What did she do with those beds?

Thomas Keymer

  • A Political Biography of Eliza Haywood by Kathryn King
    Pickering and Chatto, 288 pp, £60.00, June 2012, ISBN 978 1 85196 917 3

Alexander Pope’s slur has loomed for centuries over the reputation of Eliza Haywood, the most prominent female author of her day. In The Dunciad, she is the prize of a pissing competition held between talentless hacks:

  Who best can send on high
The salient spout, far-streaming to the sky;
His be yon Juno of majestic size,
With cow-like udders, and with ox-like eyes.

As Kathryn King observes in the first full-length biography of Haywood for almost a hundred years, these lines are straight out of ‘the well-stocked cabinet of misogynistic satiric conventions’, and they needn’t depict anyone in particular. Edmund Curll, the literary pirate and pornographer, assumed that Pope had an obscure imitator of Haywood called Mary Hearne in mind. But there was no mistaking Pope’s jeering vision of ‘Eliza’ a few lines earlier: ‘Two babes of love close clinging to her waste’. Here Haywood’s monstrous, bovine fecundity has a double aspect. Flaunting the babes, she’s scandalously prolific not only as an author of worthless amatory novels (the implication is waste paper) but also as a breeder of fatherless brats. ‘She had 2 Bastards, others say Three,’ Pope adds in a manuscript comment that he may have had from the struggling poet and hellraiser Richard Savage. In typically tantalising style, Curll alleged in print that the ill-matched babes were ‘Offspring of a Poet and a Bookseller’.

The first task for any Haywood biographer, plainly, is to clear away the flak and innuendo. Some years ago, King discredited the long-held assumption that Savage himself was one of the unnamed fathers. She’s just as persuasive now in throwing doubt on the other prime suspect, a ‘would-be wit and self-serving layabout’ called William Hatchett – which leaves Hatchett with a single surviving claim to fame, as author of A Rehearsal of Kings … with the Unheard of Catastrophe of Macplunderkan, King of Roguomania, one of the anti-ministerial farces that provoked the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737. Haywood played the role of ‘First Queen Incog’ in this rough and tumble burlesque, and according to her first biographer David Baker, who wrote eight years after her death in 1756, she ‘appears to have had a relation of close literary intimacy’ with the feckless Hatchett. But that’s as warm as the paternity trail ever gets. It doesn’t help, as Baker also recorded, that Haywood took steps to have posthumous information about herself suppressed ‘from a Supposition of some improper Liberties being taken with her Character after Death by the Intermixture of Truth and Falshood with her History’. Only four of her letters survive, all of them pitches to prospective patrons, and from these Haywood emerges as a dutiful widow supporting two children from her marriage. The one sure thing about this marriage is that it did not involve another dubious bit-player in earlier scholarship on Haywood, the Rev. Valentine Haywood, a hapless clergyman whose wife Elizabeth absconded in 1721, prompting him to advertise for leads in a London newspaper. This Elizabeth, it seems, was someone else.

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