Eliza Haywood Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Eliza Haywood 1693?–1756

(Also Heywood, also wrote under the pseudonym of Exploralibus) English novelist, dramatist, essayist, and poet.

Haywood's career spanned a transitional period in the history of the English novel. Her works reflect broad changes in the popular novel in the eighteenth century: from the early model of the fanciful French romance to more realistic novels featuring characters drawn from different social classes. She also produced several periodicals, including The Female Spectator, which prescribed conduct, manners, and morals to her readers.

Biographical Information

Little is known about Haywood's early life. She was probably born in London, and she married in 1710. Few details of her marriage are known, and between 1715 and 1720 she separated from her husband. She worked as an actress in Dublin, Ireland, and in London, where she published her enormously successful first novel, Love in Excess; or, The Fatal Enquiry in three volumes in 1719 and 1720. She also wrote dramas early in her career, but they were less successful, and she focused on novel-writing as a means of supporting herself. Her first works were romantic novels focusing on the travails of high-born ladies seeking to retain their virtue, modeled after the works of Aphra Behn. Haywood was a popular and widely read author for many years, and most of her novels went into several editions during her lifetime. Although her popularity with the reading public declined toward the end of her life, she continued to write and publish until close to her death in 1756.

Major Works

In the 1720s the "secret histories" of novelist Mary Manley became popular. These works retold or invented scandalous episodes in the lives of readily identifiable well-known people, thinly disguised behind invented names or foreign. Haywood adopted the form and produced Memoirs of a Certain Island Adjacent to Utopia and The Secret History of the Present Intrigues of the Court of Caramania. Her scandalous, thinly veiled satires of prominent social and political figures incurred the wrath of Alexander Pope, who made her one of the most vulgar figures in his Dunciad of 1728. In Pope's satire, Haywood is the prize awarded to the bookseller Edmund Curll after a contest celebrating the coronation of the Kind of Dullness. Pope also attacked Haywood's character by implying that she was the mother of two illegitimate children, although he may have been referring to two of her anonymously published works.

The Dunciad damaged Haywood's personal and professional reputation, and for the next sixteen years she published mostly anonymously, or under various pseudonyms. She also renewed her interest and involvement in the theater, producing a play, acting, and collaborating with other playwrights. In the last two decades of her life she established a new reputation for herself. The reading public was rejected the romantic novel in favor of more realistic descriptions of life and character. Heywood wrote a series of moralistic studies of love among the middle and upper classes. Foremost among these is The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, which most critics have called her best work of fiction. Considered by some to be the first novel about domestic life written in English, it was an early attempt to use the processes of daily life as material for fiction. Betsy Thoughtless contained Haywood's best-developed characters and most realistic setting, and it stands as a minor but not inconsequential example of the kind of realistic fiction being produced by Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson.

During this period, Haywood's most didactic writing was done in short-lived periodicals, including The Female Spectator, the first magazine by a woman for a woman. Written entirely by Haywood, the essays in The Female Spectator dealt with such topics as love, marriage, female education, morals, manners, literature, philosophy, and the arts. The magazine, which appeared for two years, was an innovative attempt to raise the intellectual level of popular reading material for women.

Critical Reception

Haywood's chief skill as a novelist, in the opinion of one contemporary critic, was her power to elicit an emotional response from her readers. She is noted by modern critics for introducing character studies into her works at a time when detailed exploration of character was rarely seen in popular fiction. Haywood's innovative use of middle-class characters and events from everyday life are credited with contributing to the movement toward realism in the novel genre. Haywood's novels are often overplotted, contain stock characters and incidents, and employ extravagant language. Nevertheless, her works provided enjoyment and entertainment for the readers of her day, and they give modern readers and scholars unique insight into eighteenth-century women's lives, public taste, and the development of prose fiction.