Mary Davys Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.