Wednesday 2 March 2022

Review: The Adventures of Eovaai by Eliza Haywood

 The Adventures of Eovaai immediately caught my attention by being one of the stranger titled works of one of my favourite eighteenth century authors, Eliza Haywood, someone who writes with a strange, over the top quality in itself. It’s a weird blend of fantasy, political satire and amatory novel which I found less consistently enjoyable than other works but it had its moments.

The book was initially published anonymously despite Haywood being a big name, presumably to aid the pretence that this is the work of a translator, bringing a work that has been long studied in China and which took place before the Garden of Eden. The second edition, which came out four years later, has her name on the cover. It may also be that publishing this book anonymously was a way to avoid the consequences of a story which casts the famously litigious ‘prime minister’ of the country as the villain.

Eovaai is a princess who has been raised to be a fair and compassionate ruler. When her father dies, he gives her a magic jewel which keeps both the kingdom and ruler safe. The jewel is kept safe by being set in a necklace but interested in an inscription on the other side, she proses it out where it is promptly stolen by a bird. Being the Queen who lost the jewel, her authority is diminished and the country descends into civil war, not only that but she is not personally protected and is easily taken by the wizard Ochihatou.

If the fact that Ochihatou was the sole/prime minister of a neighbouring country doesn’t ring Robert Walpole alarms, the fact that the first sentence about him describes him as ‘The Great Man’ should. The word ‘great’ was long established as describing Walpole by this point and would be the whole crux of Fielding’s later novel Jonathan Wild, in which the main joke is that greatness is the enemy of goodness. Haywood, not the subtlest of writers, makes her Walpole stand-in, Ochihatou, truly odious. He is ugly, bent and deformed but uses his nefarious magic to create what Doctor Who would describe as a perception filter around him. Using this borrowed stateliness and charm he worms into the King of Hyptofa’s court and bewitches him with a magic feather. Thus in power he lines his own pockets with unfair taxes, creates a standing army to strong-arm opponents and fills all key roles with family and sycophants - all things Walpole’s enemies accused him of. He even almost manages to seduce Eovaai but is interrupted by court business.

At this point the book is interrupted by the story of Yximilla, and here I think it becomes very clear how much fun Haywood is having naming her distant countries and people. Yximilla is a queen in love with the noble Yamatalallabec (the best name in the book) but the evil Boscomon, king of a small principality, has teamed up with the ferocious queen Tygrinonniple to invade Yximilla’s country of Ginksy, force her to marry him and rule together. Yximilla calls on Osiphronoropho, the King of Fayoul to help her but he is too far away to launch an immediate campaign. From this paragraph alone, I think it’s clear how the names, while fun really do send the reader’s eyes swimming and the complex war/political story that plays out with them in not helped by that fact. It’s not a happy ending for Yximilla, she is captured, drugged and dragged to the altar where she is forced to marry - ending any hope for her and ending the little interlude.

Ochichatou has been called to court to advise on what his country should do about the situation and when he returns, Eovaai has escaped by being whisked away by a good spirit. She finds herself still in the land of Hypotofa and sees how ruined it has become by Ochihatou’s bad management. Then she enters the stronghold of the resistance and hears a long speech by the leader of the patriots. Not so incidentally, the Patriots were the name the anti-Walpole resistance gave themselves and the speech is essentially an article by their leader, Bolingbroke. She escapes to the safer country of Oozof, which is a republic and is ranted at again, this time about the benefits of republics over monarchies. These parts were the draggier parts of the novel, being largely undigested political speeches.

However, the action ramps up again after Eovaai is kidnapped from Oozof and brought back to Ochihatou’s love pad. There she sees a monkey who hands her a tablet with some words on, these words turn her into a human and we hear her story. The monkey used to be a woman called Atamadoul and she was the maid of a beautiful princess that Ochihatou wanted to marry. Unfortunately for the Big O, the princesses parents wouldn’t allow it but Atamadoul the maid was in love and disguised herself as the princess to make a midnight flit. While disguised Ochihatou put a ring on her finger which would magically force her to lust over him constantly and away they flew. However, when they got back to Ochihatou’s love pad, he realised that she was someone else and was so furious he changed her into a monkey. Even crueller, he chained her to the wall of his love pad so she would be forced to watch him having sex with other people, the ring of lust making it even more torture to see. Most cruelly, he occasionally torments her with a horny baboon who he allows to almost rape her and says he’ll let it go all the way one day. Utterly horrifying and peculiar, you never know where you’ll end up with when Eliza Haywood goes full excess. Atamadoul has a plan, when Ochihatou returns to have his evil way, request the light is off, place her in human mode and let her take Eovaai’s place on the bed. They carry out this plan, of course Eovaai watches but then the light is turned on and Ochihatou sees the trick. Poor Atamadoul is turned into a rat this time and we don’t see her again.

However, the light has been turned on because the patriots are storming his house and he grabs Eovaai and runs off to a safe country with a sob tale about the evil patriots trying to kill their king. This ruse lasts a little while but the wizard is rumbled again and decides to whisk Eovaai back to her home country where he can marry her and run her land for his pleasure and gain. Weirdly, despite the magical flying crystals, the chariots pulled by doves and antelopes, Ochihatou says they only way they can get back is by stripping naked to be changed into birds. This means that when they land if Eovaai’s country they are naked and Ochihatou ties her to a tree by her hair and grabs some stinging nettles to torture her into accepting him.

This is when a hunk comes in and saves her. The hunk has also saved the country from the civil war and is acting as Protector. They fall instantly in love but there’s a hitch, he is only allowed to love the woman who has the case for a sacred jewel he’s found. To no reader’s surprise it turns out to be the sacred jewel from the beginning of the book and Eovaai has the necklace to put it in. They marry, the man is also the prince of Hypotofa so the two countries unite and have a great future. Ochihatou has run into a tree and killed himself by this point.

So, there we have it. Truly one of the stranger works of fiction knocking about and in parts great fun for its shocking nastiness, it’s silly naming and a fairy tale ending. It also has that boring run in the middle though. As such, this is probably the weakest of Eliza Haywood’s books that I have read so far but it is still worth a read just to go on the peculiar and improbable journey.

The introduction makes a lot of points about the footnotes that Haywood uses in the book. How they are a cacophony of voices, from the supposed translator of the book, especially his own views the centuries of scholars who have commentated on the book in China. The translator has a  problem with a particular commentator who interprets the events in the most misogynistic ways and corrects him on a number of points. Although the footnotes were a fun element, I feel that Eliza Haywood could have used them more playfully and added more jokes and tangents, as they were used in Pope’s Dunciad. They weren’t an un-fun addition, but there could have been more.

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