Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Spying upon the Conjurer: Haywood, Curiosity, and "The Novel" in the 1720s

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Spying upon the Conjurer: Haywood, Curiosity, and "The Novel" in the 1720s

Article excerpt

Dorothy George's mordant observation that no work was unfit for women in eighteenth-century London so long as it was sufficiently dirty, disagreeable, and ill-paid might be applied with some justice to the work of the early women novelists in Britain.(1) That these novelists, as I shall call them at some risk of anachronism,(2) occupied the lower ranks of the literary field is not exactly a new thought, but at a time when criticism tends to be celebratory and elevating it may deserve restatement. Revisionist literary histories, seeking to reverse a critical tradition of trivialization and eager to bring respectability to the study of texts once routinely dismissed as trash, have generally attempted to assimilate novels by women to one or another "rise" or, in a maneuver characteristic of much feminist scholarship, to script a countertradition with a feminocentric ascent of its own. In either case women writers are assigned a crucial place not only in the origins of the novel but also in the much larger complex of shifts sometimes called the feminization of culture.(3) To attempt, as I do here, to revisit the less exalted forces that shaped women's (and men's) earliest novelistic ventures is not to deny the immense importance of the revisionist project. It is rather to complicate the emerging story-line by returning novel-writing to one of its original contexts as a form of women's work.

My inquiry into early popular fiction focuses on Eliza Haywood's A Spy upon the Conjurer; or, a Collection of Surprising Stories, with Names, Places, and Particular Circumstances Relating to Mr. Duncan Campbell (1724), a work that is something of a sport in the Haywood canon. A "spy" upon an actual London fortune-teller, Duncan Campbell, it is not so much a novel as a convergence of novelistic tendencies--a protonovel, that is to say, and a remarkably self-reflexive one. It is, indeed, a "text in dialogue with its own making," as Paula McDowell observes of Fielding's Jonathan Wild elsewhere in this number (p. 214), and as such it offers not only commentary on its own disreputable status as reading matter but also a glimpse of a more self-conscious and perhaps more cynical Eliza Haywood than we are accustomed to encountering. Written in 1724, at the height of the panting-and- heaving phase of her amatory career and five years after Love in Excess (1719- 20) established its author as the pulse-quickening writer of her generation, A Spy upon the Conjurer is obsessed with the guilty pleasures delivered up by (among other things) Haywood's own hugely popular fictions. William Warner has recently argued that the scandal surrounding Haywood's fictions was tied to worries about a fundamental shift in the culture's understanding of reading: "If an earlier, reverential practice of reading was grounded in the claim that books represented (some kind of) truth, Haywood's novels seemed, ready to deliver nothing more than pleasure."(4) Readers have always read with pleasure, of course, but more and more, it seems, they were reading for pleasure. Such an aim may seem to us today natural, healthy, even, sadly, something of a cultural achievement, but to Hay wood's contemporaries it was freighted with apprehensions. The erotic tales of Haywood in particular, churned out at the rate of several a year, seemed to "promote the liberation of the reader as the subject of pleasure," according to Warner, and to "teach readers, men as well as women, to articulate their desire and `put the self first,' in the same way their characters do" (p. 284). In A Spy upon the Conjurer, I shall argue, Haywood gives expression to the anxieties of an entire generation about where the new popular fictions were taking their readers--anxieties bound up in the unseemliness of their content, to be sure, but also, and more significantly, in fears about the kinds of desires and compulsions that distinctively modern ways of reading were capable of arousing.

The key term in my analysis is curiosity. …

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