The Fair Triumvirate of Wits

Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel has an intriguing chapter on “The Fair Triumvirate of Wits” — Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley, and Eliza Haywood, all writers of the late 17C and early 18C who made their living from writing. None of them had particularly good reputations — and by that I mean their sexual reputations were suspect — and Spender makes the point that sexual reputation and writerly reputation get conflated when we’re talking about women writers of the time (and later times). The reputations of these women as writers have suffered, even though (or because?) their writings were very popular, in part because their behavior was “questionable”:

In trying to explain why it is that Aphra Behn’s novels have been ‘ignored’ and that pride of place has been accorded to Daniel Defoe, it emerges that there have been clear links between Aphra Behn’s ‘immorality’ and her expulsion from the literary mainstream. Her work has not been fit for study.

Spender devotes a lot of space to analyzing why these three women’s contributions to the novel have been ignored, and at times this can get a bit repetitive. Also, I’m reading the book from the perspective of 20 years later, when much critical writing has tried to give these women their place in literary history, so the book feels dated at times. But still, her account of what these women accomplished is interesting.

Of Aphra Behn, for example, she writes:

In her choice of subject matter, her commentary, and her style, she illustrates some of the differences in outlook between women and men; even her sense of humour — which frequently makes men the butt of the joke — contrasts markedly to the forms to which we are accustomed, and in which it is the humour of men that prevails.

Behn is important in the development of the novel because her writing moved the genre toward a new kind of realism; it is not that she’s writing the kind of realism that we are familiar with today, but that she “has a talent for minute observation, astute assessment, the portrayal of fine realistic detail.” She brought a new level of believability to older forms of writing such as the pastoral romance.

Delariviere Manley was famous for her “scandal chronicles” — works that were set in far-away, exotic places, but were clearly about local high-born people and their exploits. Spender argues that Manley’s writing furthered the novel by taking realism in yet another direction — this time instead of writing realistically about fantastical people and places as Aphra Behn did, Manley “introduced a fantastical rendition of real-life happenings.” In fact, she went to prison briefly for writing about the scandalous doings of powerful people in government. It’s in these various ways of mixing up fiction and reality, Spender argues, that a comfort with and acceptance of fiction — lies that are somehow true — as we know it today developed.

Eliza Haywood was hugely prolific and wrote in just about every genre available at the time — and in a number that weren’t:

The growth and development of the novel can be illustrated with reference to the writing of this one woman, who reveals an extraordinary creative ability, who freely experiments with form and style, and who produces an unprecedented and perhaps unparalleled range of novels. Every enduring and exemplary feature of the new genre is to be found in her writing, and yet she has never been given the credit for her contribution.

Spender argues that Haywood realized she had more and more potential readers among the middle classes and so began to write with their interests in mind. Interestingly, she claims Haywood anticipated Samuel Richardson’s “innovations” to the novel form in Pamela by writing about a middle-class heroine battling an aristocratic villain and thus introducing the kind of class warfare that would preoccupy many novelists after her. Here is how Spender sums up her achievement:

She was among the first to assert the validity of middle class experience, among the first to insist on the significance and the humanity of ‘ordinary people’ and among the first to explore the conflict of interest between the classes and sexes. And in so doing she helped to modify the very essence of a story and its meaning.

I haven’t read enough of the writings of these women! I like to think I’ve read a lot in the 18C, but reading Spender’s book makes me realize how much I’ve missed. I’ve read Behn’s Oroonoko, her play The Rover and some poems, and that’s it. I’ve read Haywood’s novel Love in Excess, but nothing else by her. And nothing at all by Manley. We’ll see what else I can add to the list.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

7 responses to “The Fair Triumvirate of Wits

  1. Stephanie

    I’d definitely recommend Haywood’s The History of Betsy Thoughtless. It’s very different to Love in Excess (it’s written very late in Haywood’s career, whilst LiE was her first novel), but it’s especially interesting when you compare it to stuff like Evelina.


  2. Eva

    Thanks for posting about these women! I didn’t even know they existed before, but now they’re both on the TBR list. If there’s another Winter Classics Challenge, I think I’ll go for them. 🙂


  3. I’ve only ever heard of Aphra Behn. Always meant to read her but have yet to get around to her. I must make the time and add the other two women in as well!


  4. It’s interesting that some of these women anticipated styles of writing or new innovations that later on would make male authors famous. I have access to some of the works by these women in my library–I should really read something by them.


  5. What fascinating women! I have read nothing by any of them, I’m ashamed to say, but will certainly look up the Spender book now, at the very least.


  6. The Restoration period was a marvellous time for women playwrights; I fell in love with it so much I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Aphra Behn and Susannah Centlivre. It was quite enlightening when researching it to read the male Victorian critics on Behn who condemned and passed over her hurriedly for writing in a way that was perfectly acceptable from a man, but not a woman. I haven’t read many novels of these women, though, and you’ve encouraged me to revisit the period, thanks.


  7. Stephanie — thank you for the recommendation! From what Spender says about it, Betsy Thoughtless does sound like a good place to turn.

    Eva — I would certainly be interested to hear what you thought!

    And you too, Stefanie! Certainly Oroonoko would be a good place to start, I think, as it’s Behn’s most famous work.

    Danielle — it IS interesting, isn’t it? Spender’s account of how they get written out of the criticism is quite infuriating.

    Litlove — yes, Spender’s book is worth a look — she’s got a fabulous list of women novelists before Austen; it’s a great resource.

    Eloise — it was a fabulous time, wasn’t it? Centlivre is one I read in grad school and I remember liking her (although I can’t say I remember details …). I tend to study the later part of the century more, so learning about the earlier part is always interesting.


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