Mary Davys Essay - Critical Essays

Davys, Mary


Mary Davys 1674-1732

English novelist, dramatist, and poet.

Mary Davys was one of the first English novelists to be concerned with bringing lifelike detail and realistic character psychology to the novel. She rejected both the improbabilities of the French-style romance and the episodic nature of the picaresque novel. Drawing on her knowledge of dramatic structures to build narrative, and finding subject matter in the private world of women's lives, Davys pushed the novel in new directions. Like Henry Fielding, she dealt predominantly with English rural life; like Richardson, she experimented with the epistolary form and helped establish the unmarried, independent heroine as a prominent figure in eighteenth-century fiction. Davys also took important first steps in articulating a theory of the novel when few writers yet accepted the genre as a serious form of literature.

Biographical Information

The details of Davys' life are scant. She was born in Dublin and was married at 20 to the Reverend Peter Davys, a respected schoolmaster and college friend of Jonathan Swift. Apparently happy in her marriage, Davys was widowed in 1698, after just four years. In 1700 she went to England, later settling in York and struggling to make a living. She received some occasional, if grudging financial assistance from Swift during these early years and turned to writing to support herself. Her earliest published works were not profitable, and women writing was seen as a morally questionable activity, an opinion she challenged in one of her prefaces. But in 1716 her play The Northern Heiress was produced in London to some success. The proceeds enabled her to move to Cambridge where she established a coffee-house and continued her literary endeavors with the encouragement of local students and intellectuals. With their support, her next novel, The Reform'd Coquet was sold by subscription in 1724. Notable subscribers included Alexander Pope and John Gay. The novel was fairly well received and enabled her to bring out an edition of collected works the following year. Her last novel, The Accomplish'd Rake, considered her finest, was published in 1727. She continued to run the coffeehouse until her death in 1732.

Major Works

While Davys is generally regarded as a minor novelist, her work was influential in the development of the novel. Many of the genres and techniques Davys employed in her fiction—the epistolary novel, fictionalized autobiography, comedy, and dramatic structure—influenced her contemporaries and helped advance novelistic forms beyond the picaresque and the romance. Her best novels, The Reform'd Coquet (1724) and The Accomplish'd Rake (1727), treat the subject of moral development and reform for the heroine and hero respectively. More carefully written, The Accomplish'd Rake has been cited as a rare example of a mature English novel from the period. With a skillful combination of realism, light comedy, subtle didacticism, and narrative complexity, the novel provides a psychologically compelling portrait of the stock figure of the rake. The Reform'd Coquet uses similar techniques and demonstrated a sophistication and skill at characterization that were missing in her earlier efforts. In a then unusually effective example of character development, the heroine Amoranda grows and changes through the action of the novel. Davys effectively blended didactic purpose and moral themes with comic elements and characters borrowed from the stage. Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady (1725) a love story in letters, is also regarded as an important work, a sophisticated epistolary novel that is a precursor to Richardson. The Fugitive (1705) a loosely autobiographical novel based on her arrival and early travels in England, sheds light on the lives of eighteenth-century women and marks a stage in the era's developing notions about fact and fiction. While many novelists presented their stories as strictly factual, Davys explicitly acknowledged and highlighted authorial adaptations of real experience. In the prefaces to her work, Davys made a final contribution to literary history with her short but astute comments on the theory of the novel which called for realism and outlined a unified structure for the genre.

Critical Reception

Davys achieved only modest recognition in her own day and, like other women writers of the period, was attacked and criticized for her work, and for writing at all. Shortly after her death, her work went out of print until the middle of the twentieth century. With Renewed critical interest in the origins of the novel, and later, attention to the development of women's literary traditions, Davys work came to have a new importance. For some critics, Davys' most important contribution to English literature is to be found in the critical preface she wrote for her collected works. In this essay she argued that the novel must be grounded in real life. Davys thus became the first writer of the eighteenth-century to establish a realistic theory for fiction. Moreover, she outlined a basic structure for the novel and determined the properties of plot development. Her novelistic works make significant contributions to an understanding of the genre and are valuable for their insights into gender relations and the lives and thoughts of eighteenth-century women. She remains an interesting figure in the history of English literature—the first to theorize the novel, to use realistic comedy, to emphasize character and setting over plot, and the first to draw on English rural settings. Her work is generally held as an influence on Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson and later novelists.

