ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                   Spring 2009

 

Feb. 9     Eliza Haywood, The History of Betsy Thoughtless Introduction and Vols. I-II

 

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Because next week we will be introduced to more of the criticism of the novel, I’d like to take the opportunity this week to explore some of the issues of language, form and theme as they develop in the first half of Haywood’s novel.  One salient comparison to keep in mind is Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling (1750), published the year before Betsy Thoughtless.  While the careers of the two authors overlap and intersect in many ways, briefly surveyed in Blouch’s introduction, the novels share formal attributes and thematic concerns.  There is, however, one essential difference; whereas Fielding tells the history of a reckless boy growing to a man, Haywood makes the maturing of a reckless girl the subject of her tale, and the points of convergence and departure create a significant commentary on gender construction at the middle of the eighteenth century.

 

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Notes and Discussion:

 

Form:  The Novel

 

More will undoubtedly be said of this next week, but for purposes of beginning our discussion, examine the conventions of the novel form that Haywood employs.  Note the structure of the book in chapters and volumes.  Comment on the headnotes to chapters and the naming of characters.  How do you understand these to function?

 

Compare and contrast the writing style with that of Behn’s novels.  What do you find that is similar?  How has the mode of fiction writing changed since Behn?

 

Discuss the narrator’s voice.  What is her/its tone?  How does this compare with that of Behn?  Note that Haywood was the author of the popular periodical the Female Spectator – modeled after the successful Spectator papers of Addison and Steele.  What influence does this have on her narrative style?  Also note the influence or precedence of Fielding’s narrative voice.  How is it similar?  How does it differ?

 

 

Theme:  Gallantry, Courtship and Marriage

 

I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce a central discursive preoccupation of eighteenth-century literature, by men and women alike:  gallantry.  I’ve offered a definition below and included an excerpt from Hume to illustrate.  Gallantry is more than a discourse of courtship; it is a discourse of civility and honor among men as well as women.  While notions of gallantry reach back to Renaissance courtier manuals and medieval chivalry, the enlightenment formulation of gallantry bolsters historically specific developments of civilization and the socio-political discourse that establishes England as a world leader in civility and politeness; this is the enabling discourse of progress and enslavement.  At the heart of this powerful construction of cultural hegemony lies the image of refined and virtuous feminine beauty.  NOTE: this is not the same as the angel-in-the-house of the nineteenth-century. 

 

Definition:  Gallantry is a code of conduct that emerges from the overlap of polite and amatory discourses in the quasi-public sphere of sociability in the eighteenth century.  It describes civilized behavior between parties of asymmetrical power relations, most commonly between men and women.  Literally and conventionally, it is understood in terms of the voluntarily suppression or service of male violence in favor or protection of female beauty.  Examine Hume’s quotation below for an eighteenth-century description.  For further information, see my article “Beauty and Gallantry: A Model of Polite Conversation Revisited” Eighteenth-Century Life 25 (Winter 2001): 43-63.  I will put a copy in the envelope on my door.

 

David Hume’s description:

“Gallantry is nothing but an instance of . . . generous attention.  As nature has given man the superiority above woman, by endowing him with greater strength both of mind and body, it is his part to alleviate that superiority, as much as possible, by the generosity of his behaviour, and by a studied deference and complaisance for all her inclinations and opinions.  Barbarous nations display this superiority, by reducing their females to the most abject slavery; by confining them, by beating them, by selling them, by killing them.  But the male sex, among a polite people, discover their authority in a more generous, though not less evident manner; by civility, by respect, by complaisance, and, in a word, by gallantry.”  (David Hume, “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences”)

 

As you read The History of Betsy Thoughtless, examine how the scenes of conversation among men and women in sociable spaces operate.  These visits, routs, dinners, dances, theatre-events and other outings form the context for gallantry and provide the opportunity for the practice of politeness.  See, for instance, how the sea captain fails the tests of politeness and why.

 

Conversation is a performative activity in eighteenth-century literature, and women as well as men are meant to shine.  But conversation is also a test of character and understanding.  How do the characters display themselves in these scenes?  How do they “read” one another?  Note how easy it is to misconstrue meaning, particularly around Betsy.  Why does this happen?

 

Beauty is the force of attraction and the power that orchestrates the behaviors of gallantry.  Given the centrality of beauty’s function, reconsider the importance of beauty for female characters (and compare with that discussed in the poetry last week.)  How is Betsy’s beauty described?  How does she regard her own beauty?  How does she regard her own power over men?  Given the counter-discourse of advice that runs through the novel, what alternative constructions of beauty coexist?  How do other characters want to construct Betsy’s beauty? 

 

Note the language of power and dependence (even enslavement) that accompanies the courtship of Betsy. How can you understand this given Hume’s language regarding gallantry?  See for example the figure of Munden p. 295.

