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  • The Sign of a Woman:Femininity as Fiction in The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless
  • Kristine Jennings (bio)

Praised as the “Great Arbitress of Passion,”1 Eliza Haywood garnered fame for her unabashed portrayal of the drama of human sexuality (Sterling 21). One of the most prolific writers of the eighteenth century, she entered the literary scene with wildly popular amatory novels2 that highlight the passions of both sexes. Haywood’s writing, however, seemed to undergo a significant transition from her early scandal fiction to the domestic novels she produced in the latter half of the century. This shift in style reflects a changing literary market that favored more moralistic fiction that rested on newly emergent ideas of femininity. The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, published in 1751, ostensibly reveals the protagonist’s moral conversion3 and thus seems to promote values in keeping with the conduct book literature of the time with its focus on the chaste domestic heroine and with its obvious sexual double standards. However, the text also questions divisions of gender and explores contrasting ideas of female sexuality, illustrating that women are not “merely docile recipients of men’s natural urges” (Booth 14). Thus, the novel reflects the era’s changing notions of sex and gender as it captures the existing tensions between two competing theories of female sexuality: the age-old view of women according to Galenic theory, which marked them as anatomically inverted men with comparable and even heightened sexual appetites, and the emerging myth of the naturally chaste woman that became central to the domestic novel as popularized by Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa.4 The unswerving virtue of these ideal women, however, did not come naturally to all fictional heroines. In The Rise of the Woman Novelist, Jane Spencer writes that “Betsy Thoughtless and novels like it brought about a crucial shift in the novel’s presentation of women, from the stasis of perfection or villainy to the dynamics of character change,” initiating the tradition of the reformed heroine, whose foibles and mistaken view of her “place in the world” are corrected so that she may earn happiness (141).5 While the novel tries to assure us that Betsy’s flaws do not extend to her sexuality, that she is, indeed, chaste and modest from beginning to end, she does, in the course of her narrative, give up a very important aspect of her sexuality, namely [End Page 39] the ability to take pleasure in her own body. In turn, this leads to a changed conception of herself and her own self-worth.

The opening pages of the novel tell the reader that “if he has the patience to go thro’ the following pages, [he] will see into the secret springs which set this fair machine in motion, and produced many actions which were ascribed, by the ill-judging and malicious world, to causes very different from the real ones” (Haywood 32). Despite the perhaps Cartesian allusion to the essential nature of the self beneath the mechanistic surface, identity in this novel is, indeed, neither stable nor independent but contingent on the discourse of the “judging and malicious world.” Lorna Beth Ellis claims that Haywood’s novel is the earliest example of the bildungs-roman, a narrative centered on a figure actively involved in his or her own development and able “to learn from experience and grow through self-reflection” (285).6 However, this development and the self-reflection on which it is contingent trace a negative rather than positive arc for the heroine, whose Bildung forces her to “grow down,” as Ellis aptly puts it: “she must give up those aspects of her independence that lead her away from patriarchal norms, and she must find ways to reconcile her view of herself with others’ expectations of her” (281). The pleasure she gains from her own body is one such aspect of her independence that must be given up; her experience of self, both imaginative and physical, must be violently reconfigured in this process of assimilation. In effect, the heroine is forced into a fiction of femininity that disallows the pleasure she formerly could take in herself, what had been...


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pp. 39-58
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