Principal Works

*The Amours of Alcippus and Lucippe (novel) 1704

The Fugitive (novel) 1705

The Northern Heiress; or the Humours of York (drama) 1716

The Reform'd Coquet; or the Memoirs of Amoranda (novel) 1724

§The Cousins (novel) 1725

‡Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady (novel) 1725

‡The Self-Rival (drama) 1725

The Works of Mrs. Mary Davys 2 vols. (novels, drama, poetry) 1725 The Accomplish'd Rake; or Modern Fine Gentleman. Being an Exact Description of a person of Distinction (novel) 1727

* This work was revised and published as The Lady's Tale in the Works in 1725.

† This work was revised and published as The Merry Wanderer in the Works in 1725.

‡ These titles were first published in the Works in 1725.

§ This work was revised as The False Friend; or the Treacherous Portugueze and published in 1732.


Mary Davys (essay date 1725)

SOURCE: Preface to The Works of Mrs. Davys, 1725, in Eighteenth-Century British Novelists on the Novel, edited by George L. Barnett, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968, pp. 38-39.

[In the following essay, Davys comments on the methods and motivations of her own work.]

'Tis now for some time that those sort of writings called novels have been a great deal out of use and fashion and that the ladies (for whose service they were chiefly designed) have been taken up with amusements of more use and improvement—I mean History and Travels, with which the relation of probable feigned stories can by no means stand in competition. However, these are not without their advantages, and those considerable, too. And it is very likely the chief reason that put them out of vogue was the world's being surfeited with such as were either flat and insipid, or offensive to modesty and good manners, or that they found them only a circle or repetition of the same adventures.

The French, who have dealt most in this kind, have, I think, chiefly contributed to put them out of countenance, who, tho' upon all occasions and where they pretend to write true History, give themselves the utmost liberty of feigning, are too tedious and dry in their matter, and so impertinent in their harangues that the readers can hardly keep themselves awake over them. I have read a French Novel of four hundred pages without the least variety of events, or any issue in the conclusion either to please or amuse the reader, yet all fiction and romance, and the commonest matters of fact, truly told, would have been much more entertaining.

Now this is to lose the only advantage of invention, which gives us room to order accidents better than Fortune will be at the pains to do, so to work upon the reader's passions, sometimes keep him in suspense between fear and hope, and at last send him satisfied away. This I have endeavoured to do in the following sheets. I have in every Novel proposed one entire scheme or plot, and the other adventures are only incidental or collateral to it, which is the great rule prescribed by the criticks, not only in tragedy and other heroick poems but in comedy too. The...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Robert A. Day (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Introduction to Mary Davys: Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady, Augustan Reprint Society, Vol. 54, Clark Memorial Library, University of California, 1955, pp. i-iv.

[In the following excerpt, Day discusses Davys's Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady in the context of early epistolary fiction.]

Although students of Restoration and Augustan literature are aware that letters were used as a fictional device before Richardson's Pamela appeared, the minor fiction of these periods has been little studied. The authors of these "novels" were mostly unknown and industrious hacks; the books are now excessively rare, found only in the...

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George L. Barnett (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Mary Davys" in Eighteenth-Century British Novelists on the Novel, edited by George L. Barnett, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968, pp. 37-38.

[In the following essay, Barnett offers a brief introduction to Davys and the "Preface" to her Works.]

As The Works of Mrs. Davys, published in two volumes in 1725, noted in the subtitle—Consisting of Plays, Novels, Poems, and Familiar Letters—this author's literary efforts attained variety. But fame, in spite of her diverse efforts, never came, and today she is forgotten. Still, the Preface to her Works "is valuable as one of the few detailed statements by a practicing novelist of the...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Margaret Anne Doody (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: A Natural Passion: A Study of the Novels of Samuel Richardson, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 17-22, 132-35.

