Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fantomina and Other Works

Broadview Press has been really great at publishing what would otherwise be obscure works by little known eighteenth-century novelists. Eliza Haywood, however, little known now, was a literary superstar of her day (arguably the most well-known and prolific novelist of the first half of the eighteenth century), but is not widely read today. This Broadview edition brings together four of her shorter works. Since these works are so short, I decided to review them together.

Fantomina, or Love in a Maze (1724): I found this quite hilarious. It is about a woman who manages to seduce the same man over and over again by adopting various disguises. Yes, really. He never picks up on the fact that he is sleeping with the same woman over and over again. The way Haywood transforms the "seduced maiden" story is very clever - she turns the seduced maiden into the seducer (much more daring than Clarissa!). While this will leave you wondering about the intellect of the man in question, it's a very clever, tongue-in-cheek work. I really enjoyed it.

The Tea-Table, or A Conversation between Some Polite People of both Sexes, at a Lady's Visiting Day (1725): The title really gives away what this work is about - it literally is a conversation over a tea-table. Most of the conversation centers around love and virtue, but they do veer off on tangents and some of the inset stories are quite lengthy. It is interesting, but a little disjointed. Much less a real conversation, I guess! I enjoyed the narrative sections much more than the theoretical conversations.

Reflections on the Various Effects of Love (1726): Again, the title gives the game away. This is basically an extended reflection on the nature of love. There is a lot of discussion on why some people behave so appallingly when they fall in love, and the conclusion that the narrator comes to is that love heightens our essential characteristics. For example, if you are subconsciously frivolous or morally loose, love "unlocks" that characteristic. On the flipside, if you are good, love will bring out that essential goodness. Again, there are quite a few inset narratives that serve to illustrate the narrator's point, which are the most enjoyable parts of the work.

Love Letters on All Occasions lately passed between Persons of Distinction (1730): This is basically a set of individual love letters. While some letters are followed by a reply, most exist in isolation, so we never actually know 'what happens next'. The longest sequence of letters (which runs over approximately 10 pages) is similarly incomplete - the lovers are just about to be reunited when all of a sudden Haywood switches her attention to another couple. What is interesting is that each letter is about a different facet of love. There are letters about unrequited love, jealousy, constancy, absence - everything you can ever imagine. It's actually quite remarkable. While the fact that there is no actual narrative means it's hard to get into the book, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. And I wanted to know more about everybody! It's like 80 pages of tantalizing hints at longer stories. Very frustrating, but very enjoyable at the same time.

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