Wednesday 25 March 2020

Review: The English Recluse by Elizabeth Haywood

I love Eliza Haywood as much of what I’ve read of hers has an exuberance that is hard to resist. The British Recluse, though a little subdued compared to some of her other work, is still a well shaped and enjoyable piece.

It starts off with Belinda, a young woman who comes into London for ‘some business’. The inn she stays at is a very respectable place with a very trusty landlady but even this careful soul can’t help slip the information that there is another guest in the house, a recluse who will see nobody. The landlady talks up this recluse’s elegance, charm and beauty which can’t help intrigue Belinda. Most intriguing to her is the recluse’s sadness, a sadness she feels that she shares and suspects the cause of. In the end, she goes up to the recluse’s room, finds she is called Cleomira and they have a similar romantic sadness in common. 

The two women agree to write their sob stories for each other and pass them over. We hear Cleomira’s first. She comes from a noble family and often found herself at court until her father’s death revealed the delicate network of debt their finery was built on and they went off to the country to live quieter lives. Cleomira being young, beautiful and full of life finds this intolerable and manages to sneak an invite to a ball.

At the ball she meets a devilishly handsome man called Lysander. He is impossibly suave, smooth and attractive and when he breaks protocol a little and starts sending her letters, she responds. One day he even rides past her cottage in a cute little jacket and other very attractive clothes. These letters go back and forth for some time. One of the things that make this book stand out, is that we don’t have to read all of them. This is not a Clarissa Harlowe weariness of constant back and forward, we get a few examples and a little reported action to move us along.

Our Cleomira is not very subtle though and her mother soon finds out. Help soon comes in the form of some next door neighbours who keep passing notes on. Eventually these next door neighbour’s convince Cleomira that Lysander will totally marry her and that it’s her mother who is the main obstacle and if she transfers her mother’s guardianship to theirs, she’ll find herself married in no time.

Cleomira does this and moves to the next door neighbour’s other house in London. Now she’s secure, Lysander comes and wins her round, letting him sleep with her as they will be married shortly. His letters keep coming and they are effusive as ever but the visits start to dry up, first to one a week, then one a fortnight, then to one a month, then less. Another thing that is happening is that Cleomira starts noticing the effects of pregnancy - she’s got the standard first time sex/ first time pregnancy illness. Worst of all, Cleomira starts hearing that Lysander is going off with someone else.

Her anger builds up and she sends him a distraught letter, receiving one back that essentially tells her that she used to be very loveable but now she seems angry, she’s driven him away. She gives birth to a stillborn child and decides to kill herself, sending Lysander an accusatory note first. The apothecary reads the situation though and gives her sleeping pills.

When she wakes up not dead, she receives Lysander’s answer, which is to say that if she’s dead, it’s too bad and her decision. That’s when she fakes her death and goes to live in the inn.

As for Belinda’s story, she was engaged to a very nice, rich and reasonable young man called Worthly. He is engaged to Belinda with her father’s keen support but when her father dies, the wedding is pushed back a little. Unfortunately, in this time the carriage they are travelling in suffers an accident and they are saved by a devilishly handsome man called Courtal. e is impossibly suave, smooth and attractive and when he breaks protocol a little and starts sending her letters, she responds. She starts to fall in love with him and the more she does, the more Worthly seems like a tiresome stick-in-the-mud.

However, when they meet up to do the dirty, Worthly walks in. The duel between Worthly and Courtal, Worthly is stabbed and declared dead. Belinda, shocked, guilty and devastated, runs off to London where he ends up in the inn were she meets Cleomira.

One of the things they realise, is that Lysander and Courtal are one, they’ve both been jilted by the same lover. I like that idea that this figure is the central rake in all stories. I like the idea that this is also Lovelace and all the other unfaithful lovers in literature. 

I also love how the book ends, with the two women living together in a cosy and man-hating idyll.

Not the best Haywood, but I am still to find a bad one.

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