 

Hume’s description makes utterly clear that complaisance and gallantry serve as modern substitutes for unmitigated male violence toward women.  How is violence manifested in this enlightened code of behavior?  What role does violence play in the manipulation of female behavior?  What role does dueling play?  See in particular volume one chapter IX and chap. XXII and also page 189.

 

The codes of politeness that govern sociability in the eighteenth century function parallel to the negotiation of gallant compliment and refined address.  Note how the female characters are particularly aware of the signification of compliments and the difference between mere flattery and that which signifies a deeper meaning.  And yet the structural ambiguities between the discourse aimed at love and that which is aimed at pleasantry necessitates constant vigilance and control.  How is this tension developed in the narrative?

 

Moreover, the issue of self-representation becomes contested in a discourse so dependent upon linguistic conventions.  Why is it difficult for Betsy to represent herself and her desire to remain unmarried (see, eg. Pp. 44, 47, 76).  Note how this anticipates Elizabeth Bennet’s difficulties in Pride and Prejudice.

 

The sovereignty of self-representation becomes particularly vexed when the virtue of the female is compromised. Examine what lies at the heart of interpreting female character, particularly in the misconstructions placed on Betsy as a result of her association with Miss Forward.

 

The introduction suggests that the main theme of the book – like that of Tom Jones – is that virtue alone is insufficient; one must also possess the appearance of virtue.  While Betsy’s various monitors reiterate the theme in different ways, see Lady Trusty’s letters, her brother Francis and Mr. Goodman, for examples, Betsy consistently resists this need.  What is at stake in her resistance?  Is she merely the vain coquet the narrator would have us believe or is there something more to her neglect of form? 

 

See for example her eloquent refutation of male violence: “What would you have me do?  I do not want the men to love me, -- and if they will play the fool and fight, and kill one another, it is none of my fault: (177).

 

While Lady Trusty writes:  “I see no real defence for you but in a good husband,” (207), Betsy writes, “ I know not how it is, I cannot all at once bring myself into a liking of the marriage state” (213).

 

What is it about marriage that Betsy so dislikes?  For an eighteenth-century legal interpretation of marriage, see below.

 

If this novel is a didactic tale about proper (or improper) female behavior, then it is also a survey of male behavior.  What are Betsy’s suitors like?  Beyond the name, how are we to know that Trueworth is destined to be her husband?  What does the plot suggest about marriage thus far?

 

At the heart of the novel lies the comparison between a man’s virtue (and sexual honor) and a woman’s.  Trueworth’s affair with Incognita lies at the center of the plot (Volume II Chapter XXI), followed immediately by his legitimate courtship of Harriot.  What does it mean that Betsy, while innocent of sexual misconduct, is vilified while the hero maintains his honor while conducting an illicit affair?

 

What issues of class arise in the negotiation of courtship?  To what extent are these consistent with the discourses of politeness and gallantry?  To what extent are these necessitated by the legal status of the individuals in law?  What purpose does the example of Mr. Goodman’s marriage serve?

 

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Excerpts:

 

From Commentaries on the Laws of England, by William Blackstone (1765)

Book One, Chapter Fifteen: Of Husband and Wife

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-french a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.  Upon this principle, of an union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage.  I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal.  For this reason, a man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarrriage.  A woman indeed may be attorney for her husband; for that implies no separation from, but is rather a representation of, her lord. And a husband may also bequeath any thing to his wife by will; for that cannot take effect till the coverture is determined by his death.  The husband is bound to provide his wife with necessaries by law, as much as himself; and if she contracts debts for them, he is obliged to pay them:  but for any thing besides necessaries, he is not chargeable.  Also if a wife elopes, and lives with another man, the husband is not chargeable even for necessaries; at least if the person, who furnishes them, is sufficiently apprized of her elopement.  If the wife be indebted before marriage, the husband is bound afterwards to pay the debt; for he has adopted her and her circumstances together.  If the wife be injured in her person or her property, she can bring no action for redress without her husband’s concurrence, and in his name, as well as her own: neither can she be sued, without making the husband a defendant….

The husband also (by the old law) might give his wife moderate correction.  For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to entrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his servants or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer.  But this power of correction was confined within reasonable bounds. . . .  But, with us, in the politer reign of Charles the second, this power of correction began to be doubted: and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband; or, in return, a husband against his wife.  Yet the lower rank of people, who were always fond of the old common law, still claim and exert their ancient privilege: and the courts of law will still permit a husband to restrain his wife of her liberty, in case of any gross misbehaviour.

These are the chief legal effects of marriage during the coverture; upon which we may observe, that even the disabilities, which the wife lies under, are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit.  So great a favourite is the female sex of the laws of England.

 

Sources:

William Blackstone. Commentaries on the Laws of England. 1756. 4 vols. Reprinted. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1966.