Thursday, 13 June 2013

Sabbatical Blog 2: Finding a Voice for Women in the Eighteenth-Century

by Bryony Hart

Eliza Haywood
I am into my 6th day of study at Chawton House Library and I feel like I have always been here.  I know that, to a certain extent, Chawton has always lurked behind most of my studies since 2001 and that this is why I feel so at home, but the main reason for me feeling so at one with this place is that it celebrates and supports academic enquiry – exactly what we try to promote in our teaching at PGS. 

My day is simple:

8.30 am – drop my daughter off at nursery and drive through the scenic roads (admittedly via the busy M3) of Hampshire into a seemingly forgotten village that has ‘chocolate box’ written all over it.  I take a left turn and drive towards the impressive Jacobean Manor House, getting excited at the day ahead that awaits to be unfolded … what little gem will I find today? ….

9.20 am – sign-in, give the resident dog a tummy tickle and then make my way through the dark wood-panelled corridors to the secondary reading room – this is where all the action takes place.  For those who have been here before, academic visitors are usually first introduced to the ground floor reading room that houses a lot of the rare books.  However, for research fellows and those lucky enough to be on sabbatical, the vast majority of ‘real’ research takes place in the secondary book room, which is full of criticism and a smaller collection of rare books.  I am currently sharing this space with some visiting research fellows from the US.

9.30 am – Jacqui Granger, the librarian, unlocks that door and I am free to read, request books, ask questions up until 12.30pm when the library is closed for lunch. 

In these three hours I have been reading the most fascinating material.  My aim when I came here was to keep my options open, to ensure that I did not close doors to research, and pursue avenues that were perhaps less well-trodden than others.  By the end of day one, Eliza Haywood, marriage law and female rights have dominated my time … I feel like I have slightly closed some of my doors.  But this, as the week has unfolded, turns out to be unfounded.  In fact, I think that this narrowing of topic has enabled me to focus my attention, to explore around this fascinating writer and look into specific laws relating to marriage at the time in which she was writing.  It turns out that despite being one of the most published female writers of the time, Haywood is barely written about by critics and theorists partly because there is little biographical information about her.  I think I have found my niche and now my aim is simple: finding a topic of a potential PhD project, one that I have been planning on doing ever since I completed my Masters all those years ago. 

12.30 pm – I am politely asked to leave the library …

For the first few days, I sat in the vast acreage of the Chawton estate over-looking the landscaped gardens, which I feel I know so much about (it being the main focus of my MA dissertation).  I ate my lunch, watched the wildlife, the livestock and listened to the birds whilst I read Austen (I plan to re-read all of Austen whilst I am here … it makes sense, surely?)  However, a few days of this and I am itching to be active.  So, I make an odd request to the Head Gardener and ask if I can volunteer in the walled kitchen garden.  He bites my hand off at this offer and off I go, trowel in hand, to attack the weeds that are taking over in the shallot-bed … I am officially in heaven.  This place relies on volunteers so I feel like I am doing my bit and love the fact that I am regularly mistaken by visitors for being one of the resident gardeners.

1.30 pm – return to the library.

So why Haywood?  I studied Love in Excess at university and I think I wrote a paper on it.  I can’t for the life of me remember why I did not pursue her work further.  King Lear has a lot to answer for. 

I finished reading ‘A Wife to Be Lett: A Comedy’ (1724) and it turns out that Mrs Graspell (our main character who was actually played by Haywood in the Drury Lane production) is married to an ungrateful and spiteful man.  She is a virtuous and honourable woman, all that the eighteenth-century society asks for, and therefore a main target for lecherous men who want to prove that no-such woman can possibly resist their charms.  Toywell, a fop and a flirt and engaged to Marilla, is the first to pursue her but Mrs Graspell (imaginatively referred to as ‘Wife’ in the play script) puts a stop to this.  She is then pursued by Beaumont, who seems more honourable and sincere, and she likes him but maintains her honour and virtue by asking him to desist in ‘making love to her’ (not literally – this was a phrase used to describe wooing).  Beaumont is adamant that he is in love with her and send a letter (billet-doux) to her, which is intercepted by Mr Graspell.  Instead of being incensed at the outright cheek of this man and quite rightly suggesting a duel at sunrise, what does he do?  He proposes to ‘lett’ his wife for £2000 to Beaumont.  And to my modern sensibilities, this sounds outrageous and not at all funny in the slightest.  How is this funny? 

