Thursday 15 September 2016

Review: Love in Excess by Eliza Haywood

Love in Excess was one of the best-selling novels of the first half of the eighteenth century, going through several editions in four years and mentioned in the same breath as ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (though it may not have sold as well as first thought). Not a book much read anymore, I decided to look at it to see if it’s still worth reading and why its reputation has dwindled.

I particularly don’t want to spoil the plot of this one, as much of the pleasure I had in reading it was from the enjoyably ludicrous twists of plot, so I shall leave the synopsis a little vague. 

In the first part, Count D’elmont, a handsome and successful soldier comes back to Paris and is caught between two women who love him…or at least love the idea of him. The first is Alovisa, who is rich and scheming, the other is Amena, who is innocent. The second part deals with a love pentagon and the third deals with a love…nonagon. Each love tangle is resolved by the end of the part, for better or worse, only for it to get more ridiculous in the next. However, the dafter it gets, the better it gets. This book revels in its excess and is all the better for it.

Had the novel ended after the first part, I’d have been fairly dismissive of it. D’elmont is not in love and is, at most, flattered to have the women fighting over him. Really, he is a passive dupe for the schemes and passions of the women that surround him. The excess of the language at this point seems histrionic rather than romantic, neither woman in love with him as much as she is the notion of who she could be with him as a husband.

Had the novel ended after the second part, I’d have been a little more enthusiastic. D’elmont falls in love himself and it’s not with his wife. He is lead to be more angry, more desperate, more underhand then before, which makes him more interesting. This part also brings in some of the noteworthy writing, Haywood is very good at describing natural, unforced beauty;
    ‘…she had but newly come from bathing, and her hair unbraided, hung down her shoulders with a negligence more beautiful than all the aids of art could form…’ It is development of these sensuous descriptions that become one of the chief pleasures of the third part.

The third part of the novel is where things really hit their stride. D’elmont has become self aware, his mishaps in the previous parts of the book has lead him to the realisation that he is truly irresistible to women. This is not a boast but a real problem for him. He exiles himself to Rome and swears off women but to his great annoyance they can’t help falling in love with him, throwing themselves at him and creating all sorts of problems and schemes to snare him in their clutches. He is also trying to help a friend with love troubles and having women fling themselves at his person does not make it any easier. While passive D’elmont was dull, passionate D’elmont was dumb, D’elmont trying to politely unentangle himself from almost every woman he meets is extremely entertaining.

There’s also a definite sense of Haywood really beginning to enjoy her excesses, the book is at it’s best when it is rapturous or full of grief, when passions are high and sentences are breathless. At her best, she is too long to quote, but I found a lovely bit about kissing,
‘A while their lips were cemented! rivetted together with kisses, such kisses! as collecting every sence in one, exhale the very soul, and mingle spirits!’
This joy and pleasure in language becomes noticeable all over the third part, one of my favourite non-kissy ones was the description of a shocked man ‘wildly throwing his eyes’ over a spectacle.

The novel ends, as these things should, with a set of marriages. However, just before the marriages a very likeable character dies an extremely pathetic (in the sad/pitiful sense) death - a death that occurs in the same paragraph as the weddings. I was left with a sad lump in my throat, a happy smile on my face and a critical faculty reeling with the exuberant, silly, tonal whiplash of it all.   I’ve never left a book feeling quite the same mix of emotions and for that, I am very glad I read this book.

If the book is hard to read now, the formatting is a large part of it. My copy was a very generously annotated one from Broadview but the run-on sentences, long paragraphs, lack of chapters and creative spelling can be a chore for the eyes. There were moments of deep passion where I found my vision passing over the text but very little being understood. In re-reading, I’d sometimes also find that not much had happened. If the modern reader can get through these hiccoughs, then the book is very entertaining and becomes more so as it goes on, so why has it fallen out of favour?

It can’t have helped the book that its author was female, those compiling the usual canon of British novels in the 19th and 20th centuries did certainly favour male authors but I don’t think Eliza Haywood’s gender is the only thing to blame for the book being lost to history. Those early (pre-Pamela) eighteenth century novels and pseudo-novels that survived into the 19th century seem to have done so as children’s fiction. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ became a ‘boy’s own’ adventure story and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ were read as fantastical journeys but ‘Love in Excess’ can’t be sent to the nursery, it is too tied up with sexuality, particularly female sexuality to be bowdlerised or infantilised and so couldn’t keep up with changing tastes in the same way. It doesn’t deserve to have been left behind, find a copy and give it a go.

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