Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Performing the Passions in Eliza Haywood's Fantomina and Miss Betsy Thoughtless

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Performing the Passions in Eliza Haywood's Fantomina and Miss Betsy Thoughtless

Article excerpt

Eliza Haywood--prolific actress, playwright, translator, bookseller, editor, and novelist--remains best known as the "Great Arbitress of Passion," a tag phrase bestowed on her by James Sterling in reference to her infamous early amatory fiction. (1) Yet "arbitress" had multiple meanings in the eighteenth century, complicating the phrase in a way that Sterling himself may or may not have intended: according to the OED, in addition to indicating a mediator of disputes, "arbitress" means "a female who has absolute control or disposal." (2) The OED definition makes the phrase almost an oxymoron by eighteenth-century standards, for passions in general, and especially female passions, were considered irrational and dangerously uncontrollable: to control female passions meant to do away with them completely. (3) Sterling's phrase suggests something different: that Haywood and certain of her heroines managed simultaneously to indulge in and control the expression of their passions, a liberating and paradoxical achievement for the eighteenth-century woman. This essay examines how Haywood masters and maintains the role of "Great Arbitress of Passion," in the full sense of the phrase. I argue that Haywood uses her fiction to explore a strategy of what I term self-conscious performance--women acting roles that they have independently conceived for themselves--to achieve an effective expression of female passions which would, in another setting, be disastrous and unavailing. I conclude that the strategy Haywood develops for selected female characters in her writing becomes the strategy she applies to her own literary career.

Haywood's works thus contradict the eighteenth-century antitheatrical tradition that associated performance with falseness and manipulation; as a result, they complicate critical conceptions about the way identity was constructed and conveyed in the eighteenth-century novel. My title involves a potential tension between the terms "performing" and "passions," yet I argue that the emotions expressed by Haywood's consciously performing heroines are no less genuine because the expression of them is premeditated. (4) The sincerity of spontaneously expressed emotion becomes a moot point for Haywood's heroines, as such impulsive behavior is quickly followed by death or banishment. For emotional expression to register with an audience, to be at all effective, the Haywoodian heroine must plan the moment and mode. So while Diderot may claim that "a woman who grieves and artfully arranges her arms ... is false," (5) Haywood presents a woman who may well anticipate the best possible presentation for her grief, and yet truly grieve.

The female self as presented by Haywood is thus distinctly less buried than most critics of the novel claim. John Bender highlights the novel's "unique technical capacity to represent consciousness in the form of unspoken thoughts ... and sensations," (6) while Leo Braudy describes the genre as creating "character apprehended from within" and producing a "rhetoric of essences rather than surfaces." (7) Nancy Armstrong similarly argues that the eighteenth-century novel, influenced by the conduct book, created an image of the domestic woman who has "depths far more valuable than her surface." (8) Yet the pervasive concept of performance that resonates through Haywood's early and late fiction complicates the idea that the novel lets us see through or past a surface representation and into the essential, defining depths of a character's mind or heart. As performance enables the expression of female emotions, Haywood casts the impulse to probe beneath a woman's "mask" in search of her true sentiments as misleading.

Fantomina (from Haywood's amorous novella, Fantomina, 1725) and Miss Betsy Thoughtless (from her didactic novel, The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, 1751) are two heroines that most critics of Haywood consider to be diametrically opposed, yet both decide how and when they will display their feelings. …

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