Romance to the nth degree is what you get with this novel.
What initially intrigued me is that this book was as popular in its time as another tome you may have heard of: Robinson Crusoe. And its author was a woman — possibly the author of the first novel in the English language.
Why, then, I wondered, had I not heard of Eliza Haywood or this novel?
The explanation may lie in the book’s major theme: society’s disapproval of women who declare their love for men. From this book through Pride & Prejudice and on through The Thorn Birds, women protagonists have been punished for actively pursuing men. The prose, while not altogether overtly sexual, is sexually charged enough (termed “amatory,” e.g., a bit more elevated than a bodice-ripper or romance but not quite literary fiction) which must have been quite scandalous at the time. (I can’t help but wonder who its main readers were: women or men? Were women made to feel shamed for reading it?) Could a book centered around women with sexual desires have fallen out of favor with the arrival of the Victorian Age?
Another reason why this book may not be as well known as Robinson Crusoe is that the characters are archetypal. This is a plot-heavy book, with a case to make about desire. Character development takes a back seat.
The hero of the book actually is a mimbo (male bimbo), Count d’Elmont. This guy would put Brad Pitt to shame; apparently, no woman could resist his charms. The book’s plot centers around all of the women who fall for him (lust or love or a combination thereof). And there are quite a few of ’em.
The book is truly well-crafted. I won’t spoil the fun for potential readers, but trust me: You’ll need a GPS to navigate the numerous plot lines! Despite the lack of rounded characters, I enjoyed this novel immensely.
Another novel of Haywood’s, The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, is considered to have heralded an important change in the 18 century English novel, focusing on marriage versus courtship. (Chalk one up for another TBR!)
Ultimately, however, Eliza Haywood may be much more tantalizing than her own characters.
Apparently, she was quite prolific, supporting herself and her two children (there is no record of a husband, interestingly) through writing and acting, translating and publishing. (How busy must she have been!) Her writing drew fire from some of the heavies of her day: Pope and Swift, among others. Beyond that, not many details are known about Haywood’s life … we can only hope some enterprising biographer will choose to go excavating and dig up some dirt. She seems to have been quite the enterprising, energetic woman.