This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. Michelle Vider’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
For a cosmic hot second in the 200+ years between Eliza Haywood’s death in 1756 and feminism rising from the murky depths of literary scholarship, we lost sight of her work and its role in the development of the English novel. The biographical facts of her life are hard to come by and harder to confirm, but what we do know portrays her as the 18th century’s J.K. Rowling: a single mom with two kids who wrote one of the most popular books of the century (1720’s Love in Excess) and then published a new novel every three months through the 1720s. Haywood was a playwright, a translator, a journalist and publisher, and that was after several years as an actress on the stage. For those two centuries after her death, the literary canon relegated her work and legacy not to the Early English Novelists trophy case, but to the genre sub-basement known as “amatory fiction,” to make room for her contemporaries Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding.
Don’t let the amatory fiction label fool you: Haywood wrote novels. Why the long exclusion from the canon, then? Why call it amatory fiction or domestic literature or ovarian dialogues rather than novels? In Haywood’s case, these were romances that had dark turns where women were seduced by rakes that they couldn’t recognize because their families had kept them innocent (read: ignorant). Her novels show the consequences to women who step out of line with the morals of their day: the money and security at stake, the shaming from her family and friends, and the toll those consequences take on a woman’s emotional health.
Yet in Haywood’s work, it isn’t enough that her stories present women’s side of life and morality in the 1700s. Her 1722 novel, The British Recluse: or, The Secret History of Cleomira, Suppos’d Dead, follows this straightforward plot: two women meet and become friends through telling each other the story of their love affairs gone wrong. One is Cleomira, the recluse with top billing; by the end of the novel her new friend, Belinda, convinces her to give up her isolated room in a boarding house so together they can take to the sea (metaphorically speaking.) Cleomira’s dealings with this rake stand out from so many other morality tales about fallen women because they show how a woman could own the story of falling for a rake, and how women should save each other from terrible men.
A bulk of the story in Recluse comes directly from Cleomira: her narrative, as told to Belinda, discusses her family, her circumstances, and the whole arc of her affair with the rake Bellamy, from meeting him to her attempted suicide. Rather than a straightforward “this is how it happened” narrative followed by a landslide of shaming, Cleomira crafts the story herself. She takes responsibility for leaving home, but shows that Bellamy was an almost superhuman character that she could only withstand him for so long. Cleomira doesn’t frame the story of her seduction as one of her weakness in the face of just some man; instead, Cleomira’s narrative effectively builds the rake into a character that few women could ever hope to match or overcome.
Cleomira does this with descriptions of Bellamy that turn to the fantastic and mythological. Their first encounter happens across the room at a ball, when she sees “a Form which appear’d more than Man, and nothing inferior to those Idea’s we conceive of Angels.” That’s right: in trying to find the right language to describe this person, Cleomira goes Full Swinton. When they begin to see each other without her family’s knowledge, Cleomira tells Belinda her reaction, one that has more enthusiasm for the crimson feather in his hat (“his hat”) than for anything else ever recorded (probably): “What then became of me? – O God! how fruitless wou’d any Endeavours be to represent what ’twas I felt! – Transported! – Ravish’d! – I wonder the violent Emotions of my Soul did not bear my Body out of the Window!” Cleomira notes early on that she wasn’t completely cut off from the society of men: Bellamy wasn’t the first man she had ever seen in her entire life. Yet these early interactions show that even on first look he’s more everything than any man she’s met before, and on first meeting he could incite her to forget herself completely.
Despite Bellamy’s ability to overwhelm Cleomira, she doesn’t submit to him immediately. In fact, since they see each other rarely leading up to the consummation of their relationship, we see most of their interactions through letters rather than face-to-face moments together. When Cleomira recounts their relationship through letters, the letters show that they were each other’s intellectual equals. More importantly, the letters show that Cleomira didn’t elope on a whim; Bellamy actively pursued her with ecstatic claims designed to prove that he wasn’t some guy and this wasn’t some fling:
“Within my burning Breast ten thousand real Furies rage, and tear me with Variety of Anguish! – Mad with Desire, and wing’d with daring Hopes, sometimes I cou’d tear down the envious Walls, and baffle all Impediments which hold you from me!”
Does that sound like too much? Like Bellamy comes on a bit too strong? You’re not alone! Cleomira acknowledges the “Raptures of [her] overjoy’d Soul” on reading the letter, but collects herself before she replies to him. Her response notes what readers are thinking: that Bellamy sounds full of shit and “too well acquainted with his Perfections not to know the Effects they must produce, and but feigns to feel what he alone is capable of inspiring.” Bellamy doesn’t attempt to seduce her through letters again, but “so zealous was he in making [her] believe the Passion he pretended was sincere” that he moves to meet with her exclusively in-person, as in-person it would be easier to convince her to run away with him.
