Eliza Haywood's Defense of London's Body Politic

Article excerpt

Critics have often commented on Eliza Haywood's tendency "toward soft-core pornography," particularly in her early fictions. This same tendency also situates her fictions within an eighty-year-old polemical tradition about the dangers of democracy. In the context of pornography's historic contributions toward curbing democratic activism within London, it is hardly surprising that the genre made an encore appearance during Walpole's efforts to limit the numbers of those eligible to vote in the City's elections. What is surprising is that pornography did not enter the fray in its usual guise. On the contrary, pamphlets, broadsides, and balladsheets everywhere appear to have been more committed to reclaiming the feminized commons so vilified in late-Stuart pornography by reversing political pornography's paradigm. Haywood's Fantomina (1725) and The City Jilt (1726) both bear the mark of this shift. The narrative structures of both fictions set up the City's democratic body politic to expose the Whig oligarchs' hypocrisy as both Fantomina and Glicera suggest that the democratic body could stand as a force for moral redemption.

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By late 1723, Robert Walpole had begun the campaign against London's electoral practices that culminated in the City Elections Act of 1725. There was little doubt in most Londoners' minds that the statute was a naked attempt "to circumscribe [London's] democratic processes and to consolidate the civic presence of powerful moneyed interest." (1) The conflict had been precipitated by efforts on the part of the Tory controlled Common Council to liberalize the qualifications for freeman voters and place tighter controls on the Whig dominated Court of Aldermen. Not surprisingly, the Aldermen vetoed this attempt to constrain their power in 1724, and the Whig controlled Parliament stepped in shortly thereafter to support their city brethren. Like numerous other conflicts between England's capital and its national government, this attempt to abrogate the corporation's freedoms resurrected memories of the civil wars, further charging an already tense political climate. In London, sentiment against Parliament was already running high. As recently as 1722, inhabitants had bitterly complained that the legislative body had sat for too long and that in thus avoiding elections they had become little better than the Rump (1648-53). (2)

The reasons behind the eruption of political discontent and resentment during the early Hanoverian period are complex, but to a large degree, they coalesced as a conflict between "the people" and an authoritarian Whig oligarchy that many believed had betrayed the libertarian principles upon which the party was founded. As the rhetoric responding to the dissolution of Parliament in 1722 suggests, it was a conflict early Hanoverian Londoners saw rooted in the English civil wars. For it was during this tumultuous chapter in England's political history that city residents acted upon their keenly honed ancestral sense of political independence and liberty first to support Parliament's cause against Charles I and then, when Parliament itself turned authoritarian, to resist the Rump's tyranny. Clearly, the political events of the mid-1720s had done little to soothe the City's longstanding distrust of governmental authoritarianism. What is less self-evident from the public outcry against the 1725 City Elections Act is that it also entailed a proactive campaign to defend London's political integrity. During the years between the civil wars and 1725, London had borne the brunt of loyalists' antipathy for liberty and democracy. And among the polemical forms that carried the message of democracy's dangers to the City's streets, none was more consistently prevalent than late-Stuart political pornographic satire. (3) So intractable a fixture of England's imagination had political pornography become that when Eliza Haywood offered her own commentary on London's political fortunes in the mid-1720s, she could not help but engage with that genre. …