For a cosmic hot second in the 200+ years between Eliza Haywood’s death in 1756 and feminism rising from the murky depths of literary scholarship, we lost sight of her work and its role in the development of the English novel. The biographical facts of her life are hard to come by and harder to confirm, but what we do know portrays her as the 18th century’s J.K. Rowling: a single mom with two kids who wrote one of the most popular books of the century (1720’s Love in Excess) and then published a new novel every three months through the 1720s. Haywood was a playwright, a translator, a journalist and publisher, and that was after several years as an actress on the stage. For those two centuries after her death, the literary canon relegated her work and legacy not to the Early English Novelists trophy case, but to the genre sub-basement known as “amatory fiction,” to make room for her contemporaries Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding.
Don’t let the amatory fiction label fool you: Haywood wrote novels. Why the long exclusion from the canon, then? Why call it amatory fiction or domestic literature or ovarian dialogues rather than novels? In Haywood’s case, these were romances that had dark turns where women were seduced by rakes that they couldn’t recognize because their families had kept them innocent (read: ignorant). Her novels show the consequences to women who step out of line with the morals of their day: the money and security at stake, the shaming from her family and friends, and the toll those consequences take on a woman’s emotional health.