Pioneering English novelist Eliza Haywood (c. 1693–1756) was also a successful playwright and journalist. Though little is known about her early life, and her works were usually published anonymously, Haywood was an important figure in the history of British women's literature.
Her earliest works were immensely popular predecessors of the modern romance novel, but she also wrote satirical plays and novels whose themes foreshadowed a later generation of English literary lionesses, among them Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. "Haywood's gifts as a storyteller held the attention of her audience," declared Jerry C. Beasley in a profile in the Dictionary of Literary Biography , "and some of her books were among the most successful and controversial (if not the most admired) works to be published during the first half of the eighteenth century."
Literary scholars have provided Haywood with a birth-date of 1693, but verifiable details about her background and family history have been lost to time. It was once surmised that she was born Eliza Fowler in London, where her father was a shopkeeper; later scholarship claims she was a product of Shropshire, a West Midlands county. Her surname was once thought to be the result of her marriage to a minister named Valentine Haywood, but subsequent investigations have cast doubt on this. What is known about Haywood, in her pre-literary career, was that she achieved some renown as a stage actor in Dublin, Ireland. The first notice of her name comes in a listing for The History of Timon of Athens the Man-Hater , a play staged at the Smock Alley Theatre in 1715.
In 1717 Haywood appeared in London and became a regular performer in plays at Lincoln's Inn Fields. This was a large park where a theater stood for nearly 200 years, and it was known that one of the venue's most famous producers and directors, John Rich (1682–1761), asked Haywood to do a rewrite on a play titled The Fair Captive . Two years later, part one of her first novel, Love in Excess; or The Fatal Enquiry , appeared, and that segment and the subsequent installments made her famous. The racy tale became one of the earliest examples of the romance novel in the history of printed English literature. Called "amatory fiction," these first bodice-rippers were written primarily for women readers, largely by female authors like Haywood. The two other leading doyennes of the genre, Aphra Behn (1640–1689) and Delarivier Manley (c. 1663–1724), were linked with Haywood's name and deemed "The Fair Triumvirate of Wit" at the height of their fame. Most amatory fiction relied on a formula that involved a naïve young woman deceived by a handsome rogue; genuine romantic love usually brought only misery to the heroine, and adulterous relationships were commonplace plot contrivances.
Love in Excess was a popular work for more than a decade, and was reprinted six times. Its protagonist is the Count D'Elmont, who marries an independent-minded woman named Alovisa; she suspects him of adultery with Melliora, a young woman over whom he serves as guardian. The Count kills his wife by accident, and flees to Italy; Melliora, meanwhile, hides in a convent, ashamed of her unwitting part in the scandal. But the Count pines for her, and through a series of adventures truly reforms himself and is reunited with her. The novel is "energetically written, full of incident, warm with the language of passion, and unmistakably—but never overtly—erotic," noted Beasley.
Haywood wrote several novels in this genre during the 1720s. One of the most intriguing of this period was Fantomina; or Love in a Maze , published in 1724. The story revolves around a heroine's repeated seductions of the same man, which she achieves by disguising herself as a servant girl, widow, and other types in order to lure the man called Beauplaisir. "As Fantomina changes character, she modifies her behaviors to align with his expectations," explained Emily Hodgson Anderson in Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation . "The result of her actions is that while Beauplaisir seduces the same body night after night, he is convinced that he has conquered four different women."
In 1732 Rich, Haywood's former mentor, opened his theater at Covent Garden, which became the first to win the designation "Theatre Royal" from the king. This and Drury Lane, which primarily staged operas at the time, were the "official" theaters, while The Haymarket, which opened in 1720, became their somewhat illegitimate cousin. The novelist Henry Fielding (1707–1754), best known for his novel Tom Jones , began staging a series of satires at the Haymarket that became known as opposition plays, and Haywood joined him there. The ribald comedies were highly critical of the government of Robert Walpole (1676–1745), considered Britain's first prime minister.
Haywood's contributions to these political plays included Frederick, Duke of Brunswick-Lunenburgh , staged in March of 1729. This German royal, the son of King George II (1683–1760), had become the center of opposition to Walpole's government. By 1733, however, Frederick's mother, Queen Caroline (1683–1737), had helped heal the rift between George II and his father, George I (1660–1727), a dispute related to Walpole's power and influence. When the tensions cooled, Haywood seemed to switch allegiances, and her best-known work for the stage, The Opera of Operas , demonstrated this in clear terms. It was a musical adaptation of Fielding's Tragedy of Tragedies , but it had a scene that depicted the reconciliation between the two Georges.
