The Secret History of Creative Nonfiction

A tour of pioneering women writers whom literary critics conveniently "forgot"

A common misconception about literary history is that women weren’t writing professionally or significantly before Jane Austen. To talk about women’s historical oppression, Virginia Woolf famously conjured up an imaginary sister for William Shakespeare, naming her Judith in A Room of One’s Own in 1929. But in the early eighteenth century, when Queen Anne ruled Great Britain, three women authors later to be popularly known as “the fair triumvirate of wit” ruled the stage, the page, and the press: poet/playwright/novelist, travel writer, and supposed international spy Aphra Behn; Eliza Haywood, pioneering romance novelist and (later) editor and chief contributor to the first British periodical marketed to and written by women, the Female Spectator; and author, playwright, and political pamphleteer Delarivier Manley. If not for archaeological digs undertaken by feminist critics and historians inspired by the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, these real-life Judith Shakespeares would have remained buried under years of hyper-fixation on male writers, even though they were three of the most influential writers of their time, and their literary styles and techniques popularized the genre we now call creative nonfiction. 

In 1709, when Manley published her two-part book, Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality, of Both Sexes, from the New Atalantis, mixing literary journalism, romance, and political satire, everyone understood the events she described, which laid bare politicians’ dealings in the boardroom and the bedroom, to be happening in Queen Anne’s court, though the book was set on a fictional island, Atalantis. In it, Manley uses the art of juxtaposition to show the intimate entanglement of the exploitation of women and politicians’ deception of the public. Manley knew that the personal is political years before that 1970 feminist maxim, and she used sex scenes depicting the rich and powerful to prove it. One such salacious scene subverts the normative gender hierarchy by making the man the object of desire: a strapping young man, indecently exposed in bed, is pretending to be asleep. Lying in bed amidst flowers, he seduces the duchess. Manley was promptly arrested, tried for seditious libel, questioned, and released due to her claim that the work was fictional; the politicians, characters; the scenes, inventions.  

Manley was neither the first nor the last to write under the veil of “secret history”: “history” meaning factual, and “secret” meaning scandalous, a.k.a., sexual. Although little known to the public, this subgenre is recognized by literary scholars as a common ancestor to both the novel and the magazine/periodical/news story. Haywood’s Love in Excess (1719), for instance, was as popular as Robinson Crusoe (published the same year) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726). And yet, despite their cultural significance, the women who wrote secret histories and early novels have for hundreds of years remained more hidden than the names of Manley’s male sex objects.  

The secret history’s heyday was the late 1600s and early 1700s, with Manley, Behn, and Haywood adapting the French subgenre. Prominent male writers Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson appropriated it in their novels, such as Roxana (1724) and Pamela (1740), some critics, including myself, have argued, writing in the salacious style of the secret history and adding their own moralizing message to the mix. Incredibly, at the same time, the writers publicly slammed Haywood’s writing for its romance-novel qualities. Never mind that Roxana and Pamela bear a striking resemblance to secret histories, with one obvious difference: the “power” of their authors’ “pens” (when writers said “pen” back then, they often also meant “penis”). 

Gender and genre, of course, have long been implicated with sex, money, and power.

Thus, by 1957, when Ian Watt wrote his book on the novel’s evolution, The Rise of the Novel, he conveniently neglected the “fair triumvirate” and focused on Defoe, Richardson, and Henry Fielding (with a smattering of Austen) as the genre’s trailblazersIt took until the 1980s for lit scholars to start paying Haywood the attention her work deserves, due to what Clifford Siskin termed “The Great Forgetting” in The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830 (1998). “It is now time to remember how invested and various were the acts of naming, forgetting, and obliteration of 1780 to 1820,” as Betty Schellenberg puts it in The Professionalization of Women Writers in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2005). Critics snubbed Haywood, separating “fictions” from “histories” (the term “nonfiction” didn’t exist until 1867, according to the Oxford English Dictionary), and, over time, fiction came to be seen as the most elite (prose) genre in the English language.  

Gender and genre, of course, have long been implicated with sex, money, and power. As with other professions (such as obstetrics, for one), once men start moving in, the work becomes legitimized, with higher pay, and the women (midwives) are pushed out. When women somehow finagle their way back in, men vacate because the work becomes feminized and therefore less valuable.  

Much literary scholarship today is still focused on recovering and remembering the women authors whom critics conveniently “forgot.” Join me, now, in this compact tour through a less-remembered chapter of British and American literary history.  

1678, Madame de La Fayette

La Princesse de Clèves 

Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, the Countess of La Fayette, known as Madame de La Fayette, published the first psychological novel, or book that delves into the internal states and emotions of its characters, a form later perfected by Austen and Woolf. Characters excepting the titular princess are historical, though, and the plot jives with the historical record, so it’s also an important early work of creative nonfiction. Readers knew it was an account of events in the French court of Henri II, which La Fayette infused with her first-person knowledge from living at court, and readers also knew it described the erotic love affair of a married woman courted by the famous philanderer and not fictional Duke of Nemours, Jacques of Savoie. The princess undresses, knowing he is watching her. Readers watch him watching her. It’s all very voyeuristic. They never physically consummate, but their mental moves astound.  

1688, Aphra Behn

Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave. A True History  

I bet you didn’t know that to be a woman and a writer in 1700s England meant you might as well be a prostitute—if your mouth clearly was loose, so, too, must be your vagina. But Behn, for one, didn’t care; in fact, she embraced the cliché. Her 1677 play, The Rover, stars a pistol-toting prostitute, and her prologue to The Forced Marriage begins with a shout-out to the king’s consorts, who sat “I’ th’ upper box, pit, galleries,” exposing them as her allies, spies in a battle of the sexes. That, as we now say, took some balls. 

