Revisioning and Refashioning a Life

By Hiner, Amanda L. | Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Revisioning and Refashioning a Life


Hiner, Amanda L., Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies


Revisioning and Refashioning a Life AMANDA L. HINER Kathryn R. King. A Political Biography of Eliza Haywood. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012. 267 pages. $99.00.

For nearly three centuries, written accounts of Eliza Haywood's (1693?- 1756) life and literary career have been hastily constructed out of scraps of disinformation, misinformation, and remnants of aggressive literary and personal insults. The disconcerting lack of biographical information on a prolific eighteenth-century writer, actor, and businesswoman may be due, in part, to her detailed instructions to an intimate companion "not to communicate to any one the least Circumstance relating to her" life (Baker 321). David Erskine Baker records this curious injunction in his 1764 The Companion to the Play-House, and he speculates that Haywood's fierce desire to protect her public image may have resulted "from a Supposition of some improper Liberties being taken with her Character after Death by the Intermixture of Truth and Falsehood with her History" (321). Indeed, as it turns out, Haywood was right to fear that such liberties would be taken with her biographical record. As early as the late nineteenth century, literary biographers such as Sidney Lee and George Frisbie Whicher were embellishing the scanty written records of Haywood's life and career, introducing factual errors and misrepresentations and virtually assuring that these errors would be repeated in critical articles and biographies for decades to come. Whicher's account of the young Eliza Fowler's unhappy marriage to an older clergyman named Valentine Haywood was dutifully repeated by writers ranging from Virginia Woolf, who described Haywood as "a woman who married a clergyman and ran away" (23), to more recent critics such as Dale Spender and Constance Clark, who assumed the accuracy of the clergyman narrative as a basis for their analysis of her texts. Though Christine Blouch's detailed biographical introduction to Pickering & Chatto's six-volume Selected Works of Eliza Haywood began a twenty-firstcentury campaign to correct some of the false claims about Haywood's personal life and literary career, much of what is commonly known about her today still rests on a string of wholly mistaken assumptions about her life and work: she was briefly married to a clergyman much older than herself; she primarily produced titillating scandal novels in her early years, only to "reform" into a respectable writer of didactic novels late in her life; she abstained from engaging in political discourse or topics, or, conversely, was devoted to the public defense of Tory political ideals; she was driven into silence and obscurity by Pope's scathing public denunciation of her in The Dunciad (1728); she was probably the mistress of both Richard Savage and William Hatchett; and, finally, she most likely bore two or more illegitimate children. Ironically, Haywood's excise of public information about her life in an attempt to control the extent to which improper liberties would be taken with her biographical record may have directly contributed to the dizzying mixture of truth and falsehood pervading her written biographies and negatively inflecting her literary reputation.

In part, it is in an attempt to correct these mistaken assumptions about the life and literary career of Eliza Haywood that Kathryn L. King wrote her detailed and thematically focused political biography of the eighteenth-century essayist, pamphleteer, actor, novelist, translator, biographer, poet, editor, and businesswoman. King's meticulous coverage of Haywood's centuries' long critical reception and biographical representation, written in graceful and tight prose, brings much-needed clarity and precision to a historically sloppy critical treatment of an important literary figure. Not only have critics been quick to reprint false information about Haywood (including me, in a 1990s dissertation chapter on Haywood in which I unquestioningly included the Reverend Haywood reference-it seemed so factual, printed in so many different sources), but also, more troubling still, some Haywood scholars have been inclined to flatten her into an easily digestible caricature. …

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