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.

More important than the biographical red herrings are the enduring assumptions that flow from Pope’s infamous lines. Haywood’s erotic novels of the 1720s were noisily disparaged by canonical pioneers of the genre such as Samuel Richardson (though Richardson neglected to add that in his professional, book-trade capacity he had printed some of her steamiest works, including the bestselling Love in Excess). The quiet absorption by later 18th-century novelists of Haywood’s trademark style and plots is now well known, but it went unacknowledged at the time, and if Haywood appeared at all in subsequent literary history it was as a foil to the realist, morally serious novel, a relic of disreputable romance. Some of the most influential criticism of the postwar era either writes her off as Grub Street trash or shunts her to the margins: just three passing mentions in Ian Watt’s standard study The Rise of the Novel (1957), while the title of A.D. McKillop’s The Early Masters of English Fiction (1956) speaks for itself. It was not until the rise of feminist scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s that Haywood’s importance was established, and even then Pope’s stereotype survived, though recast in approving tones. All the slanders compressed into his lines were suddenly virtues: the sexual promiscuity, the hack prolixity, the gender trouble (both cow and ox), her matriarchal enormity as the Grub Street Juno. Haywood became exemplary. Elements of subversion, defiance and rebellion, whether in the life, on the page, or simply as features of an unexamined reputation, were now grist to the critical mill. The political corollary was a view of Haywood as unrelentingly in opposition throughout her career.

There are moments when King’s interrogation of the inherited picture tips into over-reaction. After all, Haywood wrote copious quantities of soft porn, challenged a masculine literary establishment, and once got herself arrested for seditious libel. Readers who yearn for the familiar, scandalous Haywood of old needn’t quite give her up. But King’s version is a far more rounded, or at least more versatile, figure, one for whom scandal was just one among several writerly modes. Two years after her death, her former associate James Ralph wrote The Case of Authors by Profession or Trade, Stated, a landmark treatise about literary property and professional authorship in the post-patronage marketplace. If Haywood is exemplary of anything now, it’s not dashed-off erotica with a life to match, but the strenuous professionalism needed to navigate the shark-infested waters described by Ralph: a world of predatory booksellers, mercenary theatre managers and ruthless political paymasters, with few if any further options for living by the pen.

For all its constraints, this is a world in which victimhood or venality is not a given, and by approaching Haywood as an ‘author by profession’ King wants to take Pope’s squalid, squabbling dunces out of the picture. Instead, she depicts a resourceful, flexible, well-connected woman whose standing and success made her a target. ‘At some conjunctures the image of Haywood the grimy Grub Street hack working solo disappears altogether and one glimpses instead a competent and respected professional pursuing her craft within a network of allies and associates.’

A Political Biography of Eliza Haywood proves, among much else, that there’s no shortage of evidence still to be retrieved from rare book libraries and manuscript archives. If you look at copies of the amatory novels that made Haywood’s name in the 1720s you see that the early editions, spaciously printed on fine paper with rococo printers’ ornaments and stylish Elzevir type, were not disposable trash but high-end productions for fashionable consumers. By comparison, typo-strewn Robinson Crusoe and cramped, crowded Pamela start to look downmarket. But King’s most brilliant recoveries – and this book is full of them – were made on the screen. Before digitisation a few years back, no scholar poring over the Burney Newspaper Collection in the British Library, or scrolling through the eye-watering microfilm reels, had ever paused long enough on the Daily Advertiser for 3 April 1744 to notice the trump card in King’s case for Haywood as genteel professional. We may never know who her parents were, but we now know her taste in soft furnishings:

To be Sold by HAND … The genuine Houshold Goods of Mrs. ELIZA HAYWOOD, Publisher, at her House in the Great Piazza, next Russel-Street, Covent-Garden, viz. a four-post Bedstead, with very neat yellow Camblet Furniture lined with Sattin, a Couch Bedstead with crimson Harrateen Furniture, and several other standing Beds, Feather Beds, Blankets, Quilts, and Counterpanes; Chimney Glasses and Sconces; Chairs, Tables, Chest of Drawers, Card Tables, Pictures, an Eight-Day Clock, Stoves, a Kitchen Range, with useful Kitchen Furniture; two Compters cover’d with green Cloth, very useful for a Milliner. Note, The House to be lett, and enter’d upon immediately.

