Once again Dr. Boli has contributed an introduction to a work of literature that, if it is not quite a “classic,” is at least older than he is. And once again, by permission of the publisher (who hopes someone will be tempted to buy the book in a very attractive and economical paperback edition), he reprints his introduction here. This time the book is by another professional female scribbler, one who was at least as industrious as the ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn. In this case the book is a reaction to the biggest seller of the eighteenth century: Pamela, the interminable epistolatory novel by Samuel Richardson. If you were thinking of reading Pamela for some reason, you can do yourself a great favor and read Anti-Pamela by Mrs. Eliza Haywood instead. And with no further introduction to the introduction, here is the introduction.
This is not a work of great literature, and we shall not attempt to make you imagine that it is one. It is a very entertaining book, however, and a very instructive one as well.
It was written, as the title alone would tell us, in response to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded, a fantastically popular novel, published in 1740, whose incalculable influence on English literature consists mostly in causing so many better writers to hate it and embark on novel-writing careers of their own in response. No one willingly reads Pamela today, although it is still available in paperback editions for college students who made the mistake of taking classes in eighteenth-century literature, supposing that everything from the 1700s must be as good as Fielding.
Anti-Pamela was published anonymously, the way most reactions to Pamela were published. (Indeed most novels were published anonymously, including Pamela itself; novel-writing was not a respectable vocation.) The author, Eliza Haywood, displays a convincing knowledge of the seediest sides of London life, and indeed she was accused of being a woman of ill repute herself by no less an authority on women of ill repute than Alexander Pope. (To be accused of anything by Alexander Pope was probably a great favor to one’s reputation.) Not much is really known about her life, however, and that is by her own design. She deliberately kept her private life out of the public eye. More than one author might have profited from her example. One thing we do know about her, however, is that she wrote prodigious amounts of copy for anyone who would buy it.
Unsurprisingly this whole book has the appearance of being dashed off in a monstrous hurry. The very punctuation adds to that impression, with phrases and sentences connected by long dashes that make us imagine a writer in too much of a hurry to get to the next word to think up some proper punctuation. Of course this is partly a deliberate technique: the story seems to move faster when the paragraphs are full of dashes. But the printing is hurried, too, with many obvious errors (most of which we have silently corrected in this edition). Anti-Pamela was written, printed, and published in time to be the second response to Richardson’s Pamela; the first, Fielding’s Shamela, beat it by only a couple of days, and whereas Shamela was a short novella, Anti-Pamela is a substantial novel in its own right, twice the length of Shamela. Our impression of hurry is probably justified.
This is therefore not a perfectly constructed story. Plotting is not our author’s strongest skill. When the schemes of mother and daughter are accidentally revealed by a waylaid letter, “they only cursed Fortune, and accused themselves for having trusted the Secret of their Design to Pen and Paper,” as our author says in one of her moralizing passages. Yet their next intrigue is ruined by exactly the same accident, as if they had entirely forgotten the lesson.
Yet, having complained about that, we must admit that the action seems to proceed very naturally. Our author has created a protagonist—one stops short of using the word “heroine” here—whose character is consistent and memorable, and that character drives all the incidents of the plot. Everything that happens to her arises from Syrena’s pursuit of two objects: “interest” and pleasure. She cannot have either, because she demands both, but her pleasure runs counter to her interest, and her interest would deprive her of her pleasure.
It is a little disappointing at first that our author cannot narrate the monstrous actions of Syrena and her mother without pointing out, repeatedly, how monstrous they are. She might have simply let them speak for themselves by sticking entirely to the epistolatory format, as Richardson did. Or she might have adopted a more satirical voice and praised them for their wisdom and perspicacity, as though mercenary considerations were the only virtue. That certainly would have been an effective satire against Richardson.
But our author is not the satirist Fielding was. She has accomplished something Fielding had not yet accomplished, however: she has created a story worth reading for its own sake, whether we know anything about Richardson’s novel or not. When Fielding did attempt stories of his own, he would turn into one of the greatest novelists in English literature, equaled only by Austen, Dickens, and a few others; so it is hardly insulting to the memory of Mrs. Haywood to say that Fielding would later write better novels. Fielding had not yet shown the English-speaking world that there could be such a thing as a better novel. Novels were cheap popular entertainment, not works of art.
And as entertainment, in spite of its flaws, Anti-Pamela succeeds admirably. Mrs. Haywood manages her protagonist with considerable skill. While she is hatching a scheme, we are involved enough with her that we almost hope for her to succeed; when she is on the point of success, she begins to behave so abominably that we are happy to see her humiliated yet again. As long as she sticks to this formula, Mrs. Haywood unfailingly entertains us. Her one attempt at a tragic love story does not come off so well; one wants to shake the poor expiring heroine and tell her to pull up her socks. Wisely she did not attempt that sort of thing again in this tale, and the rest of the book is simply fun.
As for its avowed instructive intent, that is of course the usual excuse for presenting concentrated lewdness to the reader: that the exposure of vice to the light of knowledge will be instructive. To us in the twenty-first century, however, the book is instructive in quite a different way. It is as lively a picture of a certain kind of London life as we can find in all literature: specifically, the world of kept mistresses, casual assignations, and vice papered over with conventional hypocrisy. Most of us will learn more about that world from this one story than we could possibly learn from a dozen academic historical studies.
Instructing us in that way, however, was certainly not the author’s intention. We can be sure that Mrs. Haywood had really only two intentions, beyond selling her book: to entertain her readers, and to lob a great big custard pie at that awful Pamela creature.
We have already remarked that she succeeds in entertaining us. As for parodying Pamela, she succeeds very well at that, too. The thing that provoked such outrage among sensitive readers of Richardson’s great bestseller was that Pamela, presented as the epitome of virtue, seems calculatingly mercenary, and is happy to marry a perfect cad if she can have him on her terms, merely because his status is so far above hers. It has been pointed out by more than one reader—Henry Fielding and Eliza Haywood being two examples—that, merely by observing her actions, there is no way to tell whether Pamela is a simple innocent or a wily schemer who knows what her virginity is worth on the open market and gets her own price for it in the end.
As we have suggested, Mrs. Haywood might have made a cleverer satire, but she hits her mark pretty well with this one. The innocent is not always so innocent, and happy the man who sees women for what they are—which is to say, creatures as much motivated by pleasure and avarice as he is. We might describe Mrs. Haywood as a feminist in at least this sense: that she seems to believe the differences between men and women are artificial, and nature left to herself will make the sexes equal, if only equally bad. In her world it is better, therefore, to harbor no illusions: we should not expect innocence in others, and we should not put too much effort into maintaining it ourselves. (We can hardly help noticing that the only truly innocent character in the whole book dies of sheer innocence and nothing else.) This world is not one that attracts us morally, but to look at it from the outside for a few hours is very entertaining, and what more can we ask from a novel?
H. Albertus Boli.