[In the following excerpt from a study of Samuel Richardson, Doody discusses Davys and other women novelists of his day.]

After writers like Mrs. Aphra Behn and Mrs. Manley had shown that it was possible for women to write and be read, even to earn money by the exercise of the pen, a host of minor writers had taken up the love novel or novella. The teens and twenties of the century show a proliferation of such works by authors with whose names the veriest dunce of a sorcerer's apprentice would not attempt to conjure: Mrs. Penelope Aubin, Mrs. Jane...

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Jean B. Kern (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Mary Davys as a Novelist of Manners" in Essays in Literature, Vol. X, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 29-38.

[In the following essay, Kern analyzes Davys as a novelist of manners in and against the tradition of women's romance writing.]

Mrs. Mary Davys (1674-1732), playwright, novelist, and occasional poet, has not fared well from biographers, literary historians, or critics. The DNB is inaccurate about her dates; she is not mentioned in the Oxford Companion to English Literature although her contemporaries Mary Manley and Elizabeth Haywood are; Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel does not even include her name, but his omission is more...

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Nancy Cotton (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Minor Women Playwrights 1670-1750," in Women Playwrights in England c. 1363-1750, Bucknell University Press; Associated University Presses, 1980, pp. 156-60.

[In the following excerpt, Cotton discusses Mary Davys' work as a dramatist.]

Mary Davys (1674-1732),7 born in Dublin, was happily married to the Reverend Peter Davys, headmaster of the free school at St. Patrick's and a friend of Swift. When he died young in 1698, she was widowed and without means at the age of twenty-four. She went to England and tried writing. In 1700 she made an unsuccessful "first Flight to the Muses" (Works, 1:v) with a novel, The Lady's Tale, for which she...

(The entire section is 1206 words.)

Jane Spencer (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Reformed Heroines: The Didactic Tradition: The Lover-Mentor: Mary Davys's The Reform'd Coquet (1724)," in The Rise of the Woman Novelist from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp. 145-7.

[In the following excerpt from a study of the development of women's novels in English, Spencer analyzes the portrayal of a reformed heroine in Davys' The Reform'd Coquet.]

The Lover-mentor: Mary Davys's The Reform'd Coquet (1724)

We might expect that a novel tradition based on the woman writer's role as moral guide to her sex would present stories of a heroine's reform through the advice of a more experienced woman; and in fact,...

(The entire section is 1161 words.)

Mary Anne Schofield (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Mary Davys," in Masking and Unmasking the Female Mind: Disguising Romances in Feminine Fiction, 1713-1799, University of Delaware Press; Associated University Presses, 1990, pp. 79-90.

[In the following excerpt from a study of women's romance writing, Schofield analyzes Davys' response to the romance tradition, arguing that her work becomes more conservative over the course of her career.]

Mary Davys (1674-1732) more than any of the other pre-1740 novelists is concerned with examining the nature of fiction. Specifically, she is concerned with the viability of the romance genre, and she carefully scrutinizes its present state to ascertain how much she can...

(The entire section is 5397 words.)

Natasha Sajé (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "'The Assurance to Write, the Vanity of Expecting to be Read': Deception and Reform in Mary Davys's The Reform'd Coquet." in Essays in Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 165-77.

[In the following essay, Saje analyzes the theme of the "coquette" and the historical dilemma of the marriageable female in Davys' life and novel, The Reform'd Coquet.]

Since its coinage in mid seventeenth-century France, "coquette" labels a woman who gains power over others by manipulative verbal and body language, a skill referred to as her "art."1 Etymologically, the word "coquette" comes from "cock," a male animal which controls its hens and is known...

(The entire section is 6472 words.)

Further Reading

Ballaster, Ros. Seductive Forms: Women's Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 225 p.

Critical study of the role of female reader and writers in the development of the eighteenth-century novel.

Beasley, Jerry C. Novels of the 1740s. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982, 238 p.

Detailed study of the novel form in the mid eighteenth-century, with several references to Davys.

Davis, Lennard J. Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983, 245 p.

Comprehensive analysis of the development of the English novel. Scattered references...

(The entire section is 403 words.)