Ex-Classics Home Page

Gosse's Gossip - WHAT ANN LANG READ




LOVE IN EXCESS; or The Fatal Inquiry, by Eliza Haywood. Printed for D. Brown jun. at the Black Swan without Temple Bar. MDCCXXII
IDALIA, or The Unfortunate Mistress. by Eliza Haywood. Printed for DAN. BROWNE jun. at the Black-Swan without Temple-Bar; and S. CHAPMAN at the Angel in Pallmall. M.DCC.XXIII.
A WIFE TO BE LETT, by Eliza Haywood. Printed for DAN. BROWNE jun. at the Black-Swan without Temple-Bar; MDCCXXIII.

                Who was Ann Lang? Alas! I am not sure; but she flourished one hundred and sixty years ago, under his glorious Majesty, George I., and I have become the happy possessor of a portion of her library. It consists of a number of cheap novels, all published in 1723 and 1724, when Ann Lang probably bought them; and each carries, written on the back of the title, "ann Lang book 1727," which is doubtless the date of her lending them to some younger female friend. The letters of this inscription are round and laboriously shaped, while the form is always the same, and never "Ann Lang, her book," which is what one would expect. It is not the hand of a person of quality: I venture to conclude that she who wrote it was a milliner's apprentice or a servant-girl. There are five novels in this little collection, and a play, and a pamphlet of poems, and a bundle of love-letters, all signed upon their title-pages by the Ouida of the period, the great Eliza Haywood.

            No one who has not dabbled among old books knows how rare have become the strictly popular publications of a non-literary kind which a generation of the lower middle class has read and thrown away. Eliza Haywood lives in the minds of men solely through one very coarse and cruel allusion to her made by Pope in the Dunciad. She was never recognised among people of intellectual quality; she ardently desired to belong to literature, but her wish was never seriously gratified, even by her friend Aaron Hill. Yet she probably numbered more readers, for a year or two, than any other person in the British realm. She poured forth what she called "little Performances" from a tolerably respectable press; and the wonder is that in these days her abundant writings are so seldom to be met with. The secret doubtless is that her large public consisted almost wholly of people like Ann Lang. Eliza was read by servants in the kitchen, by seamstresses, by basket-women, by 'prentices of all sorts, male and female, but mostly the latter. For girls of this sort there was no other reading of a light kind in 1724. It was Eliza Haywood or nothing. The men of the same class read Defoe; but he, with his cynical severity, his absence of all pity for a melting mood, his savagery towards women, was not likely to be preferred by "straggling nymphs." The footman might read Roxana, and the hackney-writer sit up after his toil over Moll Flanders; there was much in these romances to interest men. But what had Ann Lang to do with stories so cold and harsh? She read Eliza Haywood.

            But most of her sisters, of Eliza's great clientèle, did not know how to treat a book. They read it to tatters, and they threw it away. It may be news to some readers that these early novels were very cheap. Ann Lang bought Love in Excess, which is quite a thick volume, for two shillings; and the first volume of Idalia (for Eliza was Ouidaesque even in her titles) only cost her eighteen-pence. She seems to have been a clean girl. She did not drop warm lard on the leaves. She did not tottle up her milk-scores on the bastard-title. She did not scribble in the margin "Emanuella is a foul wench." She did not dog's-ear her little library, or stain it, or tear it. I owe it to that rare and fortunate circumstance of her neatness that her beloved books have come into my possession after the passage of so many generations. It must be recollected that Eliza Haywood lived in the very twilight of English fiction. Sixteen years were still to pass, in 1724, before the British novel properly began to dawn in Pamela, twenty-five years before it broke in the full splendour of Tom Jones. Eliza Haywood simply followed where, two generations earlier, the redoubtable Mrs. Aphra Behn had led. She preserved the old romantic manner, a kind of corruption of the splendid Scudéry and Calprenède folly of the middle of the seventeenth century. All that distinguished her was her vehement exuberance and the emptiness of the field. Ann Lang was young, and instinctively attracted to the study of the passion of love. She must read something, and there was nothing but Eliza Haywood for her to read.