After some legal research into William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), it actually turns out that Mr Graspell has the legal right to do this – she is, after all, his legal property.  As a Elizabeth Bergen Brophy so succinctly concludes, ‘woman is a secondary creation and after-thought, produced expressly for man, made from man (who is primary material) and given her identity, named by him [….] the husband was master by God-given command’.[1]  Beaumont only agrees to this if Mrs Graspell is in similar agreement, which seems relatively fair.  Whilst this has all been unfolding, it turns out, rather tenuously, that Beaumont was intended for another, Amadea.  She has travelled unaccompanied to London to find him wearing her brother’s clothes so as to avoid being attacked (were 18th century men really this uncontrollable?), let a room at Mr Graspell’s (how convenient), and overheard the conversations between Mrs Graspell and Beaumont.  She reveals her true identity to them both, Beaumont is flabbergasted and realises that he does, in fact, love Amadea (caught-out?  I think so), and Mrs Graspell asks her to foil her husband by continuing the pretence of being a man.  A dinner party is organised, all of the couple’s friends and neighbours are called to attend, and Mrs Graspell is purposefully found in the arms of another man (aka Amadea).  The group are shocked and appalled; poor cuckolded Mr Graspell married to an uncontrollable and sexually promiscuous woman!  This pretence is not kept up for long; Amadea reveals her true identity and Mrs Graspell reveals to the on-lookers that her husband has in fact sold her to the highest bidder.  The guests are appalled, Mr Graspell is now enlightened by this event and realises the errors of his ways, he begs forgiveness and Mrs Graspell replies ‘if I may believe your Pertinence sincere, I can return to your Embrace a true, a faithful, and a Virtuous Wife’.[2]

A first I am slightly perplexed by this ending but see Haywood’s intention.  One of her main aims, more so in her earlier work than the later work, is to strive for relative equality for both men and women in marriage.  It might seem that Mrs Graspell has been pacified and has to tolerate this wretch of a husband, which was expected of all wives of this period, but she has been given a voice – and a very public one at that.  As Backsheider says, ‘women writers were struggling to bring into public discussion subjects and experiences previously excluded.  They were exposing, even ridiculing the contradictions, public discourses and social codes that defined courtship rituals, the ideal man, and the good marriage.’[3]  Here, Haywood is bring attention to the inequality of power and authority between husband and wife in marriage, that a virtuous woman can be ruined by her own husband, and asks that women should be treated as equal human beings rather than objectified and sold to the highest bidder.  The fee of £2000 is a metaphor for the dowry system and the fact that a wife was a financial commodity, which is being criticised and mocked.  Marriage should be founded on respect and love rather than money and status.  The fact that Mr Graspell is publically humiliated, that the guests are shocked at his actions and that he is forced to publically apologise for his behaviour, reinforce that Haywood is bringing public attention to the inequality suffered by women in marriage at this moment in history.  Yes, Mrs Graspell goes back to her husband – divorce was unheard of.  However, this would never have been her intention – what she is striving for is to be treated as a human, an equal and to be respected by her partner in life … in 1792 Mary Wollestonecraft writes A Vindication of the Rights of Women echoing these exact same sentiments. 

3.30pm – it is time for me to head back.  My drive home allows me to digest the day’s readings and to start making links between primary and secondary sources.  I have ordered a few extra first edition Haywood texts and might have to take a trip to the British Library to access some very rare material that Chawton does not have … yet.



[1] Elizabeth Bergen Brophy, Women’s Lives and the 18th Century English Novel (The University of Florida, 1991), pp. 26-7. 
[2] Eliza Haywood, A Wife to Lett: A Comedy (London: W. Feales, 1735), p. 81.
[3] Paula R. Backscheider, ‘The Rise of Gender as Political Category’ from Revising Women: Eighteenth-Century “Women’s Fiction” and Social Engagement, ed., Paula R. Backscheider, (Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p. 46.

1 comment:

  1. IT sounds fascinating - so glad you are having such a wonderful time with this reading and research.

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