Virginia Woolf said that “[a]ll women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn . . . for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Now, let’s throw some flowers on the tombs of a few more women who were creative nonfiction forebears.  

1725, Eliza Haywood

Fantomina; or, Love in a Maze. Being a Secret History of an Amour Between Two Persons of Condition 

Arguably the most prolific writer in the eighteenth century, Eliza Haywood published Fantomina when she was about 32 (due to her life itself essentially being secret history, we don’t know what year she was born). In less than a hundred whirlwind pages, Fantomina encircles Beauplaisir in a cyclone of sexy disguises, casting herself in multiple feminine roles, from prostitute to widow. It’s the only way she can keep his interest.  

1744–46, Eliza Haywood

The Female Spectator 

Haywood knew how to keep men’s, and women’s, interest long term. She published more than 70 works and wrote until she died, aged 63-ish, defying such critics as Alexander Pope, who slammed her in his poem about hack writers. Haywood, according to him, was the goddess of rushed and low-quality writing that he personified as “babes of love”; her breasts just couldn’t keep up with her literary offspring, so therefore he likened them to “cow-like udders.” Despite Pope’s misogynist efforts, Haywood was unstoppable. Her monthly periodical, the Female Spectator, was so wildly popular that after its record-breaking initial print run, which sold out in two years, it was reissued every couple of years for thirty years. It was critically acclaimed, too, earning her the nickname “the fair philosopher” from Gentleman’s Magazine, the longest-running and one of the most influential periodicals of her time. Each Female Spectator issue contained essays on a single topic with anecdotes that were compared to miniature novels, as well as Montaignian musings sent in by “correspondents,” who may all have been Haywood herself. The woman was a creative nonfiction powerhouse.  

1796, Mary Wollstonecraft

Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark 

We all (should) know Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a mean feminist treatise, but did you also know that her travel writing/essay collection about penetrating the Scandinavian wilderness inspired William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the start of the British Romanticism movement?  

Ever the journalist, Wollstonecraft wrote letters detailing her journey through territories where few English people had ventured. They were addressed to Gilbert Imlay, with whom she’d had a child, and who had sent Wollstonecraft and their infant daughter, Fanny, on an actual treasure hunt to recover profits from his illicit shipping activities. By the end of the letters, she lampoons the business. Also by the end of these letters, her heartbreak bleeds through. While she was off chasing Imlay’s fortune, he had taken another mistress.  

But she had always intended the letters for publication, and of her Letters Written during a Short Residence William Godwin wrote, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” In 1795, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide. She did not succeed, but died shortly after giving birth to her and Godwin’s daughter, Mary Shelley, who, critics have argued, wrote Frankenstein in homage to her. 

1808, Leonora Sansay

Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo 

The popularity of secret histories gradually waned, so that when Leonora Sansay titled her collection of letters documenting her eyewitness account of the Haitian Revolution Secret History, the genre was considered passé, and Sansay was invoking it as a throwback. 

In Secret History, Sansay capitalized on her infamy as the rumored adulterous lover of one-term vice president and Alexander Hamilton–killer Aaron Burr. Sansay laid bare, in steamy personal letters to Burr, which she repurposed to create and market Secret History, all the men who checked her out at parties, alongside the sexual intrigues of promiscuous politicians, à la Manley. Sansay’s husband, Louis, was as prone to domestic violence as Clara’s husband in Secret History, who threatens to rub acid on her face so that no other man will look at her. She uses the tumult of the Haitian Revolution to her advantage, escaping her abusive husband and St. Domingo (present-day Haiti) simultaneously. Given Sansay’s proximity to Burr and that this is one of the only eyewitness accounts of the Haitian Revolution, it’s shocking that even now, along with other secret histories, it’s relegated to secret history.  

Epilogue 

This article is a secret history of sorts, too. In it, I, a weekly-newspaper-writer-turned-creative-nonfiction-writer/eighteenth-century-lit-PhD-candidate (also a woman), unveil for your reading pleasure (I hope) the intimate connections among gender, genre, sexuality, the writer’s market, and politics through women reporter/novelists’ lives and those whose secret histories they exposed. 

Why is it women who are primarily taking the “secret” of out “history”—again?

At a creative writing conference earlier this year, I was struck by the demographics. I did the math, and men made up 15 percent of the audience in an afternoon talk. Maybe it was just something about that conference, but I don’t think so. Much of the writing in this very magazine is by women, too. I can’t help but wonder: Are the gender/genre tides again shifting? Why is it women who are primarily taking the “secret” out of “history”—again? As with so many other trends, the dominating gender is cyclical. The creative nonfiction genre is no exception. As creative nonfiction experiences this surge of female-identifying writers, I pray it does not go the way of the secret history, in that when men write in a genre, they elevate it; when women write in it, it is considered feminized, unphilosophical and unimportant. To exit this gender/genre cycle and to allow genres, including creative nonfiction, to be what they should be—gender-neutral matters of taste that individuals, regardless of gender, gravitate to—we must continue to bear witness to secret histories, such as that of the secret history. 

I could write a book about this, but for now, let’s join Woolf in letting “flowers fall upon the tomb of” Behn, as well as on the tombs of Manley, La Fayette, Haywood, Wollstonecraft, Sansay, and so many more. For they “earned [us] the right to speak” not only of secret/sexual activity and power and politics, but also our minds.  

About the Author

Kelly Plante

Kelly Plante is an essayist, editor and PhD candidate specializing in auto/biographical writing and the evolution of fiction and nonfiction in eighteenth-century transatlantic literature. Plante holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English.

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One thought on “The Secret History of Creative Nonfiction

  1. Hello Kelly – If you haven’t stumbled across Laetitia Pilkington, you may enjoy learning her story too.

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