Selections from “The Female Spectator”

Eliza Haywood’s Female Spectator (1744-46) is celebrated as the first journal written for women by a woman. Until recently, it has been available only in Mary Priestley’s quaint and quirky 1929 collection and Gabrielle Firmager’s 1993 slim but scholarly selection of tales. Patricia Meyer Spacks’s very welcome edition generously comprises about one third of the journal (xxi), providing a good representation of the range of Haywood’s styles and themes.

The Female Spectator persona and her fictional associates, Mira (a gentleman’s wife), a matronly widow of quality, and the young lady, Euphrosine, the daughter of a wealthy merchant represent each of the stages of womanhood. Together, they present a myriad of subjects for the edification and entertainment of their curious readers. The Spectator tells us that the “sole Aim [of these papers] is to reform the Faulty, and give an innocent Amusement to those who are not so” (11), but the Female Spectator proves to be much more. The monthly journal for women is not a mere conduct book preaching feminine, middle-class morality. Its agenda is to offer practical advice on how to survive a society that seems stacked against women. Survival strategies include the expected axioms about practicing the womanly virtues of cheer, patience, and fortitude (83), but the papers also counsel parents and guardians to exercise less restraint, and allow more general conversation for girls so they would not be seduced by the first suitor who flatters their vanity.

Haywood’s persona, a more sociable and loquacious personality than her brother Spectator of Addison and Steele’s invention (1711-12), describes herself as a mature woman who never was a beauty, whose youth was spent in “a Hurry of promiscuous Diversions” with company “not, indeed, always so well chosen as it ought to have been” (8). Her youthful vivacity was eventually “tempered with Reflection” so that she acquired the ability to judge how the passions can gain dominion over reason. Her wide experiences lend her the authority to comment wisely on social activities like the masquerade, gambling, tea -drinking, marriage, education, and the proper balance of restraint and freedom in raising a daughter. Each essay (about 15,000 words per issue) deals with a particular subject-love, marriage, vice, solitude, etc.-approached from a number of different perspectives and styles. Using a variety of devices such as letters from correspondents (whether real or fictional has never been determined) asking or giving advice, moral essays, long narratives, and conversational musings, the Female Spectator provides a space for the middle-class woman to reflect upon and learn to negotiate her place in eighteenth-century society. For the modern reader, the Female Spectator offers an opportunity to see the interior life of eighteenth-century women.

Most of the selections (from all but six of the twenty-four books) support Spacks’s claim that the periodical was concerned specifically with “how women might operate effectively within the social restrictions that enveloped them. [Haywood] knew the difficulties of female life within a patriarchal system, but she refused to accept those difficulties as fully definitive of women’s possibilities” (xiii). Spacks’s excerpts stress the need to root out “those destructive Passions [such as] Avarice, Ambition, Luxury and Pride…the very Tyrants of the Mind” for “having once deposed Reason from her Throne, [they] render her even subservient to their basest Aims” (50).

The Female Spectator proves to be a great believer in education, for “if we took but half the Care of embellishing our intellectual Part as we do of setting off our Persons, both would appear to much more Advantage” (258). Thus, the reading of natural philosophy and history are often recommended for their “ample Field for Contemplation” and pleasure, leaving no room “for Amusements of a low and trifling Nature” (132). A correspondent named Philo-Naturæ advises that botany, and the study of ants, bees, and flies through microscopes could lead the Royal Society to be “indebted to every fair Columbus for a new World of Beings to employ their Speculations” (195); and the Spectator herself asks if any young lady “had not rather apply to Reading and Philosophy than to Threading of Needles” (205).

Like Mary Astell, Haywood argues in an ironic tone against men’s keeping women from learning. “We all groan under the Curse entail’d upon us for the Transgressions of Eve. ‘Thy Desire shall be to thy Husband, and he shall rule over thee.’

But we are not taught enough how to lighten this Burthen, and render ourselves such as would make him asham’d to exert that Authority, he thinks he has a Right to, over us” (127). The Female Spectator continues throughout Book X to show how education in women can make them more companionable and beneficial wives. She anticipates dissension, not from men, but from some of her female readers:

But all this, I doubt, will be look’d upon as visionary, and my Readers will cry, that my Business, as a Spectator, is to report such things as I see… not present them with Ideas of my own Formation, and which, as the World now is, can never be reduc’d to Practice: -To which I beg leave to reply, that the Impossibility lies only in the Will; -much may be done by a steady Resolution, -without it, nothing (138).

