ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                   Spring 2009

 

Feb. 16   Eliza Haywood, The History of Betsy Thoughtless Vols III-IV

            Recommended:  Appendices to the volume and Jones, chapter 4 “Women’s Status as legal and civic subjects: ‘A Worse Condition than Slavery itself’?” by Gillian Skinner

            Staves, Chapter 4 pp 166-227.

 

            Presentation:  Marisa Iglesias

 

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We conclude Haywood’s novel this week, and so our discussion will center on the overall merits of the novel, its critical reputation, and some of the themes developed both in the notes below and the article by Skinner.  The latter is an excellent summary of legal issues surrounding marriage, and wives in particular, and I highly recommend your reading it.  It will provide essential background reading for the intricate legal maneuvers in the second half of Haywood’s novel, and it will highlight how while the legal status of wives paralleled that of slaves and children, married women in practice exercised different degrees of power and agency. Also keep in mind how Haywood and this novel in particular fit into the literary history written by Staves. 

 

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Notes and Discussion:

 

Form:  The Novel

 

See the definition and distinction offered by Clara Reeve on page 641: “The Romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous person and things.  – The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written.  The Romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. – The Novel gives a familiar relation of such things as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves, and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading)  that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were our own” (641).

 

What are the essential expectations for the novel?  To what extent does The History of Betsy Thoughtless fulfill them?

 

Analyze the criticism from the Monthly Review, in particular the following statement: “…no other hand would have, probably, more happily finish’d a work begun on such a plan, as that of the history of a young inconsiderate girl, whose little foibles, without any natural vices of the mind, involve her in difficulties and distresses, which, by correcting, make her wiser, and deservedly happy in the end.  A heroine like her cannot but lay an author under much disadvantage; for, tho’ such an example may afford lessons of prudence, yet how can we greatly interest ourselves in the fortune of one, whose character and conduct are neither truly amiable nor infamous, and which we can neither admire, nor love, nor pity, nor be diverted with?” (638)

 

Evaluate the justness of the criticism.  Compare Betsy Thoughtless to other novels with faulty protagonists:  Tom Jones, Evelina, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Mill on the Floss, or further afield, Madame Bovary or The Awakening.  Others?

 

As a coming of age novel – if we can call it that – how does it represent Betsy’s development?  In what ways, if any, does she change?

 

Note how Haywood’s reputation, like Betsy’s, must undergo reformation if she is to be accepted by the critics.  For two versions of this see pages 636 and 643.  How do these biographical/critical pieces represent Haywood’s development?  What, if anything, changes?  What motivates such readings?  What are the implications of such readings of the female novelist?

 

Also note that critics such as our editor, Blouch, Kathryn King, Alex Petit and Patrick Spedding have done considerable biographical and archival work to rewrite the literary history of Eliza Haywood and have successfully dislodged the myths of Pope and Reeves to see her more clearly as a highly productive, adaptable and talented professional writer.

 

 

 

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Themes:  Marriage – a change of station

 

To what extent does Miss Harriot serve as a foil to Betsy and why?  Examine her reaction to Trueworth’s first efforts at proposing:

“[I]f you would have me believe your professions are sincere, forbear, I beseech you, to talk to me in this manner:  -- it is an ill-judged policy, methinks, in you men, to idolize the women too much, you wish would think well of you; -- if our sex are in reality so vain as you generally represent us, on whom but yourselves can the fault be laid? – And if we prove ourselves so weak as to imagine ourselves such, as either the flattery, or the partial affection of the lover paints us, we shall be apt to take every thing as our due, and think little gratitude is owing, for the offering he makes us of his heart” (374).

Such condemnations of gallantry are fairly common in writings by women, although less so in works authored by men.  What does Miss Harriot’s perspective show us about the verbal exchange of power expected between men and women?  What view of woman emerges from her critique?

 

Munden writes to Miss Thoughtless:  “I know very well, that it is the duty of every lover to submit, in all things, to the pleasure of the beautiful object, whose chains he wears” (330).  Here and elsewhere the language of enslavement describes the male lover’s bondage prior to marriage.  To what extent is the male role in courtship parallel to the wife’s role after marriage?  Where does power lie?  What effect does this use of language in gallant courtship have on the representation of actual or lived experience in marriage? 

 

How does Betsy fare once she becomes the property of Munden? 

