I just finished reading Eliza Haywood’s The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless for my 18th century novel class and, as I try to summarize/review the novels I read for class for posterity and my own amusement, I have decided to write iti up. So enjoy, but be warned: spoilers!
Published in 1751, Wikipedia declares Betsy “a sophisticated, multi-plot novel that has been deemed the first novel of female development in English.” As for myself, I openly scoff at that description, unless they actually meant a delightfully implausible soap opera style story from olden times, which is entirely possible. A spritely 650 pages long, Betsy follows a cleverly-named young lady as she nearly falls prey to multiple rape attempts (4) due to her own coquetry. Being too pretty whilst alone, I believe, was the formal charge. Somehow failing to learn her lesson after the third in a series of increasingly contrived attempts on her honor, she is married off by her remaining family members (brothers, obviously) to a young man named Munden (mundane), having scared off the latest in her series of valid prospects, Mr. Trueworth, by being buddy-buddy with a lady of the evening. Oops!
An orphan, Betsy was taken in to guardianship as a teenager (about 15 years old) by Mr. Goodman and his new wife, only to discover, about a year later, that her adoptive sister, Miss Flora (name ironic), has been libeling Betsy via letter in an attempt to destroy her reputation and steal her suitors in a desperate marriage-grab. Incensed, Betsy does nothing about it, as far as I can tell, aside from giving Flora one fierce cold shoulder. Icy though it is, Flora and her mother remain on the scene until they are booted out onto the streets of London after Mr. Goodman discovers the missus is having an affair whilst stealing from him. Harsh! Goodman dies shortly thereafter. No! Flora and her mother are then banished to Jamaica by Goodman’s grown son after attempting to forge Goodman’s last will. Vipers!
All the while Trueworth has been benefiting from Flora’s loose nature (though the novel doesn’t grudge him this because sexism) before meeting Harriet, a truly virtuous girl, with whom he falls in love. They are married around the same time Betsy becomes Mrs. Munden and discovers true unhappiness as he kills her pet squirrel in an attempt to break her will. Unacceptable! Like any good woman Betsy submits to his will utterly, that is, until he cheats on her with the French tart that Betsy’s own brother recently kicked out for running around on him. Betsy goes back to her brothers and we learn that no one in the 18th century cared about infidelity or squirrels, since Munden is legally within his rights to keep Betsy’s entire inheritance and force her to come back home. Finally, Munden gets sick and dies, which is great, and so does Harriet, which is very unlikely, but no one cares because they want Betsy and Trueworth to marry. Then they do. The end!
Mind blowing literature for the cognoscenti? Perhaps no, but it is oddly entertaining in all of it’s trait name-laden improbability. Haywood was insanely prolific, producing over 70 works in her lifetime, and the “lessons” of the novel are irrelevant now, perhaps, but it is self-aware and not nearly as heavy handed as much of the 18C work out there. In the end there really is something charming about reading quasi-fluff entertainments from days of yore and, in that sense, Betsy really is enjoyable. The squirrel though, if you don’t tear up you’re dead inside.