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  • A Political Biography of Eliza Haywood by Kathryn R. King
  • Juliette Merritt (bio)
A Political Biography of Eliza Haywood by Kathryn R. King London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012. 288pp. £60. ISBN 978-1-85196-917-3.

A “political” biography, King announces, “is ideally suited to tell the story of a shape-shifting author” (2). Anyone working on Eliza Haywood is familiar with the particular challenge for any of her biographers: we know so little of her private life. The “solemn injunction” (2) she placed on an intimate friend to suppress the circumstances of her personal life, designed to avoid the intermixture of truth and falsehood, appears to have succeeded. As King points out, Haywood had a “deep apprehension of the power of print to distort” (2), an understandable unease in someone who made her living in the Grub Street trenches. In the absence of facts, speculation and misinformation filled the void. Noting that the more temperate approach of Haywood’s first biographer, David Erskine Baker, was abandoned by later biographers and literary historians, King challenges the liberties taken with Haywood’s life and career. Inevitably, part of her task is to “correct” the record where possible (4), but the biographer’s understandable desire to know her subject more intimately emerges as well. Who could avoid the tempting question, “Who was Eliza Haywood, really?” King’s answer is as equivocal as her subject.

Applying the sensible antidote to the reliance on “what we think we know … constructed out of the malignity of her enemies” (6), King reveals Haywood through the lens of her friends and professional associates. Not hopeful that personal documents, a diary, or a stash of letters will ever turn up and aware that anyone who thrived in the literary marketplace as Haywood did must have maintained important and lucrative professional relationships, King puts the record of these relationships at the forefront of this illuminating and well-documented study. She examines the people around Haywood in order to get to Haywood, yet she is properly candid regarding her approach and the anticipated result: she wishes to separate “those parts of the received account that are undocumented, patently false or highly suspect from claims that can be shown to have some foundation in the historical record, although it should probably be added that any account, my own included, will require a great deal of inference and inevitably some degree of guesswork” (5). An example of such guesswork occurs early. Examining the Aaron Hill circle and the very public disputes with Martha Sansom and Richard Savage, King looks for, and perhaps finds, a more personal Haywood. Memoirs of a Certain Island Adjacent to the Kingdom of Utopia (1725), where we find Haywood “airing her grievances in public” (17), gives future biographers a possible route to her “sensibility” in her “wounded feelings” (17). King’s speculation here that Memoirs provides signs of an authentic Haywood is consistent with [End Page 176] her wish to identify Haywood’s “core values” (9), but this desire may be at odds with her ultimate conclusion that Haywood is “slippery” (King uses the term repeatedly), an almost postmodern Foucauldian author-figure.

In considering the political nature (broadly defined) of Haywood’s life and writings, King revisits the apparently vexing issue of Haywood’s party politics. Was she a Tory? Or, the more “arresting” question, was she a Jacobite? King finds that Haywood cannot be confined to or by strictly party politics as “she can be shown to have had relations at different times with dissident Whigs, disaffected Tories, crypto-Jacobites and allbut-declared Jacobites” (8). Whether it was as part of the “Patriot mix” who wrote in support of an opposition responding to Bolingbroke’s “ideal of a Patriot King” (9), or in romantic sympathy for the defeated and abject Jacobites, Haywood aligned herself philosophically with those on the margins of power.

One of the images of Haywood that emerges in this biography (and there are many as befits a “shape-shifting” author) is the writer who anticipated the late eighteenth-century cult of sensibility. Haywood’s sympathy for the abject, expressed early in Love in Excess (1719–20) in the figure of the begging, pitiable...


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pp. 176-178
Launched on MUSE
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