Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess defies 18th century notions of propriety and self-restraint for Haywood taps into her characters’ sexuality and their sense of morality by displaying love as a powerful and untamable force. As Catherine Donaldson suggests in her argument, the moral code portrayed in the novel is troublesome if not difficult to define. The effect that love has on the mind was thought to afflict women more often than men as women were more inclined to become victims of their emotions. Yet, the novel demonstrates how the primary victim of love, Count D’Elmont, becomes so afflicted with desire that he not only discards his marital duties but also becomes an uncontrollable sexual aggressor. Women, however, are not victims of sexual aggression but are fateful victims of love. Love, as Haywood suggests, inflicts both sexes as,
When love once becomes in our power, it ceases to be worthy of that name, no man really possest with it, can be master of his actions, and whatever effects it may enforce, are no more to be condemned, than poverty, sickness, deformity, or any other misfortune incident to humane nature (185-86).
Not only is love a force that possess one’s senses but its ability to do so garners its victims inculpable of the actions they perform when under its spell. According to such logic, the reader cannot hold Count D’Elmont responsible for adultery, sexual aggression, or even the intent to rape Melliora. Yet Haywood carefully checks her moral philosophy when claiming,
Covetousness, envy, pride, revenge, are the effects of earthy, base, and sordid nature, ambition and love, of an exalted one, and if they are failings, they are such as plead their own excuse, and can never want forgiveness from a generous heart, provided no indirect course are taken to procure the ends of the former, nor inconstancy or ingratitude, stain the beauty of the later” (186).
Ambition and love are exalted pursuits whereas desires pursued for the sake of revenge and pride are unethical. Count D’Elmont has pursued an ambition worthy of our praise since he desires Melliora; thus, we cannot hold him accountable for forcing himself on her as he has not seeked love for selfish purposes. Because he has fallen in love with an “exalted one,” love embodied in the victim Melliora, one can neither deem his desire nor the actions resulting from it as immoral. Both ambition in the pursuit of love is justified as is the desire to act on such love.
It is the ambition that love creates in the individual that cannot be restrained for as Haywood states, the sexual assault of Melliora was inevitable: “What is it that a lover cannot accomplish when resolution is on his side.” The events leading to her assault seem to suggest that under love’s influence, Count D’Elmont is dispossessed of his ability to restrain his sexual appetite. However, the text also demonstrates that he is sensible and rational enough to calculate how he will possess Melliora’s body. He plans to seek entry into her bedroom through a door unused and unknown to many in the house except the servants. After she is woken up from a dream, the only state in which she can gratify her sexual appetite for Count D’Elmont, she urges him to,
“‘hold … forebear, I conjure you, even by that love you plead, before my honour, I’ll resign my life! Therefore, unless you wish to see me dead, a victim to your cruel, fatal passion, I beg you to desist, and leave me” (117).
She labels herself a victim of love, which she describes as cruel and deadly as Count D’Elmont responds,“‘what, when I have thee thus! thus, naked in my arms, trembling, defenceless, yielding, panting with equal wishes, they love confest, and every thought, desire!” (117).
His sexual desire is further peaked by her defenselessness. Such control and power seem to heighten the pleasure of the illicit encounter. This might lead us to consider how 18th century readers reacted to such blatant sexual imagery, imagery that is not only reprehensible to contemporary figures such as Alexander Pope but that is also advancing the notion that pleasure can be motivated by force and control. Furthermore, in defying the repression of sexuality, has Haywood at the same time reinforced certain preconceptions of female sexuality established at the time?