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LHMP #119 Ingrassia 2003 “Eliza Haywood, Sapphic Desire, and the Practice of Reading”

Full citation: 

Ingrassia, Catherine. 2003. “Eliza Haywood, Sapphic Desire, and the Practice of Reading” in: Kittredge, Katharine (ed). Lewd & Notorious: Female Transgression in the Eighteenth Century. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. ISBN 0-472-11090-X

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers concerning a variety of transgressive activities.

Ingrassia, Catherine. “Eliza Haywood, Sapphic Desire, and the Practice of Reading”

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Prolific 18th century writer Eliza Haywood was known for treating themes of love and passion in her fiction and plays. Although her public life included several long-term relationships with men and at least one “unfortunate” marriage, this article examines the treatment of passions between women in six of her texts. Ingrassia notes that views of female relationships in her work have tended to overlook the same-sex aspects, despite the narratives regularly offering alternatives to the standard “marriage plot”. In these, the women are portrayed not simply as withdrawing from a system in which they had failed to succeed, but as creating new alternatives to that system, even when potentially successful.

Unlike later texts such as Millenium Hall with its Utopian bent, Haywood’s women create pragmatic alternatives that exist within the real world, rather than “nowhere”. All of Haywood’s texts treat what might be viewed as homosocial bonds, and communities of women supporting each other. Beyond this, her relationships between women are clearly eroticized. Even when the narrative line eventually falls in with a normative paradigm, it may examine and challenge that paradigm in ways that undermine it.

The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) portrays erotic attraction between women, though it is not acted on. In The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (1753) the character of Lady Fisk goes on a cross-dressed adventure in Covent Garden that ends in picking up a (female) prostitute (but also ends in Fisk being attacked when her sex is discovered).

The British Recluse (1722) begins with a “failed heterosexuality” motif, when the two protagonists are rejected by the same man. But this results in them resolving to retire from the world together, and part of the motivation is the strong attraction they feel for each other. Eventually they are divided when one accepts a marriage offer, however the narrative itself concludes at the point when they have decided to live together, allowing the reader to imagine a different path. A similar retreat from an overt depiction of women’s lives together occurs in The City Jilt (1726) in which a jilted woman enlists her female friend’s help for revenge against her former lover. After the success of this revenge, she “gave over all Designs on the Men, publickly avowing her Aversion to that Sex” and planning to live with her female companion. Unfortunately the companion had a prior (heterosexual) commitment, leaving their time together only a “pleasurable interlude”.

In The Rash Resolve (1724) and The Tea-Table (1725) the women create supportive, emotionally-connected relationships apart from marriage structures (and often in direct contrast to them). The first involves a complex adventure of love, betrayal, abandonment, and the struggle to survive, in which the heroine is alternately betrayed and supported by the women in her life. Passion between women is introduced in both negative and positive contexts, with the betraying woman encouraging the protagonist’s passionate response on behalf of a seducer, and later a patroness who “had taken a fancy to her and was resolv’d to have her” taking the protagonist into her household and creating a domestic parnership that more resembles a supportive marriage than any of the heterosexual relationships in the work. The eventual need to choose between this loving partnership and a return to the now-contrite seducer is avoided by the protagonist’s convenient death. (A great deal of the article consists of a detailed plot summary of The Rash Resolve.)

The Tea-Table is, in effect, a literary club or salon, with women sharing and discussing texts. The table of the name is a gathering place where the fictitous women create a supportive literary community. The members include a woman depicted as explicitly rejecting marriage who has “a long intimacy” with another woman of the circle. Although men are not entirely absent from the portrayed circle, there are no positive models of heterosexual relationships within it, only a variety of alternatives. This includes a poem they discuss that was written by one woman on the death of her female companion. Toward the conclusion of the work, the hostess of the tea-table receives a letter from a long-absent female friend and experiences a strong emotional reaction. She expresses joy that their long separation (seven years) is over and eagerly anticipates their reunion. The other guests recognize “by the writing of the one, and the Look and Manner of the other, that nothing could be more sincere and tender than the Friendship between them.”

The desire between women in Haywood’s works is never directly depicted as sexual, but is described through coded words of love, passion, and emotional connection. Within these limitations, the possibility for women to create and prefer strong emotional bonds and partnerships with other women is normalized, even when narrative conventions fail to allow for those partnerships to prevail.

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