This is an eloquent document for several reasons. It challenges an established story of decline and struggle that presents Haywood in this phase of her career as running a low-grade pamphlet shop, or even hawking her wares from a kiosk or stall, while writing desperate potboilers for shadowy booksellers. Accounts like this dream up, King claims, ‘a feminist conceptual space that testifies to female exclusion; a sad, bleak, marginal space that literally puts Haywood out on the streets’. Now we know where the real space was – in an imposing four-storey house on the busy corner of Covent Garden Piazza and Russell Street – we can forget about Grub Street garrets and hackney for bread. Eventually, Haywood had to give the house up, but she spent three crucial years living somewhere that looks very upmarket. In the terminology of the day, ‘publisher’ meant distributor (though Haywood did occasionally publish in the modern sense), and the name she gave her centre of operations, ‘Fame’, no longer sounds sarcastic or self-mocking. Today, the nearest blue plaque is a few doors down, where Boswell first ran into Johnson 19 years after Haywood left. But if you’ve ever browsed in the WC2 branch of East, a fashion chain, you’ve stood on the exact spot.

Even so, the disreputable old Haywood can’t be killed off entirely. It’s hard not to wonder about those beds – four-post and couch beds, standing beds, feather beds – in the house of a respectable widow whose two children, though possibly still alive, had by this point disappeared from the historical record. What was Haywood doing with all those beds, or allowing others to do? When Sir John Fielding, the magistrate and half-brother of the novelist, called Covent Garden ‘the great square of Venus’, a place crowded with ‘lewd women enough to fill a mighty colony’, he gave blunt expression to the neighbourhood’s reputation. Thronged by day with elite consumers, transformed by night into red-light squalor, Covent Garden was a notoriously mixed district, a fact visually exploited in the ‘Morning’ plate of Hogarth’s Four Times of Day. King allows the possibility that, among the professions being practised at Fame, the oldest may have been one. But she prefers less damaging explanations. Perhaps the children were still alive, and we know the name of a domestic servant Haywood had whose duties included sewing printed sheets into pamphlets and books; perhaps there were lodgers, not hookers, in the other spare rooms.

Even so, just when Haywood the ‘author by profession’ seems to escape Pope’s version of her, there’s always an intriguing loose end. Several blasts from her scandalous past figure in surviving advertisements for the stock to be had at Fame, including Hatchett’s obscene poem A Chinese Tale, with its ‘curious Frontispiece’ of a masturbating woman. Also available was a gloating pornotopia entitled A Voyage to Lethe, in which a bogus subscriber list (featuring Alderman Slycock, Mr Nocock, the Hon. Mrs Laycock and Madam Handcock) mercilessly ridicule a London vicar, the Rev. Benjamin Slocock, who had controversially endorsed Richardson’s Pamela from his pulpit, supposedly under the influence of a bribe.

What of the politics in all this? Born shortly after the Whig revolution of 1688-89, Haywood came to adulthood in times of dynastic instability, and after the Hanoverian accession of 1714 she lived and wrote through decades of fierce factional polarisation and periodic public crisis, from the financial scandals of the 1720s to the felling of Walpole and the Jacobite insurrection in the 1740s. Consistent allegiance is hardly to be expected in an environment of this kind, least of all under the conditions of authorship diagnosed by Ralph. At the lowest, this is the world of Iscariot Hackney, the turncoat scribbler in Savage’s An Author to Be Lett. In 1748 Fielding, who wrote political journalism with one hand while composing Tom Jones with the other, put a more positive gloss on the mobility of authors by likening them to other professional advocates, such as lawyers. Periods of national emergency were another matter, but in the absence of disinterested patronage, and ‘when the Consequence, at the worst, can probably be no greater than the Change of a Ministry, I do not think a Writer, whose only Livelihood is his Pen, to deserve a very flagitious Character, if, when one Set of Men deny him Encouragement, he seeks it from another, at their Expence.’