            The heroines of these old stories were all palpitating with sensibility, although that name had not yet been invented to describe their condition. When they received a letter beginning "To the divine Lassellia," or "To the incomparable Donna Emanuella," they were thrown into the most violent disorder; "a thousand different Passions succeeded one another in their turns," and as a rule "'twas all too sudden to admit disguise." When a lady in Eliza Haywood's novels receives a note from a gentleman, "all her Limbs forget their Function, and she sinks fainting on the Bank, in much the same posture as she was before she rais'd herself a little to take the Letter." I am positive that Ann Lang practised this series of attitudes in the solitude of her garret.

            There is no respite for the emotions from Eliza's first page to her last. The implacable Douxmoure (for such was her singular name) "continued for some time in a Condition little different from Madness; but when Reason had a little recovered its usual Sway, a deadly Melancholy succeeded Passion." When Bevillia tried to explain to her cousin that Emilius was no fit suitor for her hand, the young lady swooned twice before she seized Bevillia's "cruel meaning;" and then–ah! then–"silent the stormy Passions roll'd in her tortured Bosom, disdaining the mean Ease of raging or complaining. It was a considerable time before she utter'd the least Syllable; and when she did, she seem'd to start as from some dreadful Dream, and cry'd, 'It is enough–in knowing one I know the whole deceiving Sex'"; and she began to address an imaginary Women's Rights Meeting.

            Plot was not a matter about which Eliza Haywood greatly troubled herself. A contemporary admirer remarked, with justice:


'Tis Love Eliza's soft Affections fires;
Eliza writes, but Love alone inspires;
'Tis Love that gives D'Elmont his manly Charms,
And tears Amena from her Father's Arms.

            These last-named persons are the hero and heroine of Love in Excess; or The Fatal Inquiry, which seems to have been the most popular of the whole series. This novel might be called Love Through a Window; for it almost entirely consists of a relation of how the gentleman prowled by moonlight in a garden, while the lady, in an agitated disorder, peeped out of her lattice in "a most charming Dishabillée." Alas! there was a lock to the door of a garden staircase, and while the lady "was paying a Compliment to the Recluse, he was dextrous enough to slip the Key out of the Door unperceived." Ann Lang!–"a sudden cry of Murder, and the noise of clashing Swords," come none too soon to save those blushes which, we hope, you had in readiness for the turning of the page! Eliza Haywood assures us, in Idalia, that her object in writing is that "the Warmth and Vigour of Youth may be temper'd by a due Consideration"; yet the moralist must complain that she goes a strange way about it. Idalia herself was "a lovely Inconsiderate" of Venice, who escaped in a "Gondula" up "the River Brent," and set all Vicenza by the ears through her "stock of Haughtiness, which nothing could surmount." At last, after adventures which can scarcely have edified Ann Lang, Idalia abruptly "remember'd to have heard of a Monastery at Verona," and left Vicenza at break of day, taking her "unguarded languishments" out of that city and out of the novel. It is true that Ann Lang, for 2s., bought a continuation of the career of Idalia; but we need not follow her.

            The perusal of so many throbbing and melting romances must necessarily have awakened in the breast of female readers a desire to see the creator of these tender scenes. I am happy to inform my readers that there is every reason to believe that Ann Lang gratified this innocent wish. At all events, there exists among her volumes the little book of the play sold at the doors of Drury Lane Theatre, when, in the summer of 1724, Eliza Haywood's new comedy of A Wife to be Lett was acted there, with the author performing in the part of Mrs. Graspall. The play itself is wretched, and tradition says that it owed what little success it enjoyed to the eager desire which the novelist's readers felt to gaze upon her features. She was about thirty years of age at the time; but no one says that she was handsome, and she was undoubtedly a bad actress, I think the disappointment that evening at the Theatre Royal opened the eyes of Ann Lang. Perhaps it was the appearance of Eliza in the flesh which prevented her old admirer from buying The Secret History of Cleomina, suppos'd dead, which I miss from the collection.

            If Ann Lang lived on until the publication of Pamela–especially if during the interval she had bettered her social condition–with what ardour must she have hailed the advent of what, with all its shortcomings, was a book worth gold. Perhaps she went to Vauxhall with it in her muff, and shook it triumphantly at some middle-aged lady of her acquaintance. Perhaps she lived long enough to see one great novel after another break forth to lighten the darkness of life. She must have looked back on the pompous and lascivious pages of Eliza Haywood, with their long-drawn palpitating intrigues, with positive disgust. The English novel began in 1740, and after that date there was always something wholesome for Ann Lang and her sisters to read.


Prev Next