Fantomina’s New World: Misogyny and Opportunity through Prostitution in 1700s England

A man mistakes an upper-class woman for a prostitute and she is not pleased.

Point de Convention by Louis-Léopold Boilly: A man mistakes an upper-class woman for a prostitute and she is not pleased.

In her work Fantomina: or Love in a Maze, Eliza Haywood explores the misogyny and the atypical brand of freedom prostitution in 1700s England offered women. When Fantomina observes the “mistresses” in the theater, Haywood asks the reader to be curious as well, not just about life outside of the confines of the upper class’s rules, but about the lives of prostitutes in that time period. Prostitution in the 1700s England was built on the atrocious sexism of the time period, yet, because prostitutes were working outside of their traditional gender role, prostitution was part of the seed of revolutionary change. Fantomina experiences both subjugation of women and the freedom to navigate her own way of life through prostitution.

The prostitutes in Fantomina were considered a step above the streetwalkers one could find in the seedier areas of cities, yet they still suffered from the misogynistic mindset of the day. Poor Fantomina, in all her innocence, does not have much of an education, and watching the prostitutes be waited upon by so many men “excited a curiosity in her” (Haywood).

This mindset held that although prostitution was an evil, it was a necessary one. Women were liable for allowing it to spread, yet men needed an outlet to relieve their sexual prowess over women. Women could not try to assert themselves against this sexual prowess, and men knew that such control over women was cruelty, yet they were socialized to believe this was normal (Simpson, 57). Men supposedly paid the price through the guilt and shame they felt when thought of their wrongs against the pitiful women.

The lives of the prostitutes were worth pitying. Most lived short lives due to poor living conditions and contraction of diseases. It was common knowledge during that time period that 5,000 prostitutes died in London every year (Simpson, 55). Even the law internalized their guilt, not charging prostitutes unless they were making a scene in the streets. Otherwise, they were left to carry on with their necessary evils behind closed doors. The patriarchy allowed the women to commit crimes, as long as they were silent. Of course, the men were not legally implicated in the crime at all.

This mindset is perfectly mirrored in Fantomina’s rape. She divulges to Beauplaisir that she is not indeed a mistress but a highborn virgin. Unfortunately, this does nothing to stop him:

“he little regarded, or he had, would have been far from obliging him to desist–nay, in the present burning eagerness of desire, ‘tis probable that had he been acquainted both with who and what she really was, the knowledge of her birth would not have influenced him with respect sufficient to curb the wild exuberance of his luxurious wishes.” (Haywood, 2799)

Beauplaisir takes what he wants, burning with “eagerness of desire,” and afterwards, in a moment of guilt, he tries to give Fantomina money and promises to love her. Will he love her forever? No. He has done this many times before and knows the affair will eventually peter out. He varies “not so much from his sex as to be able to prolong desire to any great length after possession” (Haywood, 2802).

Beauplaisir also takes a moment to “pity the misfortunes that he imagined would be her lot,” knowing that when her loss of innocence is uncovered, she will be ostracized, yet he does nothing about it, thinking that this is just the way of the world (Haywood, 2800).

This moment is a turning point for Fantomina. The loss of her virtue has irrevocably changed her. “Oh! no, I am undone beyond the power of heaven to help me!” she exclaims (Haywood, 2800). Yet, after reflecting on her behavior after Beauplaisir has left, she applauds herself  as having “more prudence than all her sex beside” and begins to imagine a new life for herself where she chooses her own partners. It is in this thought that Fantomina takes part in the revolution against the system that prostitution represented in 1700s.

Political and social unrest began circulating western Europe in the 1700s, culminating in the French Revolution of 1789. Such murmurs of unrest unsettled the upper classes and those in authority. “Rejection of accepted standards of morality and religion came to be associated with potential rejection of the established social order,” and immorality became its own sort of revolution (Simpson, 52). Immorality was proclaimed from the pulpit as a disease (Allen, 42).

Fantomina knows the patriarchy abandoned her as soon as she abandoned her virginity, so she chooses to build her own reality. She is in control, calling the shots with Beauplaisir and tricking him with the agency of her disguises. In the same way, prostitutes had agency to make money when all other options were exhausted, albeit through the tough conditions laid out earlier.

It is interesting to note that in the same way the government turned a blind eye to the practice of prostitution, Fantomina’s true identity is hidden behind her personas. Not even the reader knows her real name. Yet this is exactly what allows her the freedom to build her own life in the margins of society.

Haywood personally experienced a kind of rejection by the system. Writing was not a respected career for women in 1700s England, and was compared to prostitution (Spacks, 7). Women novelists supposedly exposed themselves by attempting to put information about themselves or their viewpoints in the spotlight of society. This only solidifies the intentionality behind choosing prostitution as the means by which Fantomina was to exit her upper class life.

It is important to apply this background information to the story of Fantomina so that we, the readers, might understand further understand how the sex trade institution of 1700s England was a product of the enforced misogyny of the day. Yet we also see the seeds of a coming revolution in women’s rights, when one day women would have the ability to control their own destiny, inside or outside of the boundaries of society.

Works Cited

Allen, Peter L. The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, past and Present. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000. Print.
Haywood, Eliza. “Fantomina: Or Love in a Maze.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 1C. New York: Pearson, 2010. 2796-813. Print.
Simpson, Antony E. “‘The Mouth of Strange Women Is a Deep Pit”: Male Guilt and Legal Attitudes Toward Prostitution in Georgian London.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 4.3 (1996): 50-79. University at Albany, The State University of New York. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.
Spacks, Patricia Ann Meyer. Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-century English Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.
Cover Photo:
Boilly, Louis-Léopold. Point de Convention. 1797. the-athenaeum.org. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
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