The Licensing Act of 1737 virtually stopped all production of new plays in England. The law was enacted at the urging of Walpole, who was irate over the continuing political satires that came from Fielding's pen. The far-reaching censorship law gave the Lord Chamberlain the right of approval over any new dramas, and Haywood quit writing for the stage at this point. She is believed to have run her own bookshop in the area of Covent Garden in the early 1740s, and she found profit by writing a series of manuals on social behavior that were known as conduct books, such as A Present for a Servant-Maid , which appeared in 1743. A year later, Haywood started publishing her own magazine, which she called The Female Spectator , a reference to the highly successful Spectator , which had been launched in 1711. Via four separate pseudonyms, she offered advice on marriage, the running of a household, and education for women. Historians of journalism consider it to be the first magazine for women actually written by a woman, but it folded after three years, as did The Parrot , a similar venture she launched in 1746.
Later in the 1740s Haywood ran into trouble with the law when a pamphlet titled "A Letter from H—G—g, Esq…. To a Particular Friend" was attributed to her. It was a romantic comedy with some political overtones, giving a fictional account of the travels of Charles Edward Stuart (1720–1788), known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie." Stuart, a descendant of the last Jacobite king of England, James II (1633–1701), was a claimant to the British throne and attempted to raise an army in Scotland to seize the throne for himself in 1745. It was this period that "A Letter" chronicled, and the pamphlet was left in a number of London bookshops. The owners all claimed that they had discovered the piles of pamphlets in their shops and did not know who had delivered them, but authorities linked the work to Haywood, and she was arrested and charged with seditious libel. She, in turn, claimed that the pamphlets had been left at her home, and she sent her maid out to distribute them. The prosecutors also believed that William Hatchett, Haywood's common-law husband, was involved, but neither were ever prosecuted.
Hatchett was a pamphleteer, translator, and playwright whom Haywood probably met in the late 1720s. He was involved in the Haymarket Theatre plays, but his best known work was an erotic poem, The Chinese Tale . Prior to Hatchett, Haywood was likely involved with Richard Savage (c. 1697–1743), an English poet with whom she had the first of her two children. Savage claimed to be the illegitimate heir of a wealthy and titled family. He murdered a man but evaded a death sentence, was later jailed for debt, and died in prison. He also produced several notable works, including The Wanderer , and was a longtime friend of the famous English poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744). Their friendship may have been linked to a notorious attack that Pope unleashed on Haywood in his 1728 work The Dunciad . This was an epic poem that honored a goddess Pope called Dulness, and it poked fun at many popular writers of the day. The passage concerning Haywood called her the "phantom poetess"—an illusion to Fantomina —and dubbed her a "Juno of majestic size, With cow-like-udders, and with ox-like eyes."
Criticism was not new to Haywood, and she seemed impervious to it and determined to support herself and her two children by her writing, a difficult feat in any century. She once wrote that "it would be impossible to recount the numerous Difficulties a Woman has to struggle through in her Approach to Fame," according to George F. Whicher's The Life and Romances of Mrs. Eliza Haywood . "If her Writings are considerable enough to make any Figure in the World, Envy pursues her with unweary'd Diligence; and if, on the contrary, she only writes what is forgot, as soon as read, Contempt is all the Reward."
One of Haywood's more enduring works was The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless , published in 1751. Beasley called it "Haywood's longest, most carefully crafted, and most enduringly popular work of fiction…. Its cleverly conceived protagonist is effectively portrayed as a type of the good-hearted but naive and careless girl, and the story centers on her often ridiculous and embarrassing experiences as she makes her entrance into society." The heroine of the title consistently repels her overeager seducers but falls in love with man named Trueworth. Circumstances compel them to marry others, however, and Betsy's union is an unhappy one, for her new husband "considered a wife no more than an upper servant, bound to study and obey, in all things, the will of him to whom she had given her hand," the novel reads, according to Anderson's essay. Years later, Betsy flees the marriage and happily reunites with a widowed Trueworth, and their marriage is depicted as one undertaken by two wise, mature partners ideally suited to one another.
In 1753 Haywood's next novel, Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy , was published. This was her second attempt at a novel with a dual narrative (the first had been The Fortunate Foundlings in 1744), and these novels, along with the aforementioned Betsy Thoughtless , foreshadowed the works of a later generation of English women writers. Both Jane Austen (1775–1817) and Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) wrote novels focusing on the domestic world to which most women of that generation were restricted. The mid-twentieth century revival of interest in Austen's novels, along with interest in the British women writers who preceded her, led to a rediscovery of Haywood's works, which were largely forgotten after her death on February 25, 1756, in London.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 39: British Novelists, 1660–1800 , edited by Martin C. Battestin, Gale, 1985.
Whicher, George F., The Life and Romances of Mrs. Eliza Haywood , Columbia University Press, 1915.
Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation , Spring 2005.
Modern Philology , February 2003.
Notes and Queries , June 1997.
Papers on Language & Literature , Summer 2002.