- Haywood's Thinking Machines
Winner, Eighteenth-Century Fiction Graduate Essay Prize 2007
A number of scholars have argued in recent years that the characters in Haywood's early fiction do not conform to modern notions of subjectivity. For William Warner, the "shell-like emptiness" of protagonists "defined less by anything they bring to the narrative before their appearance in it than by their position in the plot" stems from Haywood's participation in a new "media culture" that drives her to abstract and simplify the novel of amorous intrigue into an "entertainment machine" available for "potentially endless repetition on the market."1 Jonathan Kramnick broadly endorses Warner's revisionist account of the rise of the novel, which finds "the dissolution of the subject precisely when we are to expect its genesis," but explains the peculiarities of Haywood's fiction by suggesting that, in depicting consciousness in the early eighteenth century, "Haywood inherited a category very much in flux." As a result, the traditional Lockean model of the mind as a single coherent identity isolated from its material environment does not map onto her characters: "where [End Page 201] Locke locates consciousness within the person, Haywood distributes consciousness from one mind to another and ... loosens thinking and desiring from the subject."2 Finally, Helen Thompson has provided a specific context for Haywood's mode of characterization by unpacking the influence in Fantomina (1725) of a "materialist philosophy of the person" that has its roots in seventeenth-century Epicureanism. Thompson argues that in the adventures of a heroine who repeatedly changes her identity in order to seduce the same man, Haywood eliminates "any subjectivizing residue that would linger outside the rigorous discontinuity of her performances."3 While Warner sees the mechanical behaviour of Haywood's characters as a function of her position in a competitive print market, Kramnick and Thompson have shown it may also be attributed to the "regime of description" peculiar to her historical moment.4
But these critics share a more problematic interest in representing Haywood's fiction as somehow free of the conventional moral didacticism that came to dominate later eighteenth-century fiction, particularly after Samuel Richardson's interventions in the 1740s, and invoke as evidence the automatism of Haywood's characters in her signature erotic scenes-Beauplaisir's first seduction of the young lady in Fantomina, for example, or the various attempts of Count D'Elmont to seduce Amena and Melliora in Love in Excess (1719-20). For Kramnick, the absence of a subject to whom consent or volition can be attached also makes it impossible for readers to regard any one of the characters as "culpable" for what occurs. Instead, "we are to experience ... the contradiction and continuity between inward desire and outward mode, sexual agency and social form."5 For Warner, the fantastical automatism of Haywood's characters in [End Page 202] the seduction scenes helps to emancipate her readers from the repressive moral obligations of ordinary life. Not only does their flatness allow readers to project their own subject position onto them, but also, because they are depicted as desiring machines that cannot be blamed for involuntary and unavoidable actions, the readers who identify with them benefit from the same freedom, becoming in their turn "novel-reading automata" consuming fiction solely for pleasure. Warner argues that, while Haywood may sometimes make claims to be improving her readers morally, "these are usually quite dubious, tendered only in order to evade censure or censorship."6 And although Thompson sees Haywood's mechanical characters pulling in the opposite direction-trying but failing to act morally-she shares Warner's sense of the basic incompatibility of mechanism and morality. Thompson argues that Haywood's early fiction achieves its feminist impact only indirectly by portraying the "hydraulic" physiology of "Hobbesian individuals" whose efforts to conform to the moral obligations imposed on them by a patriarchal social order are undermined by catastrophic moments of explosive "venting."7 Although she does not doubt Haywood's sincerity, as Warner does, Thompson reads a rebellious unconscious into her fiction that appears most visibly at the moments when her stories fail to do what they set out to do: instead of...