Agency and Liberation in Haywood’s Fantomina

Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze takes a different approach to female agency namely in the method in which her protagonist attains her sense of freedom. By occupying various stages of class in society, the protagonist is allowed to pursue her true desires and fully explore herself. Her identity is rooted in the separation of herself from her class and gendered position in society. From the moment that the Lady’s “honor” is ruined by Beauplaisir, Haywood has connected the loss of innocence and the characters she occupies to be the method in which Fantomina equalizes herself to the upper class male in her society. Despite this, Fantomina is fighting a losing battle – she is still constricted by her class and gender in the end, entrenched by the society she lives in.

Among one of the first observations made by the female protagonist in Fantomina is her contempt for the distinguished gentleman who “threw away their time” by seeking the company of prostitutes in the area below the stage in the theatre (p. 2796). Instead of a general agreement by the others in the box with her, the ladies near her are either unsurprised or unconcerned by this type of behavior and don’t bother to answer. Here within the first paragraph of the story, the difference in expectations between an upper class woman and an upper class man is solidified. What starts with curiosity for Fantomina quickly dissolves into a struggle to remain on equal footing of men who are allowed to essentially do as they please. Despite the severe limitations Fantomina operates under as an upper class woman in society, her drive to achieve her desires displays an intelligence that undermines the idea of how ignorant women were believed to be in this time period. Although she has little idea of what exactly she is getting into when she decides to entertain Beauplaisir the night after their first meeting, she “depended on the strength of her virtue, to bear her fate through trials more dangerous than she apprehended this to be…” despite the fact that the lady appears initially to be a fairly helpless young woman, raised in the country with little knowledge on how to act in society, her ability to trust her own insight shows a particular strength (p. 2798).

Unfortunately, Fantomina isn’t wholly prepared for the act of losing her honor. Her station in life hasn’t fully prepared her for the realities of a male dominated society. Because of the lack of education and preparation she has about the expectations of men, especially within the terms of masquerading as a prostitute, she finds herself wholly at Beauplaisir’s mercy. In her attempt to stop Beauplaisir she tells him “she was a virgin, and had assumed this manner of behavior only to engage him,” but this does not stop him from taking her virginity (p. 2799). This section of the story is where Fantomina truly loses her innocence. Any ignorance of society that Fantomina had retained from being raised in the country, and any protection she received by her station of life, is dissolved the moment she reaches a point of no return with Beauplaisir.

And yet, the prostitute Fantomina does embody a type of triumph over the subordinate station of women. Helen Thompson, in her essay, Plotting Materialism: W. Charleton’s “The Ephesian Matron”, E. Haywood’s “Fantomina”, and Feminine Consistency, notices that the protagonist’s triumph with Beauplaisir as a prostitute springs “not from the fact that he thinks her a prostitute, but from the fact that she has split into two whole bodies, that he thinks her both a prostitute and a virtuous lady.” Therefore, despite the fact that Fantomina strives to achieve a different persona to pursue her own desires, she still remains fundamentally the same high class, educated woman. She manages to retain her own sense of identity, and it is this very identity that attracts Beauplaisir to her in the first place.

Despite the fact that Fantomina is distraught over the loss of her virginity, she still manages to protect herself by retaining the secrecy of her identity from Beauplaisir, even going as far as to pay the landlady of the house to help perpetuate the persona of Fantomina. She also manages to take a rational look at her situation, noting that even if she loses the affection of Beauplaisir, that it will further protect the secret of her “disgrace”. For Beauplaisir, Fantomina is little more than a notch in the bedpost. For our protagonist, this loss of her innocence means everything. Where a man was allowed to conduct himself however he pleased, and seek as many partners as he personally desired, for Fantomina to even have one romantic partner outside of a marriage was scandalous and a secret that she had to keep hidden. Assuming different roles allowed her to retain this secret. Not only that, but Fantomina enjoyed the freedom of these roles, and therefore did not stop after Beauplaisir grew tired of her original persona.

Suggested in an essay by Patricia Comitini, titled Imaginative Pleasures: Fantomina, Ideology, and Aesthetics, “sexual desire is generalized to transcend class in each story as a universalized bodily experience for both men and women, but how that desire is expressed becomes attached to a gendered and classed-based narrative about desire.” Fantomina’s fictitious portrayal of various women mirrors the falsehood that Beauplaisir perpetuates in wooing and subsequently discarding each of the women. For Fantomina to be on equal footing in romantic pursuits as Beauplaisir, she must mirror his falseness, but to an extreme, because of the restrictions of her gender and class. She occupies these roles so well that Beauplaisir never knows the difference. And after masquerading, in turn, as Celia the maid and Mrs. Bloomer the widow, Fantomina’s strength and sense of self is the most vivid as Incognita. Fantomina has finally placed herself in an equal position to men, giving herself as much power over them as they have had over her. “O that all neglected wives, and fond abandoned nymphs would take this method!—Men would be caught in their own snare, and have no cause to scorn our easy, weeping, wailing sex!” (p. 2810). The language is scathing, and her strength is grounded in this persona and it’s anonymity. Fantomina has no illusions about the perceptions of women in her society, and she now fully understands the secrets of men.

Despite her ability to remain unknown to Beauplaisir as she succeeded in fooling him a third time, the restrictions of being a woman return in the form of a child. Fantomina is therefore forced back into the complacent role that she began in, and is even further punished by being sent to a convent. The freedom she receives by occupying certain characters across classes is just an illusion that has no bearing on the reality of her position in society. Although in the 18th century the ending has no discernable trace of a punishment to some reading it, the punishment for Fantomina pursuing her sexual desire is to be sent to a convent for the rest of her life. Haywood represents very frankly the constrictions upon women and the results of the claims they make to sexual freedom and agency. This insight into the female viewpoint is unparalleled during this time period and is thoroughly displayed through Fantomina’s actions and the different roles she fulfilled. The imagination and illusion of the different personas highlight the struggles women faced relating to both their gender and class, as well as exposing the hypocrisy of the expectations men upheld for them.

Comitini, Patricia. “Imaginative Pleasures: Fantomina, Ideology, and Aesthetics.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 43.1 (2014): 69-87. Project MUSE. Web. 16 Sep. 2014.

Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze. 1724. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 4th ed. Vol. 1C. New York: Longman, 2010. 2796-813. Print.

Thompson, Helen. “Plotting Materialism: W. Charleton’s “The Ephesian Matron”, E. Haywood’s “Fantomina”, and Feminine Consistency.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002): 195-214. JSTOR. Web. 30 Sept. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/30054178?ref=no-x-route:c56dc8dbf76d03587d18e98ea5800c2f&gt;.

Advertisements