Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Adventures of Eovaai, Princess of Ijaveo

The Adventures of Eovaai, Princess of Ijaveo, by Eliza Haywood (1736), is one of the strangest novels I've ever read. Part oriental fantasy, part political satire, part romance, and part soft pornography, it's a very strange, but very enjoyable read. It takes place in a "pre-adammatical" period. Haywood's explanation for this strange choice of setting - before any humans were supposed to have existed - is that the world was destroyed and reborn a few times before this world was created.

The political satire comes from the fact that Haywood is obviously satirising the corruption of Robert Walpole, who was what could be considered the first Prime Minister of Great Britain (the position wasn't recognised as such then, but he basically acted as Prime Minister). The character that represents Walpole in the novel is an evil magician. That should tell you that this is not a gentle satire, or a satire that merely makes its subject ridiculous. Rather, the satire is downright vicious. Walpole is represented as nothing short of the embodiment of evil. The political satire doesn't end with Walpole, though - Haywood represents most of the major political figures of the day through the course of the work. It's amazing to see just how politically engaged a female novelist could be, so early in the development of the novel as a form. This is definitely not a domestic novel!

It's also a surprisingly postmodern novel. Throughout the text, which is presented as if it is a translation of an ancient text, there are extensive footnotes, or "commentaries", by an unnamed narrator. The narrator comments on the action and constantly draws attention to the text as a text, but is by no means unreliable. Rather, the commentator makes misogynistic statements or claims that the characters don't really mean what they have appeared to say, but actually mean something else. It's all very metatextual and interesting. It's a very knowing text - Haywood clearly intends to be experimental, obviously mixing generic forms and tipping her hat to the reader in recognition of this. This is why it makes me mad when certain modern authors think they are being oh-so-experimental by doing stuff with unreliable narrators or textual commentary - it was being done in 1736!

I really enjoyed this book, and I think it's a book that will stand up well to re-readings. It's a short novel, but there's a lot to take in. Knowing a lot about the politics of the time is non-essential if you read the Broadview edition, too, as the introduction is excellent and the editor points out a lot of the more subtle references to early 18th-century politics that would otherwise be lost on the 21st-century reader.

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