 

Skinner’s article details the ways in which a woman’s legal status – and with it her ability to own property and enter into contractual agreements – changes upon marriage.  She notes that “fiction was fertile ground in which to produce the ideal of the companionate marriage, dealing as it so often did with the period of courtship and ending with the desired marriage, with scant regard for details of marriage settlements, every confidence in the happiness of the loving couple, and little investigation into the practicalities of married life” (96).  What investment does this genre – particularly those novels written by women – have in the ideological concealment of the woman’s transition into marriage?

 

Skinner then claims that Betsy Thoughtless is the exception:  “But nowhere are the political bones of eighteenth-century marriage laid so bare as they are in Eliza Haywood’s The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless” (96).  With Betsy’s marriage to Munden, “the novel is transformed from one of courtship to one concerned with aspects of eighteenth-century married life rarely depicted in such detail” (97).

 

How does the novel depict a woman’s position in marriage?  What role do her “friends” play in her survival?  What role does the law play?  What role – perhaps centrally – does money play?  And finally, in what ways are these problems anticipated or not in the first half of the novel – the courtship plot(s)?

 

More controversially, Skinner asserts that the ending of Betsy Thoughtless overturns the social criticism of the Munden plot: “The ending retreats from the legal and economic analysis of marriage into the conventional treatment of marriage as ending, its obvious felicities needing no elaboration” (99).  To what extent do you agree with this assessment?

 

Alternatively, how is the patriarchal system of protection represented in the novel overall?  For example, what role do Betsy’s brothers play in securing her marriage to Munden and why?  What does it take for Betsy’s brothers to eventually take care of her?  How does the story of Thomas Thoughtless illustrate a crucial difference between the sexual conduct of a man and that of a woman?

 

Examine the circulation of the French mistress in the novel.  What role does she play in Betsy’s story?  Why is the “History of Mademoiselle Roquelair” given such prominence (p. 571)?  How does her story underscore cultural as well as sexual differences in the treatment of women?

 

Betsy reflects:  “Neither divine, nor human laws… nor any of those obligations by which I have hitherto looked upon myself as bound, can now compel me any longer to endure the cold neglects, the insults, the tyranny, of this most ungrateful, -- most perfidious man.  – I have discharged the duties of my station; I have fully proved I know how to be a good wife, if he had known how to be even a tolerable husband:  wherefore then should I hesitate to take the opportunity, which this last act of baseness gives me, of easing myself of that heavy yoke I have laboured under for so many cruel months?” (590).

 

Examine the representation of divorce in this novel.  What proceedings take place and why?  What is at stake for the married couple?  How is it ultimately resolved and what are the implications for the fiction?

 

Note the discussion of other potentially scandalous topics in the novel – the mention of which becomes less and less proper in the novels of sentiment and domesticity of the later half of the century and throughout the nineteenth:  murder, rape, law suits, pregnancy and abortion.

 

Discuss the development of the prominent eighteenth-century theme that posits virtue in the country and vice in the city.  Note Betsy’s anti-pastoral during courtship with Trueworth (p. 225) and her reflections in the garden (Edenic?) prior to meeting Trueworth again (606).

 

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Skinner’s article demonstrates how the notion of civic virtue, ie. Citizenship, was strictly a male preserve in the eighteenth century, but with the notion of “republican motherhood,” women earned a place in the rhetoric of citizenship.  What is the role of women in republican motherhood, and to what extent is such a possibility envisioned in Betsy Thoughtless?  [Note:  this examination will serve as a point of comparison with later novels.]

 

Skinner, following John P. Zomchick, posits a direct relationship between women’s rights (as a citizen) and economic agency:  The problematic relation of women to both rights and economic agency suggests the difficulties that may lie in attempting to conceive them as ‘subjects’, as autonomous individuals, in this way and points to the close relationship between the legal status of women in the eighteenth century and their civic status” (103). This postulate resonates with Paula Backscheider’s claim that a writer’s agency (which literary history asserts) is tied to canonicity.  How does agency for the eighteenth-century female writer differ from or relate to economic agency in the era, and does this play a role in achieving the right to be taught?  Is there equality? 

 

On a related note, Ros Ballaster concludes that Betsy Thoughtless exposes the “powerlessness” of women within a culture that is idealizing feminine domesticity.  Like Skinner she reads a theme of closure and silencing for the female subject.  “Female masterly lies not in being the object of courtship, but in the act of representation itself, the act of narration which is foregrounded as the only place for the imitation of masculine mastery without personal cost for women” (210).  To what extent do you agree that it is Eliza Haywood, and not Mrs. Munden, who exercises authority or power?