Fantomina: A Desire for a Liberated Life within a Confined One

          Through the development of the setting, paradox, and parallelism within “Fantomina, Or, Love in a Maze,” Eliza Haywood is able to point up the underlying desire within all young women of the eighteenth century: to be liberated from societal standards. Through the development of the protagonist’s “role play characters”: Fantomina, Celia,  Miss. Bloomer, and Incognita, Haywood delves deep into the meaning of love while also complicating it. Many argue that through obtaining several identities ‘Fantomina’ achieves liberation; however, the fact that she feels the need to fit into a mold other than her own true identity shows that Fantomina is not liberated, rather confined to a reality that does not satisfy her– in the same way that one woman does not satisfy Beauplaisir.

            Haywood establishes the setting at the beginning of the Novella, and it is through this establishment that the reader is able to unveil Fantamina’s own desire, which is thematic throughout the work. Within the 18th century, female and male desire are very different ideologies. What is asked by society is for women to act within the bounds of what is modest to the public sphere, but be able to perform un-modest actions in private in order to satisfy a man. Through the setting, the reader understands the “young lady’s” stature as she is “of distinguished birth, beauty, wit and spirit” (2796). This is evident as she examines the actors on the stage while sitting in her box at the playhouse one night. It is her own comparison of herself against the other woman who “were more accustomed to such sights than she,” that sparks the necessity for her too to catch a man’s eye (2796). The initial setting of the playhouse foreshadows the ‘acting’ in which this young, ‘innocent’ girl will be partaking in to appease her own sensual desires, while also having the intentions of gaining ‘love’ from a man through sex. Even when pretending to be a prostitute, a profession that is rooted in desire, Fantomina is still socially expected to display modesty within that role. When posing as Celia, her own body is “half-reluctant, half-yielding”, solidifying the divide that women were facing in their own body; while simultaneously trying to own their desires as females (2803). In public, they were demanded to give off a modest, meek, and submissive persona. Yet they were still expected to satisfy the desires of men in private. The collision of these two ideals are seen due to Haywood’s establishment of the setting. As a man, Beauplaisir is permitted to be public and even vocal with his own wants. He is ‘rapacious’ in seeking the pleasures that all four characters provide him (2803). Through each character a setting is established to the reader that overall provides the idea of ‘liberation’; however, it only imitates it through role play instead of gaining it through true freedom- which simply was not obtainable for women in the 18th century.

            Throughout the entirety of the novella, “Fantomina, Or, Love in a Maze,” the protagonist attempts to gain control in a world in which she is offered none. Through the development of the roles that she plays: Fantomina, Celia,  Miss. Bloomer, and Incognita she is able to gain control over a part of her own life that she does not have. All characters liberate her from the societal standards of purity that she must abide by in her own reality; however, each character also provides her with a new liberation. Fantomina allows her to take ownership of her desire through prostitution. Celia, the maid, allows her to escape from the pressures of high society. Mrs. Bloomer, the widow, has already had a man, therefore purity is no longer expected of her. Incognita, an aristocrat, is so wealthy that no-one is questioning her behavior. So is Fantomina in control? To some extent. This quote gives us better insight: “He was willing to be at liberty to pursue new conquests; and [she] wisely considering that complaints, tears, swoonings and all the extravagances which women make use of in such cases have little prevalence over a heart inclined to rove and only serve to render those who practice them more contemptible by robbing them of that beauty which alone can bring back the furtive lover” (2803). This is where a paradox is provided. Fantomina is controlling all aspects of her life, morphing from one woman into the next– but what for? Whether she likes to admit it or not: her heart is submitted to Beauplaisir, not her body. It is the one thing that is utterly, and completely out of her control. As she enters into a new character she feels loved due to his embrace, but soon comes to the realization that Beauplaisir is not looking for love, and none of the women that she portrays aids him to feel that way. It is through this paradox that the reader is able to see the invisible chains that constrain women in the 18th century, and the protagonist sees them too. Once coming to the realization that her duty was simply to hold Beauplaisir’s attention until he got bored again, she understood the losing battle that all women fight. “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 protagonist comes to the understanding that all women are at the mercy of  their heart, and that all men are at the mercy of their sensual desires. To put it simply, she feels played. The paradox of obtaining control, but having no dominion over your own heart further proves that Fantomina, and all women of the eighteenth century are confined by their class and their womanhood– and those are two things that prohibit true liberation.

            There is significant parallelism within the novella that Haywood purposely places in order to complicate the idea of love when comparing what it means based on gender. This parallelism is portrayed  within the storylines of each rendezvous that Beauplaisir thinks to be different women. Each woman that he comes in contact with, Beauplaisir is excited to seduce his new conquest; however, that interest does not endure. After a while, he ends up becoming disinterested– after sex of course. The parallelism between the different characters the protagonist takes on ultimately shows the inconsistent nature that Haywood believes to be ingrained within the human condition of all men. It also furthers the notion that no woman, no matter what charms or stature she acquires, will ever remain interesting to a man unless she is performing for him at all hours. This quote by Beauplaisir reveals his conscious after conquering Fantomina: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 have curbed the wild exuberance of his luxurious wishes, or made him in that longing, — that impatient moment, change the form of his addresses. In fine, she was undone; and he gained a victory so highly rapturous that had he known over whom, scarce could he have triumphed more” (2799). The language used will further show the parallelism when noting what Fantomina thought of the encounter, “she had the satisfaction to find his love in his assiduity: He was there before her; and nothing could be more tender than the manner in which he accosted her: But from the first moment she came in, to that of the play being done, he continued to assure her no consideration could prevail with him to part from her again, as she had done the night before” (2799). The language that Beauplaisir used such as: “victory, rapturous, triumphed” connote that this encounter was simply a game to be played, and Fantomina was a prize to be won. When comparing it to Fantomina’s diction, which is much more romantic and soft, it is evident that their take on their affair are very different. Beauplaisir doesn’t believe in love, or is simply not interested. This is a major parallel to Fantomina, who believes she has obtained his favor by submitting her body to him. Through parallelism like this, Haywood begins unpacking the conversation of what love really means, and how that definition changes based on gender.

The Fair Nun Unmasked by Henry Morland  Leeds Museums and Galleries

           The end of this novella, “Fantomina, Or, Love in a Maze,” by Eliza Haywood is ultimately up to the reader as it is unclear of what happened to the protagonist. This is one of the first submersive readings produced in the 18th century, and the unclear ending can be attributed to the novellas success. As Emily Hodgson Anderson points out in her own work, Performing the Passions in Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina” and “Miss Betsy Thoughtless,” women characters within literature of the 1700’s often find that “impulsive behavior is quickly followed by death or banishment” (Anderson, 2). Although this is the case within Haywood’s work, banishment to the nunnery for her misconduct is what in turn could allow her to experience true liberation; however, that is up to the reader to decide. Through setting development, paradox, parallelism, and even art in this time period, it can be said that Fantomina is simply a girl hiding behind a mask; a mask that imitates a liberated life, but behind it is the reality of a confined one.


Work Cited:

Anderson, Emily Hodgson. “Performing the Passions in Eliza Haywood’s ‘Fantomina’ and ‘Miss Betsy Thoughtless.’” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 46, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1–15. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Haywood, Eliza. “Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, 4th ed., vol. 1C, Longman, 2010, pp. 2796–2813.


Morland, Henery Robert. “The Fair Nun Un-Masked.” Art UK, Leeds Museums and Galleries,