“Haywood and the Reading Public: Reclaiming Femininity and Didactic Expression from Fantomina to Besty Thoughtless” by Hanna Warsame

As “the most prolific British woman writer of the eighteenth century,” Eliza Haywood was forced to examine her authorial intent in the face of an onslaught of personal attacks by her male contemporaries (Saxton 2, 8). Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1728) remains the most well-known public critique of Haywood’s writing – “shameless,” “scandalous,” and “licentious” were among the politically loaded terms he used to categorize her work (Saxton 7). Scholars have noted the clash of values at the heart of this critique: Pope’s Scriblerian sympathies were in direct opposition to the “secret histories” found in women’s writing such as that of Haywood’s (Brewer 220); by extension, writing that emphasized and even praised women’s expression of sexuality, feeling, and emotions consequently lacked honour, value, and respect. Pope was not alone in his critique of the author: Henry Fielding and Richard Savage both similarly attacked her status as a woman writer (i.e., “Mrs. Novel”) as well as the “scandalous” content of her fiction (7-8).

Gender no doubt had its role to play in these critiques: eighteenth-century society already contained pre-established biases against women’s writing, associating it with “inappropriate public display, sexual transgression,” and, most strikingly, “the production of inferior texts,” (Saxton 8). As a result of Pope’s critiques, Haywood’s readership was divided into two groups: “those who admired her talent as a chronicler [of] sensations of love, and those who sided with the Scriblerians [in] seeing her as the epitome of scandal-writing,” (Brewer 223). Two questions consequently arise from these events: Firstly, how did Haywood’s relationship with the English reading public change after the 1730s, and secondly, how did the content of Haywood’s writing and creative production become transformed as a result of these critiques through the printing press?

Despite the attacks on her reputation, Haywood’s creative genius allowed her to remain true to her status as the “Great Arbitress of Passion” throughout her career (Brewer 225), with the rising number of novels and periodicals “attributed” to her name remaining a topic of debate within Haywood scholarship today (Orr 335, Brewer 218-19). I argue that the historical development (rather than the decline) of Haywood’s didacticism rests on two propositions: firstly, that traditional readings of Haywood’s narratorial shift from youthful “amatory” to mature “domestic” fiction are false; and secondly, that the political nature of Haywood’s writings increased in transparency in the years leading up to the French Revolution.

The centre of focus for my analysis of Haywood’s didacticism therefore comprises of the “socialized conditions” (McGann 120) as well as the political and economic contexts (King 26-7) in which her fiction was being published. With regards to gender norms, a comparison of Haywood’s early works, such as Fantomina (1725), with her later publications, such as The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751), demonstrate Haywood’s desire to not only claim but also reclaim femininity and personal identity through the course of her career. 

Haywood’s early novel Fantomina demonstrates values as anti-Scriblerian as it gets. As a  “masquerade novel,” the identity of Fantomina is hidden throughout multiplicities of narrative masks. I argue that Haywood does not truly discard with this masking technique in her later works, such as Betsy Thoughtless, a narrative in which young women are still forced to perform their virtue to maintain public respectability in order to “survive” within the social constraints of eighteenth-century England. This makes Haywood’s supposed shift to “domestic” fiction no less “amatory,” if indeed the “scandalous” nature of her writing remains a fundamental component of her later texts.

Haywood’s fiction is therefore necessarily a medium through which she can transparently communicate to the reading public expressions of gender, sexuality, and politics; even moreso in the latter half of her career.


Author Biography

Hanna Warsame is an MA student in English at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on Wael Hallaq’s revision of Edward Said’s Orientalism, as it applies to Romantic literature of the long eighteenth-century. She is the recipient of a SSHRC MA award for her research proposal in British Romanticism and the Ottoman Empire.


Works Cited

Brewer, David. “‘Haywood,’ Secret History, and the Politics of Attribution.” The Passionate Fictions of Eliza Haywood, edited by Kirsten T. Saxton and Rebecca P. Bocchicchio, University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

King, Kathryn R. A Political Biography of Eliza Haywood. Routledge, 2012.

McGann, Jerome J. The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory. Oxford UP, 1985.

Orr, Leah. “The Basis for Attribution in the Canon of Eliza Haywood.” The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, vol. 12, no. 4, 2011, pp. 335-375.

Powell, Manushag N. “Eliza Haywood, Periodicalist(?)” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 4, 2014, pp. 163-186.

Saxton, Kirsten T, and Rebecca P. Bocchicchio, editors. The Passionate Fictions of Eliza Haywood. University Press of Kentucky, 2000.