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Eliza Haywood's Letter Technique in Three Early Novels (1721-27)

Article excerpt

In the early eighteenth century, prose fiction evolved into what we now call the novel. This evolution occurred because of a series of professional prose writers who experimented with various fictional forms, from the travelogue to the memoir. One of those skillful authors was Eliza Haywood, who published more than twenty short pieces of prose fiction in her long career, including one of the best-selling works of the 1720s, Love in Excess (1719). Haywood especially worked with a form that proved pivotal in the development of English prose fiction--the letter.

The importance of the epistle in the development of prose fiction in the early eighteenth century comes as no surprise to most of us. A number of important studies of fiction before Samuel Richardson have analyzed the epistolary form, and Robert Day's Told in Letters: Epistolary Fiction Before Richardson and Ruth Perry's Women, Letters, and the Novel have provided book length discussions of the subject. However, the subject is far from exhausted, particularly when one turns to individual authors and their use of the epistle before Richardson (obviously, with Pamela comes a renewed interest in the subject and much work exists on the letter in Richardson and Burney, and Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker).

Eliza Haywood is one author whose works have received sparse treatment. Although acclaimed in her time, with Delariviere Manley and Aphra Behn, as one of the triumvirate of female wits(1)--Haywood has remained unstudied although she was immensely popular in the 1720s, the formative years for the novel. This study will analyze three works (Letters from a Lady of Quality to a Chevalier [1721]; Bath-Intrigues [1724]; Philadore and Placentia [1727]) from early in Haywood's career that all adopt the letter form. Furthermore, the analysis will show that Haywood had the narrative acuity of other canonized authors, and used it to further the development of the novel by using the letter format in varying ways in different works, showing that she manipulated the technique in a manner beyond any single contemporary prose writer.

Haywood did not invent the epistle as a mode of fiction, so it is worthwhile to begin with some discussion of her potential sources. Two stand out: the very popular French book The Portuguese Letters and Aphra Behn's Love Letters from a Nobleman to His Sister(1678). The ubiquity of these two sources can be seen easily through their publication history: The Portuguese Letters, in French in 1669, were translated by Roger L'Estrange in 1678 and ran through ten English editions before Haywood took up the form in 1721; but L'Estrange is not the only source for Haywood to have read letters in the Portuguese mode. There were translations and expansions from the original five Letters that ran multiple editions, including the Anonymous 1681 Seven Portuguese Letters (Day No. 21,241), which had two editions and Five Letters Written by a Cavalier, a translation of the Response aux lettres portugaises (1683), which went through five editions in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (Day No. 27, 241).

Behn's work, described by Day as the first original long piece in letters in English, went through ten editions before 1721 (No. 27, 241). Purportedly communiques from a nobleman to his sister-in-law--Philander and Sylvia--Behn's work is in three parts, the first part of which is a blatant imitation of the Portuguese Letters, but with Philander's impassioned pleas of love to Sylvia producing a response unlike those of the Portuguese nun. An example of the Portuguese style as found in Behn's work is Sylvia's second letter:

There with ten thousand Sighs, with Remembrance of the tender Minutes we pass'd then, I drew your last Letter from my Bosom, and often kiss'd and often read it over; but oh, who can conceive my Torment, when I cam [sic] to that fatal Part of it, where you say you gave your Hand to my Sister? …