I love when people assume that any novel (like this one) that was a bestseller in Jane Austen's time must have been quaint and adorable. And then I get to tell them about all the prostitution and seduction and attempted abortions and attempted date-rape and out-of-wedlock babies.
True, Miss Betsy Thoughtless
was a little before Austen's time – it was published in 1751, and Austen was born in 1775. But Eliza Haywood was widely known and eagerly read by Austen's contemporaries. I even found traces of her influence in the humorous writing Austen did as a teenager. (Stop me now, or I'll nerd out all over the place.)
I think one reason Betsy Thoughtless
was so popular is that the female characters are completely human. Sure, they talk funny. But they like it when guys buy them gifts and talk about how hot they are. (Note to the curious: A pet squirrel was the kind of present that would move you up to the top of the list when it came to Guys The Girls Want At Their Next Party. Fer realz.) These women don't want to get married right away, because partying and flirting all night is fine if you're a single woman but What A Ho territory once you have a husband.
Don't get me wrong – Eliza Haywood wanted to teach her female readers some strong moral lessons. Eighteenth-century women really did
have to be careful how far they went with a guy, because ruining your reputation meant ruining your shot at a respectable marriage and you couldn't just decide, what the heck, you'll go back to college and take charge of your own life. Career options were horribly limited. Being a single woman meant, at best, being looked down upon socially. And (as Austen herself said and knew from experience), single women in those times had a dreadful propensity to be poor.
And if you think single mothers have it rough now, try being one in eighteenth-century England.
But reading Eliza Haywood is very different from reading Samuel Richardson's Pamela
, another popular novel of the time. Pamela has no discernible carnal desires, and only has to defend her virginity from those who would try to steal it from her – there's no way
she'd give it away before her wedding night. She'd never feel the slightest temptation to do so. Sex? Fun? Only if you're a guy.
Eliza Haywood, who actually was
a woman before she wrote from a female point of view, knew that women were just as tempted as men were to live, um, unchastely. Especially when a sophisticated French guy who knows how to please a lady comes along. In Pamela
, he would have gotten his way only by forcing it. In Miss Betsy Thoughtless,
Betsy listens with horror as her friend describes being seduced because being seduced is fun:
"In a word, my dear Miss Betsy, from one liberty he proceeded to another; till, at last, there was nothing left for him to ask, or me to grant!"
In Pamela's universe, this would have been a one-time Fall From Grace, and probably a fatal one. In Betsy's, her friend (the aptly named Miss Forward) has an affair with the guy all summer, and only stops, regretfully, when he leaves town.
I'm not recommending that anyone who doesn't love or live in the eighteenth century run out and grab this book. I read it as part of my research for a Regency novel. I'm the kind of person who reads Austen for fun, and even I
found this a bit of a slog at times. The plot moves along briskly enough, but the language is a bit dense.
Just know that this time period wasn't all tea parties and ladylike behavior.