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The British Recluse and the Politics of Seduction

Critic Jane Spencer states a valid observation of Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess. She claims that Haywood’s weak female characters and representation of passion “debar her from…cogent analysis of the politics of seduction.” Spencer’s remark anticipates the critical readers’ response to Haywood’s demonstration of women’s unnameable passion, the purpose of her writing, and her philosophies. Spencer’s argument cites Haywood’s futile attempts to represent desire, an inconceivable definition of passion.

In Catherine Gallagher’s “Embracing the Absolute”, Whig and Tory ideology and the attempts to define feminism generated inconsistent differences throughout the 18th century. Parallel to the monarchist and parliamentarian ideologies, both party issues were based on women’s political rights and the hierarchical structure reflected in family values and society (Gallagher 24.). Defining feminism created fragmented ideas which in turn created a weak foundation for women writers. The under-representation of women during that time urged scrutiny of scandalous narratives like that of Eliza Haywood’s British Recluse.

Emily Anderson’s “Performing the Passions”, cites poet, James Sterling, who calls Eliza Haywood the “Great Arbitress of Passion” because her works echo experimental operations of desire (Anderson 1.) This comprises the erotic and spiritual aspects of her writing.

Haywood’s British Recluse includes many instances of overwhelming desire and lustful hunger which render the two protagonists, Cleomira and Belinda, in a state of illness. Cleomira admits her ailment in her silent suffering as a “truth” (Haywood 169). This incidentally resonates Lockean ‘self-identity’ or perhaps a spiritual Platonist ‘absolute truth.’ The significance of this is that Haywood demonstrates the character’s ability to create decisions and self-identity that aren’t based on a societal code.

What supports Spencer’s claim most of all is that Haywood’s pieces were not observed as an analysis of seduction. According to Susan Muse’s “Gender Politics in the Novels of Eliza Haywood”, works like Love in Excess and British Recluse were categorized as entertainment rather than a serious form of propaganda (Muse 7.) Formula fiction or, in the words of John Richetti, “fantasy machines” are not scrutinized in a political sense (Ibid.) More importantly, The British Recluse reflects elements of fantasy fiction.

The sexual fantasies and the cultural taboos revealed in The British Recluse resonate with the fictional aspect of the novella. Cleomira leaves her home because she was seduced by Lysander who later rapes and abandons her. There are erotic descriptions of the “Liberties he took” and the “strenuous” force he produced against Cleomira (Haywood 178.)

The British Recluse resonates with John Locke’s philosophy of pleasure and pain (Tierney 159.) This idea justifies the reactions of Haywood’s characters. Belinda experiences “a mixture of delight and pain, a kind of racking joy and pleasing anguish” while in Courtal’s presence (Haywood 203.) Locke claims our delight and trouble stem from good and evil forces. Incidentally, Locke also supports the idea of a tabula rasa, a blank slate on moral principles (Locke.) This is significant because the characters in The British Recluse act on will rather than morals.

A self-aware reader of the 18th century would actively notice the cautionary tale in Eliza Haywood’s novellas. Haywood also demonstrates the observations of hysteria made by William Harvey. He claims “unsatisfied female desire” leads to “grave consequences” (Harvey.) She easily marks passion as an ailment or a negative, evil force. Both heroines of The British Recluse suffer from their acts of lust. Belinda feels she is at her “Ruin” when Courtal acts out forcefully upon her in the woods (Haywood 211.) Cleomira also suffers after Lysander’s abandonment. The pregnant heroine tumbled into a mentally agitated state. “Woes fell thick” upon her and she felt reaped from all of her “Joys” (183.) This type of passion is one that doesn’t reward the character but rather takes from the character’s happiness, therefore it is a form of punishment.

Although Haywood’s philosophy of passion and consequence is singular, others may argue that such hysteria or desire is not an absolute evil. Eighteenth-century philosopher, David Hume, argues that passion is indeed a force of unpredictability, but it is also one that shouldn’t be punished or feared the way Haywood demonstrates in her two heroines (Hume.)

It may be suggested that Haywood did not intend to represent the politics of seduction in her model of authorship. From Rebecca Tierney’s “Fictional Mechanics”, Scott Black argues that Haywood’s work encourages a critical and self-aware reader. Black proposes her pieces were constructs of a “textual game” (Tierney 157.) He suggests Haywood intentionally meant for her writing to be taken as satire, which would render Spencer’s claim inapplicable because she responds to Haywood’s Love in Excess as though it was meant to be a serious piece.

Understanding the politics of seduction is subjective and beyond narrative reach. Jane Spencer’s claim accurately reflects the inconceivable definition of passion and also alludes to the differences in political ideology regarding feminism. Haywood’s singular philosophy fails to support a societal understanding of passion. Her writing, though deeply admired, possesses no authority of analysis, only a fictional demonstration of 18th-century women. Although a self-aware reader may approach her texts and receive them as satire or scandal, Eliza Haywood’s method doesn’t support a universal code of seduction.

Works Cited

Anderson, Emily Hodgson. “Performing the Passions in Eliza Haywood's ‘Fantomina’ and ‘Miss Betsy Thoughtless.’” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 46, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1–15. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Gallagher, Catherine. “Embracing the Absolute: The Politics of the Female Subject in Seventeenth-Century England” Genders 18.1 (1988): 24-39. Print.

Harvey, William. “The Female Affliction.” Handout. Topics in the British Novel. (Magdalena Nerio.) UTSA.

Haywood, Eliza. “British Recluse: Or the Secret History of Cleomira, Suppos’d Dead.” Popular Fiction by Women 1660-1730: An Anthology. Paula R. Backscheider, John J. Richetti. Great Britain: Oxford, 1996. 152-224. Print.

Hume, David. “Eliza Haywood, praised by her contemporaries as ‘The Great Arbitress of Passion.” Handout. Topics in the British Novel. (Magdalena Nerio.) UTSA.

Locke, John. “Literary Terms and Contexts Continued: Haywood.” Handout. Topics in the British Novel. (Magdalena Nerio.) UTSA.

Muse, Susan, "Gender Politics in the Novels of Eliza Haywood" (2012). Dissertations (2009 -). Paper 201.

Tierney-Hynes, Rebecca. “Fictional Mechanics: Haywood, Reading, and the Passions.” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 51, no. 1/2, 2010, pp. 153–172. JSTOR, JSTOR,

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