Haywood took a dimmer view of Fielding’s professional ethics, and in her late novel Betsy Thoughtless remembered his theatrical campaign against Walpole of 1736-37 (in which she had acted) as driven by two low views: ‘The one to get money … from such as delighted in low humour, and could not distinguish true satire from scurrility; and the other, in the hope of having some post given him by those whom he had abused, in order to silence his dramatic talent.’ But it is Fielding’s author as advocate, not Savage’s author as Iscariot, that underlies King’s view of Haywood. She’s never quite able to catch a politician putting Haywood on the payroll, but she plausibly presents her as moving within distinct partisan groupings at different times, such as the Leicester House opposition of the later 1740s, and as writing in alignment with them. Long-held assumptions crash down as she proceeds, not least the received opinion that Haywood’s was a staunchly Tory voice throughout the Walpole era. King’s virtuoso reading of Memoirs of a Certain Island adjacent to the Kingdom of Utopia, Haywood’s first directly political satire and a work, until now, of impenetrable topicality, shows the force of her post-South Sea Bubble attack ‘on the greed, corruption, collective delusion and social injustice that flourished in the new credit-driven and money-obsessed economic order’. But for all its ferocity, Haywood’s satire was largely in tune with Walpole’s self-serving analysis of the crisis, and her narrative picks him out (he is Cleomenes, who ‘chuses to be great in Worth alone’; Walpole had just declined a peerage) from the sordid peculation and chicanery all around. Memoirs of a Certain Island may even have been a bid for his patronage. It was not until The Adventures of Eovaai in 1736, in which a power-crazed minister seduces the nation away from civic virtue, that Haywood emerges as an anti-Walpole satirist, and even here the underlying ideology is that of a reformist ‘Patriot’ opposition, not the Tory-Jacobite fringe. She pursued this anti-ministerial agenda for at most another year, before falling silent until 1741, much as Fielding did in that period – and it now seems she was exactly right that Fielding was bought off.

Both were back in business by the time of Walpole’s fall, but they then took, and maintained, quite different paths. Fielding’s True Patriot was the official mouthpiece of government policy during the rebellion of 1745-46, and virulent hostility to Jacobitism was a feature of pretty much all journalism at the time. In this context, Haywood’s Female Spectator of 1744-46 is striking for staying so quiet about Jacobitism, while slipping in expressions of disquiet about the status quo: ‘Times like these require Corrosives, not Balsams, to amend.’ Her next periodical, the Parrot, was more openly dissident, and ingeniously used the parrot persona to satirise mainstream journalists – not least Fielding and his ‘true-born Parrot’ – for their obedient repetition of official dogma. Haywood had links by this time with known Jacobites like the Welsh MP Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, whose Tory programme King sees as ‘close to representing Haywood’s own political feelings’. Yet in the so-called ‘Goring pamphlet’ that finally got her arrested in 1749, written in the voice of ‘one of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber to the Young Chevalier’ (Charles Edward Stuart), Jacobitism is at most an imaginative stance from which to critique corruption, not a way of calling for regime change. Haywood even puts into the mouth of Bonnie Prince Charlie an incongruously Whiggish recognition that Hanoverian rule was the choice of the people, who have ‘vigorously opposed all the Efforts’ of Stuart claimants. If Haywood was ever a Jacobite herself, it is only in the sense that Wynn’s faction was Jacobite when, glass in hand, the defeated Pretender reportedly vowed to ‘do for the Welsh Jacobites what they did for me; I shall drink their health.’

Perhaps that was the reason Haywood’s arrest and interrogation never led to prosecution. But it may simply have been that for all her flair, eloquence and pugnacity as a writer, Haywood never really mattered enough. Eovaai is a flamboyant political satire to compare with Gulliver’s Travels, The Beggar’s Opera or Jonathan Wild, but it had to wait five years for a second edition, which turned out on inspection to be a sneaky reissue of remaindered sheets. The Parrot folded after nine numbers, and when Haywood was questioned about the Goring pamphlet, it was revealed that just 44 copies had sold in three weeks. King is right to deplore ‘Haywood’s invisibility to modern political historians’, but now we see her in focus, she matters for the imaginative power of her writing, not for its practical effect.