Adventures in Pornographic Places: Eliza Haywood's Tea-Table and the Decentering of Moral Argument

Article excerpt

In the opening pages of her 1743 conduct manual, A Present for a Servant-Maid, Eliza Haywood warns young female domestics against "Houses which appear well by Day, that it would be little safe for a modest Maid to sleep in at Night" (213). In these places, Haywood asserts, "are too frequently acted such Scenes of Debauchery as would startle even the Owners of some common Brothels" (213-14). The pronouncement misrepresents a work devoted to discussions of buying cheese, dressing fowl, and other matters of an equivalent hostility to prurience. But at the same time it hints at a narrative strategy characteristic of Haywood's career, from the fictions of the 1720s that have been widely reprinted in recent years to the more overtly didactic tracts of the 1740s and 1750s that are just now reappearing in print: the creation of environments radiant with the possibility of transgression and provocatively in counterpoint to the author's explicit moral arguments.

The question at hand concerns the force and the allure that Haywood assigns to these environments, or, more specifically, the extent to which she allows them to threaten the conservative, milk-and-water morality she characteristically espouses. In those works that were most popular in her own time (for example, A Present for a Servant-Maid and the amatory fictions for which she is still best known), Haywood creates what I will call "pornographic places" as geophysical counter-narratives to her parables of sexual temptation. The passage reproduced above illustrates the point. Haywood's method in these works is to derive maximum erotic charge from the pornographic place while emphasizing its moral taintedness. Other, lesser-known works, such as The Tea-Table (1725) and its sequel (1726), are pitched a bit differently. Haywood's use of a fragmented narrative structure in this corporate work points up tensions between precept (or moral parable) and example (or, again, environment) prevalent in her oeuvre but more carefully concealed elsewhere in it. (1)

In The Tea-Table, Haywood creates a moral exemplar who is critical of a specifically urban strain of sexual transgressivity. But she denies her character, the hostess Amiana, the power to vanquish the transgressive elements that she, Amiana, opposes. An urban environment fosters sexual energies antithetical to the moral and narrative inclinations of a righteous character who shuts herself up with a group of friends and promotes a loftier strain of discourse than that which evidently dominates the extramural world. Embedded erotic narratives nonetheless proliferate in The Tea-Table; and Amiana's attempts to quash them fail utterly and, it seems, thematically. By allowing a series of challenges to Amiana's moral voice, in the form of both extramural and intramural manifestations of the energies that Amiana would exclude, Haywood decenters moral authority and thereby suggests the flexibility of moral categories that she elsewhere presents as rigid. Amiana would like to perform the function that Haywood reserves for herself in A Present for a Servant-Maid: to identify and expunge a great fund of depravity (and erotic promise) resident in the community shared by the author and her readers. Haywood, however, will not let her do it.

Several more familiar points of reference come to mind. The Tea-Table renegotiates a moral and narrative problem that troubles amatory fictions like Idalia (1723) and Fantomina (1725), representative works in which Haywood ultimately quashes the eroticized woman on whom her narrative has depended. The punitive tendency of these earlier works constitutes a defining characteristic of pornography, in Haywood's day as in our own. Like many pornographers (and like many other writers of romance), Haywood often ends her erotic fictions by retreating from libertine narration into gender-specific patterns of guilt and absolution. (2) Beauplaisir strolls out of Fantomina blessed by the mother of the young woman whom he has impregnated during a sustained sequence of consensual sexual encounters. …