Lust, Imagination and Gender Roles: Aesthetic Discourse in Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina

February 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

The turn of the eighteenth century is at the cusp of radical shifts in ideology, booming industry and scientific advancement for the Western World. The rapid changes, and growing middle class widens the audience for conduct books. As more people were economically secure and had access to education, more women were required to look to nobles as an example to follow. The emphasis of etiquette in polite English society serves as indicator for how gender roles were socially constructed. An increasing number of educated women meant fledgling feminist ideas. Eliza Haywood, one of the first writers of Amatory Fiction, narratives of romance and sexual love, writes Fantomina; or Love in a Maze in 1725, in which the protagonist goes to great lengths to seduce the same man repeatedly. The young lady is a Haywood’s way of reclaiming the disgraced or persecuted maiden trope, so often used in Restoration fiction. The cunning choices of disguises chosen by a morally condemnable heroine, enables the conservative audience to suspend disbelief and be delighted by her antics. The role of these distinctive characters adopted, reflect how budding feminist ideas in Eighteenth Century England were to present themselves in order not to alienate a conservative audience.

Fantomina is in essence, a tale of sentient experience. The heroine, who’s identity is never revealed but is introduced as “A young lady of distinguished Birth, Beauty, Wit and Spirit,” is built up as an ingenious mind but defined by her body. Unlike men, who’s virtue was represented by their role in the public sphere, women’s role was to bear children, therefore limiting their “value” to the private sphere. The feminine sex’s virtue was exclusively determined by her body, and therefore women were expected to keep it chaste. Conduct books would often suggest ladies to remain demure in order to not appear masculine. In each one of her disguises, the heroine maintains a certain air of passivity, and even submissiveness while actively pursuing Beauplaisir. She reverse the roles of active seduction by always maintaining an inferior position, causing the man to believe he is the one wooing her. In addition, women were also considered to be the more emotionally volatile of the sexes, requiring them to be more strictly guarded against their own passions. Spontaneous or improper conduct would undoubtedly lead to a lady’s reputation to be tarnished, and Haywood does not let her impassioned protagonist act without consequence forever. She builds the narrative in a way, that would allow her nameless lady to embody the varying profiles of single women, that would have varying degrees of freedom within eighteenth century England.

The protagonist, first crosses the lines of propriety by posing as a prostitute she aptly names Fantomina. She chooses to pose as a prostitute in the pit of the Playhouse in order to have the freedom to interact with men. Beauplaisir catches her attention, and they end up alone. This act would certainly cause a uproar in upper-middle class and the aristocracy of the time, however she manages to somewhat retain of her innocence in the beginning, as she resist Beauplaisir’s advances. Her reaction is an emotionally instinctive one, as Fantomina, realizing she has lost her honour, breaks down and cries. Her innocence may have been taken away from her, but the fact that she fights him off suggests she is not completely morally bankrupt. This keeps the audience entertained but not disconnected with the character. Her second disguise is of a barmaid named Celia. This time, she changes her appearance and adopts another profession of lower class, once again granting her the freedom a lady of stature stature could not afford. Celia, unlike Fantomina is much more accepting of her desires. (“ She got over the Difficulty at last, however, by proceeding in a Manner, if possible, more extraordinary than all her former Behaviour”). The fact that she has lost her virginity to him, she feels as though he belongs to Beauplaisir, even when she feels betrayed by him being unfaithful to her fictional personas. Her third disguise is one of closer social standing, the widow Bloomer, a woman having been married, therefore remaining virtuous yet having the freedom that most women of the time would not have.

After impersonating three different single women of the time, the protagonist makes the boldest choice of inviting Beauplaisir to a rendez-vous as “Incognita”, her final disguise. She meets him in a dim room, wearing nothing but a mask he is not allowed to remove. Haywood writes this masked character during the height of popularity of masquerade balls, in which the aristocracy could adopt new identities for a night. The mask itself is a symbol for prostitution. When the protagonist becomes Incognita, all she can be defined by is her body. She has no story to give her any character. She is a blank slate, representing universal female desire, transcending class, profession and personality. Incognita is regaining her sexual agency as she is experiencing sexual pleasure and it being self-ratifying. The most interesting thing Haywood manages with Incognita, is to stimulate desire for the protagonist, Beauplaisir and even the audience, yet she makes a point of punishing her, when she finds out she is with child. The reader can enjoy the scandalous story while feeling comfortable with the fact that sinful behaviour cannot be rewarded.

The women in Haywood’s Fantomina are both guilty of misconduct and self-punishing. The protagonist does not place any blame onto Beauplaisir, even though he sexually assaulted her. She confesses her sins to her mother, who also agrees the blame is on her daughter, and decides to send her away to a convent in France, an institution run by women. The audience is also intended to find some meaning in the consequences of Fantomina’s antics. Her web of deceit, giving into her primal urges and abandoning propriety leads to her downfall. It may seem as though the ending is lackluster, considering the empowering female narrative, however Haywood may have been all too aware of her own position as a single woman of the time. Writing a novella about a woman indulging her desires was ahead of her time, and Haywood would be concerned with the reception, as it would influence her own quality of life. This does not mean she did not believe the protagonist should not be punished for her actions, yet the heroine shows no remorse for her actions, she simply acknowledges she was the one to blame. Haywood is thus planting the seeds of female empowerment, while protecting her own reputation through the veil of patriarchal karmic retribution.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Emily Hodgson. “Performing the Passions in Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina” and “Miss Betsy Thoughtless”” The Eighteenth Century 46.1 (2005): 1-15. Web.

Kathleen. “Eliza Haywood’s Amatory Aesthetic.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.3 (2006): 309-22. Web.

Mowry, Melissa. “Eliza Haywood’s Defense of London’s Body Politic.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 43.3 (2003): 645-65. Web.

Schulz, Dieter. “”Novel,” “Romance,” and Popular Fiction in the First Half of the Eighteenth Century.” Studies in Philology 70.1 (1973): 77-91. Web.

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