A woman’s resolution, her own will to change herself and the world around her, becomes one of Haywood’s main themes in the essays. Always aware of the society around her, Haywood suggests that a woman’s seeming compliance to the patriarchal rules, balanced with a freer internal life of the mind, is an acceptable mode of survival:

Reflection, therefore, and Recollection are as necessary for the Mind as Food is for the Body; a little Examination into the Affections of the Heart can be of no Prejudice to the most melancholly Constitution, and will be of infinite Service to the too sanguine. -The Unhappy may, possibly, by indulging Thought, hit on some lucky Stratagem for the Relief of his Misfortunes, and the Happy may be infinitely more so by contemplating on his Condition (60).

A woman’s power is limited, Haywood always cautions, and so it is imperative to recognize what subversive means of influence will not be admonished. “[I]t is not by Force our Sex can hope to maintain their Influence over the Men, and I again repeat it as the most infallible Maxim, that whenever we would truly conquer we must seem to yield” (116).

A correspondent relates the amazing story of Barsina as an example of laudable female spirit. “The Lady’s Revenge” in Book XIV describes how Barsina, jilted by her lover, contrived a means of punishing him through his own imagination. Leading him to believe that she has poisoned him and herself, and then faking her own death, Barsina hears how her lover, fearing for his own life, put himself through a regimen of “Glisters, Cathartics, and Diaphoretics” that almost killed him (166). When he sees Barsina in the country one night, he believes he is haunted by her ghost and goes mad. The story delights the Female Spectator who must control her obvious amusement in order to deliver a serious essay on the effects of conscience.

The tone of the periodical becomes more sombre after Book XV, dealing with themes of aging, true beauty, prejudice and, in Book XXIII, a very moving letter from Lavinia, who abandoned a lover to marry another man. The Female Spectator comments in Book XX that “we have of late pursued Subjects of a more serious Nature, than those with which we at first set out” (259) as the topics under consideration move from the social and personal, to the more philosophic and integral. By the time we conclude Lavinia’s letter in Book XXIII, we find that the Female Spectator can offer no consolation, no solution to the woman’s problem. The consequences of Lavinia’s unthinking actions lead to the death of her first love and now cause her husband to despise her. Such are the possible effects when girls “imagine they have a Right to act as they please” (297).

Spacks’s introduction provides a very brief biographical and literary context for the Female Spectator-the whole introduction is only twelve pages. Those interested in the bibliographic history of the periodical, dates of publication for each Book, or its contemporary critical reception, will have to look elsewhere. Spacks’s main concern is in introducing the themes of the Female Spectator. She is quick to address Haywood’s awareness of the limits put on women’s behavior and power in the eighteenth century so that Haywood will not be mislabeled a protofeminist. “[A]ll of Haywood’s explicit recommendations to women urge them to work within the existing system, which she takes for granted almost as though it constituted part of the natural order” (xix).

Spacks notes that Haywood “eschews public politics as a subject” (xv) in the Female Spectator. In Book I, however, the Spectator mentions that she has an “effectual way of penetrating into the Mysteries of the Alcove, the Cabinet, or Field” (10), implying that she shall discuss politics over the course of the periodical. In fact, Haywood’s three terms may respectively refer to the three traditionally patriarchal realms of power, the church, government, and the military. Spacks’s dubious gloss for the three terms-“the bedroom, boudoir, or hunting field” (note 4) -strips them of any political meaning. Further, her omission of specifically political material and complete books (Books 7, 9, 11, 12, 18, 22) give the impression that Haywood wanted to address exclusively “feminine” concerns. This skews the content to fit Spacks’s vision of the Female Spectator as a woman’s periodical, as does the leaving out of the more whimsical material such as the voyage to Topsy Turvy Island or the music of Summatra [sic].

Spacks suggests that her edition is “designed to allow either haphazard or sequential reading. One can browse among the essays and stories, pausing on what strikes the fancy, or one can read through from beginning to end” (xxi). But the absence of any descriptive table of contents, or an index such as the four volume collection in Haywood’s day offered, seems to discourage the browsing approach. Despite these criticisms, the edition is still a valuable, affordable collection of Haywood’s moral, didactic essays. Spacks’s edition will be welcomed in the classroom as it provides a substantial example of yet another aspect of Eliza Haywood’s writing career, styles and genres.