Genius and the Construction of the “Inferior Female Creator”: The Case of Eliza Haywood

Claudia Chibici-Revneanu

Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores (ENES), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), León, Mexico

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


This article is based on the idea that the Romantic ideology of genius brought with it a gendered antagonist category: that of the commercially driven “inferior female creator.” This image, a kind of archetypal figure filled with the life-stories of individual women writers, conveniently collapsed the early Romantic, status-quo threatening forces of literary commercialism and feminization into one. The phenomenon is studied specifically with reference to the 18th century English author Eliza Haywood. By analyzing attacks on Haywood and other important female writers during her lifetime, as well as the predominantly negative image of the author created in George Frisbee Whicher’s early 20th century biography The Life and Romances of Mrs. Eliza Haywood, it will be shown that the writer seems to have acted as a key representative of a derogatory category which lofty, predominantly male “geniuses” could define themselves against.

Keywords: genius; gender; Eliza Haywood; inferior female creator; G.F. Whicher, The Life and Romances of Mrs. Eliza Haywood

1.) Introduction

The present article argues that the Romantic ideology of genius arose during a time in 18th century England when – due to an unprecedented entrance of successful women writers – the male dominance within the literary domain came under considerable strain. Added to this, this time also saw the emergence of literary commercialism, a tendency the strong appearance of female writers became closely associated with.

It will be claimed that – just like pre-Romantic ideas typically conceived of genius as a male spirit/figure accompanied by a female counter-part – the Romantic notion of genius also subtly configured a division where the role of the lofty genius creator was reserved for males and unthreatening token females. Most women related to the art world, on the other hand, were channeled into subordinate roles such as the muse, the helpmate or – most relevantly for the present discussion – the “inferior, female creator.”

This claim will be analyzed with specific reference to the prolific and successful English writer Eliza Haywood (1693–1756). It will be argued that Haywood – just like Shakespeare for the genius figure (Bate, 1999) – seems to have acted as a key representative for the image of the “inferior female creator”, a stigma that accompanied the writer into the 20th century, until her recent recovery by feminist critics as a “key player in the history of the British novel, and a leading figure in a brilliant and competitive London literary scene” (Saxton, 2000, pos. 40).

In order to corroborate these claims, I will provide a succinct discussion of reactions to Haywood and associated female writers during her life-time, and – to show the lasting influence of the figure of the “inferior female creator” – an analysis of the derogatory portrayal of Haywood in George Frisbee Whicher’s early 20th century biography The Life and Romances of Mrs. Eliza Haywood.

The present article is indebted to works such as Battersby’s Gender and Genius – Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (1989) and Clarke’s The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters (2004), with her claim (to present a generalized interpretation of a complex argument) that in the world of 18th century literature positioning oneself as a woman over-all conforming with traditional gender roles was essential to literary survival. Also, it relies on other crucial texts such as by Prescott’s Women, Authorship and Literary Culture, 1690-1740 (2003) and Siskin’s The Work of Writing – Literature and Social Change in Britain 1700-1830 (1998), among many others that will be referred to during the course of this study. Nevertheless, I believe that the present discussion of Haywood’s reception with specific reference to the emergent genius ideology and the subsequent analysis of the author’s portrayal in Whicher’s biography may act as original contributions to the field.

The article will start off with a brief outline of key concepts such as the history of genius and the concept’s inherent gendering. Subsequently, it will glance at Haywood’s life-time and show how several texts by her contemporaries actively tried to create a narrow space for superior male and acceptable female genius writers by defining themselves against “inferior” writers such as Eliza Haywood. It will then turn towards an analysis of Whicher’s biography and illustrate how even in the early 20th century Haywood is still evoked as a representative of the “inferior female creator.” Finally, the conclusion will present a brief summary of the matters discussed as well as pointing to the relevance of these issues to our contemporary, literary world.

2.) Glancing at the basics

The history of genius.

For the present analysis, we will chiefly rely on the definition of genius as “an exceptionally intelligent or able person” (Pearsall 2003). The history of the concept is a long and complex one. The ideology of genius can be seen as a combination of certain – often mysterious – beliefs (such as innate talent and mysterious inspiration) and a genius figure with its own separate development. As to the former, a notion of innate artistic capacity was already present in ancient Greece (Murray 1999: 11) and in the Latin concept of “ingenium”. With regard to the genius “figure”, it takes its origin in ancient Rome, where genius originally acts as a spirit of masculine procreativity (Nitzsche 1975: 20). The concept of genius also becomes merged with Greek ideas of daimons, related Christian divisions of angels and demons and appears as an allegorical figure in several works of medieval literature (see, for instance, Zilsel 1972)…Full Text PDF

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