Fantomina, or Life in a Maze: Navigating the Cultural Erasure Of Female Sexuality
This painting was done by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in 1808, and visually exemplifies expectations of female passivity and domesticity spurred by eighteenth century cultural shifts.
Some consider Eliza Haywood one of the more controversial writers to publish in eighteenth century England, and her work has been viewed accordingly as political, polarizing, and even subversive. “Fantomina” is one such work which has been both criticized and praised for reasons ranging from its promotion of reckless female activity to its empowerment of female sexuality, but it can be difficult to grasp the true narrative themes of this or any other of Haywood’s pieces without a fundamental contextual understanding of her writing. While it may be more difficult today to read “Fantomina” in its original intended context, this interpretation is imperative to gaining a deeper and more accurate understanding of Haywood’s purpose and motivation when crafting the novel.
Though certainly a fascinating and entertaining work on its own, the premise of “Fantomina” operates primarily as a commentary on female sexuality during the early 1700s. Karen Harvey published an article in 2002 examining a shift in the dynamic of eighteenth century gender relations, partially caused by perceived differences between the male and female body. She asserts that these changes began during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the same era in which Haywood was writing, and that they helped create narratives which taught about female passivity and domesticity. Harvey contends that a primary cause for this discernment of increased differentiation of the sexes was due to new findings published in the medical field following the scientific revolution. Women were now seen to have very few similarities to men in terms of base physical sexuality, leading them to be “increasingly reimagined as belonging to another order of being: loving but without sexual needs” (Harvey 903).
The extensive measures the heroine in “Fantomina” takes in order to obtain Beauplaisir’s affections seem far less dramatized and in some ways even more plausible when situated against the backdrop of the increasingly confined boundaries for high society women to express themselves as sexual beings. The first line of the text acknowledges that she is of “distinguished birth, beauty, wit and spirit,” indicating that the heroine is herself high society and therefore meant to represent those women being sexually repressed (Haywood 2796). The actions of her mother provide a broader, more general perspective of society’s views regarding female sexuality. Upon discovering her daughter’s behavior she places all responsibility on the heroine, stating “The blame is wholly hers, and I have nothing to request further of you, than that you will not divulge the distracted folly she has been guilty of” (Haywood 2813). It may seem unrealistically cruel that a woman’s own mother would react this way, but in the context of the “new, middle class image of the respectable, asexual female” which the heroine represents, it seems altogether natural, though perhaps still tragic, that this type of rampant sexual escapade would elicit such a response (Harvey 903).
The heroine’s elaborate means of soliciting Beauplaisir may appear absurd or amusing, but the general idea behind them and particularly their specificity are of great importance. During Harvey’s discussion of confined sexual activity, she cites Randolph Trumbach’s idea that “women in this period could express sexual passion only as prostitutes, seduced servants, remarrying widows, and adulterous wives” (Harvey 907). It is of little coincidence that the heroine of “Fantomina” disguises herself as all but one of these identities when pursuing Beauplaisir. The essential absence of sexual agency in her own life requires her to take on the personas of those who do possess it so that she may attempt erotic exploration.
Historians have struggled to fully uncover Haywood’s own background, but the pieces they have collected serve to additionally contextualize “Fantomina” and many of her other works. In 2000 Kirsten Saxton published a collection of essays about Haywood’s life and work, and her presentation of the writer’s personal life provides insight as to why she would write pieces so obstinately defiant of eighteenth century cultural norms. Through a compilation of letters written near the time “Fantomina” was published in the early 1720s, Saxton determines that Haywood likely had already experienced two failed marriages by the time she was thirty, leaving her single with two children. Additionally, the author speculates that these children were “almost certainly born outside of marriage” and that both were conceived with friends of Haywood’s, one a writer and the other a bookseller (Saxton 6).Given this information regarding Haywood’s own sexual and marital independence, it hardly seems surprising that she would feel indignant towards the continued domestication and desexualizing of women, particularly those who were married.
Haywood’s personal distaste for this cultural shift directly influenced “Fantomina” and her other works in ways that, as Saxton describes, “create a space for active, if dangerous, female appetite, rather than assuming women should have no sexual desires” (Saxton 4). The heroine’s seemingly drastic actions are certainly dangerous and perhaps even reckless, but Haywood purposefully employs this heightened drama to show just how far women had to go to free themselves from societal constraints on sexuality. Her critique lies not in the “appetite” of women itself, but is instead aimed towards the “lack of awareness of how to negotiate this desire” during such a period, a feeling she no doubt experienced herself when attempting to navigate her way through repressive marriages and birthing two children out of wedlock (Saxton 4).
The over-the-top occurrences and severe repercussions which take place in “Fantomina” should not be critiqued without an in-depth contextualization of female sexuality during the eighteenth century, a period which not placed sharp limitations on women of nearly any status, but also deeply affected the life of Eliza Haywood in a very personal way.
Harvey, Karen. “”The Century of Sex? Gender, Bodies, and Sexuality in the Long Eighteenth Century”.”Historical Journal. 45.4 (2002): 899-916. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <http://0-www.jstor.org.library.uark.edu/stable/pdfplus/10.2307/3133533.pdf?acceptTC=true>.
Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. 2010. 2796-2813. Print.
Saxton, Kirsten T., and Rebecca P. Bocchicchio. The Passionate Fictions of Eliza Haywood: Essays on Her Life and Work. The University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Print
“La bagnante di Valpincon,” or “The Vapincon Bather.” Painted by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1808. Retrieved from http://www.settemuse.it/pittori_scultori_europei/j_a_d_ingres.htm.