Criticism in excess

Wandering through various studies of the “pre-novel” novel, I can’t help but be struck by the viciousness of much of the criticism of Eliza Haywood in the years that followed her success during the 1720s; and while, in that respect, Alexander Pope’s Dunciad is really in a class [sic.] of its own, he certainly wasn’t alone in his attack on Haywood. Part of it, I suppose, was just bad timing: the world had changed a great deal in the fifty years between when Aphra Behn was wielding her pen and when Haywood moved from drama to fiction, particularly in terms of restrictions on female action and the perception of what constituted “acceptable” female behaviour. Still – I can’t help feeling that some of the resentment against Haywood sprang from her simple refusal to give the readers of her amatory fiction anywhere to hide. Unlike Behn and Delariviere Manley, she didn’t claim to be fighting for king and party; she didn’t pretend her stories had an uplifting moral; she didn’t even resort to using her novels to criticise novels. So if you were reading one of her novels, it could be for no other reason than that you wanted to.

Haywood’s first novel, the aptly named Love In Excess, was a spectacular success; far too spectacular for it to have only been read by “the vulgar”, “the mob”, “women”, or any other designated lower lifeform. Love In Excess follows the evolution of attitude towards love and sex of its central character, the Count D’Elmont. In the first volume, D’Elmont falls in lust with the lovely Melliora, who in turn struggles to hide her feelings for him. In one telling passage, Melliora publicly denounces amatory writing – writing like Haywood’s – and the effect it has on the morals of its readers, only to be subsequently caught by D’Elmont with a volume of Ovid’s Epistles. The embarrassed young woman reacts just as many of us would, producing a string of excuses – that she picked it up by chance, that she sees the writing for what it is and so is unaffected, that unlike most readers, she thinks about the consequences of passion, not merely the fact of it – that only serve to underscore the fact that she has no excuse.

There is a suggestion in this that Haywood was very well aware of the risk she ran in leaving her readers, like Melliora, with no real excuse. It does rather make you wonder just how many of her most public and most vocal critics had copies of her novels hidden away in their closets…

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