau monde as well as the double-standard of sexual behavior for men and for women. Jerry Beasley argues that much of Haywood's erotic fiction addressed (among other things) "the more general public concern with corruption and disorder in contemporary life (particularly high life), with the problems of class conflict, and with the threatened ideals of public and private virtue" (DLB vol. 39).
Given these tendencies, how do you read Fantomina's decision to play the role of prostitute? What does this role playing suggest about the construction of gender, virtue and money in the work?
In the course of the story, Fantomina constructs three other identities to seduce or entice Beauplasir. Examine the roles of Celia, Mrs. Bloomer and Incognita. What are the important characteristics and traits that she changes? To what does Beauplasir respond in each case? How is class or status a factor? How is beauty a factor? How is perceived virtue a factor in his behavior to these women? What does this role playing suggest about Fantomina? What does it suggest about Beauplasir? What does it finally suggest about the nature of romantic or erotic love?
On page 238 the narrator raises the absurdity of Beauplasir's continual deception regarding the person (i.e. body) of his beloved. What does the narrator ask us to believe about Fantomina's character?
Note the two letters that Beauplasir writes to Fantomina and Mrs. Bloomer. What do their differences suggest? What do their similarities suggest about the character of Beauplasir (for that matter, what does his name suggest)?
She continues on with this deception to gratify "the inclination she had for his agreeable person, in as full a manner as she could wish" (240). To what extent does this frankness qualify as erotic? Knowing the reputation that Haywood gained (as a popular writer of erotic tales and scandal), what does this story tell us about the culture for which Haywood wrote?
Jerry Beasley writes that "Virtue does not always triumph in Haywood's stories, but it is always an issue. The treatment of the issue is never subtle or sophisticated, but the context of domestic strife and sexual tension gives her work, sensational as it is, an immediacy that surely attracted readers – especially female readers – to it" (DLB vol. 39). Regardless of whether you agree or not with Beasley's gendered assessments of the audience, evaluate the conclusion of Fantomina in light of virtue.
How does the story conclude? What are the implications of such an abbreviated ending?
What is Fantomina's major fault? How does this compare with The British Recluse?
If chastity is supposed to be the highest female virtue (but relatively unimportant to men), in what ways does this story challenge notions of gendered virtue?
Eliza Haywood in summary:
critics, such as Catherine Ingrassia in Authorship, Commerce and Gender in Early
How do issues of popularity and literary quality inform your understanding of the reading for today?
II. Mary Davys (1674-1732) The Reformed Coquet; or, The Memoirs of Amoranda (1724)
According the editors, Davys' tale is remarkable for its relationship to contemporary (and Restoration) comedy in terms of the characters and the sophisticated use of disguise. The story also resembles the later work of Fielding with the use of the intrusive narrator. Evaluate these features in the work.
As with the others, evaluate the prefatory writing for this novel. How does she represent commercial or economic factors in writing? What role does the personal life of the author play? How would you describe the gender politics of the opening?
Again the issue of naming becomes important. What are the implications of Davy's names in the story?
Evaluate the friendship of Altemira and Amoranda. What role do female relationships play in the defense of male designs for women's ruin?
Why is the married state so much more important for Altemira than the character of the husband? How does Lofty change after the marriage? How might we account for this?
What is the "moral" of the story for Amoranda? Evaluate this in light of patriarchal status quo.
How do you explain the tension between the high level of violence and treachery toward women (abduction, rape, incest, betrayal, murder) and the comic tone of the story?
Compare and contrast the stories by Haywood and Davys. How might you explain the high level of rancour toward Haywood in literary history and the lack of the same toward Davys? How do the stories differ ideologically? Do they offer challenges to the patriarchal status quo or are they contained by it?
"As The Reformed Coquet makes especially clear, part of the challenge for readers of this volume will be to judge whether there are any particular qualities in these fictions that mark them as distinctively by women and that separate them from the mainstream of British fiction in the eighteenth century. Do they constitute, taken together and separately, a counter tradition or a rival and competing set of narrative choices to the male novel of mid-century" (xxiii).