Strong Female Character or Desperate Lover?
In Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina; or Love in a Maze” we meet “a young lady of distinguished birth, beauty, wit and spirit.” (Haywood 2796) However, despite her class standing, or perhaps out of boredom because of it, our protagonist takes advantage of her mother’s absence and constructs an elaborate affair in order to win the continued affections of a man by the name of Beauplaisir. She begins by taking on the persona of a prostitute, albeit one of high standing, taking up post at the playhouse and called Fantomina. While playing this part in order to satisfy her curiosity and prolong enjoyable interaction with our lead male character, our lady is raped by him; she loses her virginity after an inability to gracefully evade the circumstances in which this extensive ruse has put her.
The second persona that our lady takes on is that of Celia, a house-maid in the country home of Beauplaisir. She begins creating a new character every time that Beauplaisir appears to tire of the most recent. The resources that she has available to her, as one of the wealthier members of society, allow her to purchase elaborate disguises. The narrator claims that “she was so admirably skilled in the Art of feigning, that she had the Power of putting on almost what face she pleased, and knew so exactly how to form her behavior to the character she represented,” (Haywood 2805) that even professional actors in the theaters could not compete with her talent. With the combination of transformed fashion, and modified temperament, our lady was able to successfully fool Beauplaisir into not only believing herself, Fantomina and Celia to be different persons in their entirety but also that of the widow, Mrs. Bloomer and the masked Incognita regardless of their intimate relations.
There are many aspects of “Fantomina; or Love in a Maze” that can be construed as feminist. Some of the arguments made in favor of that conclusion, for example, are:
– She is taking control of her own body and doing what she pleases with it.
– She is using the same means that men traditionally use in order to get what she wants; she bluntly lies and constructs false appearances in order to avoid abandonment by the man she claims to love while men often use similar methods in order to engage in relations with someone that would otherwise not consent to such things.
– She is taking freedom and control over her life by means of her affluence where is it not necessarily given to her.
– She is “only” sent away after giving birth to a daughter, the product of her hoax when, at the time, more serious consequences would have befallen her.
The argument that I would like to make, however, is that although it appears to be a story that is feminist in nature, it is not so. We must look not at her actions but at her reasons for those actions. After her initial exploration of the way in which a prostitute would be treated she does not continue because of a desire to explore her sexuality. Rather, she is “forced to what she wished with equal ardor, was what she wanted,” so that she may temporarily win over the affections of a man that are not even genuine, particularly when it is taken into account that he is reacting to a fabricated persona and not our protagonist’s true self. Furthermore, there are many instances in which our protagonist makes comments such as “’tis thus our silly, fond, believing sex are served when they put faith in man.” The insulting generalities that are made about the female gender make even her confidence in herself less of feminism and more egotism.
Mary Astell, “deemed by many present-day philosophers and historians to be the first female English feminist” (Bryson 40) argued that women should view themselves as “not a material body but an immaterial ‘essence’ a ‘disembodied mind” (Bryson 42). If Mary Astell were to be asked if “Fantomina; or Love in a Maze” demonstrated the actions of a strong female character in support of feminist ideals or simply a desperate lover going to extreme lengths to dominate the attention of the man to whom she lost her virginity, one could assume by her condemnation of women’s pursuit of “appreciation and flattery (usually with an ulterior motive) regarding their bodies” (Bryson 42) that she would choose the latter.
“Fantomina; or Love in a Maze” is about a young woman who uses her affluence to buy her disguises with which she steals her lover’s affections. It is not to say that there are not feministic aspects of the work, but after analyzing the protagonist’s motives, one must conclude that the story is of bold actions made by a still very much oppressed young woman.
Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina; Or, Love in a Maze. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 2796-2813. Print.
Bryson, Cynthia B. “Mary Astell: Defender of the “Disembodied Mind”.” Hypatia. 13.4 (1998): 40-62. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
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