Regulating the Unstable Family: Eliza Haywood's Fiction and the Development of Family Law

By Nixon, Cheryl | Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Regulating the Unstable Family: Eliza Haywood's Fiction and the Development of Family Law


Nixon, Cheryl, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies


Amatory and Legal Plotting of the Family

In 1746, in issue number 5 of her periodical The Parrot, Eliza Haywood pro- vides a didactic story addressing the problem of parents who neglect to write a clear last will and testament; by not "settling their Affairs," they leave their children open to the manipulation of adversaries (1). The short narrative fea- tures an unnamed young woman whose expectations of a comfortable fortune and an advantageous pre-planned marriage are interrupted when her wealthy father dies intestate. The family clerk seizes the opportunity and enters a false will that names him as her guardian. In the forged will, the clerk also names himself heir to the family estate and, through his guardianship, the overseer of what little remaining inheritance he contrives to leave to the daughter. The daughter is imprisoned in her own home by this false guardian, who also overtly schemes against her virtue and plans a rape: "He made not the least Scruple of sacrificing her innocence to his Lust, as he had done the best Part of her Fortune to his Avarice" (6). She escapes his control by running away and throwing herself at the mercy of a distant " kinsman" (10). This relative's at- tempt to secure the daughter's estate proves fruitless and she finds herself without any claim to the inheritance that rests in her guardian's hands. She must go into service and her story ends with her working as a "Chambermaid in a Family, where those she waited upon, were not born to half the expecta- tions she had been" (14). This narrative exhibits many of the typical features of Haywood's amatory fictions: an innocent woman, about to enter courtship, experiences an unexpected calamity that places her in abusive family that, rather than protecting her, further undermines both her inheritance and virtue.1

The Parrot no. 5 essay presents this story as a factual narrative, embedded in an essay that warns parents of the "ill Consequences which dying without making a Will infallibly brings on all those who had any Dependence on the deceased Person" (16). Haywood puts a sharper point on this moral lesson, ex- plaining that "the not making a Will either emboldens some Villain to frame a fictitious one, or the Effects the Deceased leaves behind, occasion Contentions and Law-Suits among different Claimants, to the Ruin of all the Parties con- cerned in them" (14-15). The essay calls attention to an aspect of Haywood 's fiction that is often overlooked: her understanding and criticism of the law and its structuring of the family. Kathryn King's A Political Biography of Eliza Hay- wood investigates Haywood's criticism of eighteenth-century British law, em- phasizing her scandal stories' depiction of wronged women who seek but fail to earn redress before the law. Building on King's insights, this essay focuses on Haywood's interest in the law's intervention in the family. By connecting eighteenth-century case law and legal treatises to Haywood 's fiction, this essay uncovers Haywood 's own intervention in contemporaneous legal understand- ings of the family. To the "virtue in distress" plotting that is familiar from Hay- wood 's amatory fiction, The Parrot no. 5 adds legal plotting, emphasizing the failure of the law to protect the family and, more specifically, to protect the underage daughter within the family structures that the law itself dictates. Haywood can thus be seen as contributing to the cultural understanding of one aspect of what we would today call "family law": the parent/child or guard- ian/ward relationship.2

The Parrot no. 5's criticism of the law reveals Haywood 's interest in drama- tizing its malleability as it is applied to and enacted by the family. Throughout The Parrot no. 5, Haywood invokes the Court of Chancery, one of the eigh- teenth century's three major centralized court systems. Considered the "court of conscience," the Court of Chancery asserted principles of "equity," which is a supplementary, corrective form of law that, ideally, ensures fairness by provid- ing remedies to the failings of the common law. …

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