Bellamy seduces Cleomira and abandons her, but that’s where Cleomira’s letters take over in owning her story again. When she isn’t writing letters, Cleomira pays people to follow Bellamy and report to her who he’s seeing instead of her. Her letters to Bellamy after his disappearance begin incredibly mild, with her tone more inquisitive than accusatory. However, once she accepts that he has abandoned her, her tone takes on a new assertion, more of that cool Cleomira with a touch of hellacious woman scorned.
“I know not what I say, and to my other Crimes am ready to add Blasphemy; – cou’d curse Heaven, and Earth, and Man; – wish to behold the World in Flames; – the Universe dissolv’d; – for all, all are Foes to wretched Cleomira!”
“Not one Particular of your Baseness is unknown to me; – Cold, – Cold Betrayer; – Dark designing Villain, your Neglect, your Absence, your Silence all sprung but from one Cause, that curs’d Mutability of Temper, which damns half your Sex, as fond Belief and Tenderness does ours.”
This small (seriously: small) sample of Cleomira’s language in her letters separates her narrative from so many other morality tales about rakes and fallen women. While Cleomira takes a moment or two in the narrative to hate herself for having succumbed to her seducer, she spends much more time convincing Belinda (and the reader) with these letters that she fought her fate. She may have been ignorant when she first met Bellamy, but in her letters Cleomira shows that she fought as hard as she could with her limited means means to make Bellamy stay. Cleomira attempts suicide but, having lived, she chooses to leave society and live as a recluse until she meets Belinda: even though her relationship with Bellamy took from her the life that she wanted, she lives on her own terms without backlash or shaming from the world at large.
What about Belinda, though? Belinda, Cleomira’s newfound and only friend who retires with her to a country estate at the end of the story? Belinda isn’t just the repository for Cleomira’s history. She listens and offers emotional support to her new friend, but it’s through Belinda’s story that we learn something about Cleomira’s history:
IT’S ALL TRUE.
Reading Cleomira’s narrative, admiring her epic battle imagery and the strength of her feeling in bringing down Bellamy—it exists in a vacuum in the sealed room of the boarding house where Cleomira keeps herself shut away from the world. Belinda introduces us to Cleomira and both Belinda and the reader become absorbed in her history, but with the intensity of Cleomira’s language we realize the distance her history has from “reality” and realism. When Cleomira finishes her personal narrative and Belinda begins hers, it’s worth wondering what purpose there is in hearing about Belinda’s similarly lost love. It isn’t until the end of Belinda’s story, one where a man attempts to seduce Belinda away by exploiting her tepid feelings for her fiancé, that Cleomira makes the connection for both Belinda and the reader: Belinda’s seducer is the same man who seduced Cleomira.
Connecting the two seducers into one figure simultaneously heightens the stakes and grounds their stories. For Belinda, she isn’t the first to have fallen for this rake and everything he pretends to offer. For Cleomira, Belinda’s story grounds her story in reality: Bellamy actually is that terrible. Bellamy has succeeded in seducing women like her, women who were trusting and believed in him as she did when she first knew him. Now, with Belinda’s story, Recluse isn’t simply two women lamenting their mistakes and missteps: it’s the story of two women realizing that both their hopes were ruined by one monster too powerful for either of them to defeat.
While Belinda’s story lends some credence to Cleomira’s history, it also places her history in the wider world of the general community of women. Both Cleomira and Belinda identify as women who are done with society, done with trying to live traditional lives, but Belinda’s story opens a wider world for Cleomira and the impact her experiences have on that wider world. Belinda tells Cleomira that just before meeting her, she befriended a young woman named Miranda, who knows Bellamy because he also attempted to seduce her and, failing that, abduct her in broad daylight. When Bellamy failed, he dueled with Miranda’s brother and nearly killed the brother. Belinda relates that unlike she and Cleomira, Miranda still moves in society and takes it upon herself to relate what Bellamy did to all women so that no one else should fall victim to him. Belinda introduces this final piece to Cleomira’s history and gives her history a closure so much better than Cleomira’s attempted suicide. Cleomira won’t be alone because she has Belinda, and Miranda will fight on against Bellamy in their honor.
Reaching the end of Recluse and seeing the full scope of Cleomira’s history, we see something that few, if any, narratives of fallen women have ever shown: the friendship and society of women. Narratives about fallen women emphasize that a woman seduced will never be welcome among “decent” people again: these women leave their families for their seducers. Once their seducers abandon them, their friends fear getting close for their own reputations. Haywood shows in Recluse the importance of women finding each other and fighting for each other, in each other’s best interests, rather than in competition for the men who would bring them down.
Eliza Fowler Haywood. The British Recluse: or, The Secret History of Cleomira, Suppos’d Dead. A Novel. 2nd ed. 1725.
Kathleen Lubey. “Eliza Haywood’s Amatory Aesthetic.”
Kirsten T. Saxton and Rebecca P. Bocchicchio. The Passionate Fictions of Eliza Haywood: Essays on Her Life and Work. 2000.
Michelle Vider lives in Philadelphia. She has a master's degree in English, but she's feeling much better, thank you. She tweets here.