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Introduction

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In the eighteenth-century society,
women were allowed to write as long as their works focused on women
and women’s subjects only, such as love and marriage. Moreover, their
investigations of those subjects had to remain within the boundaries
settled by male literary traditions. Since most of women writers did
so to earn money, they needed to be accepted by both male and female
readers. Being radical did not give women writers the opportunity to
be vastly read (Craft 821). In a world where women suffered from
strict behavioural restrictions and where conduct literature
predominated, women writers had to elaborate diverse strategies in
order to criticise the standards established at that time without
being censored or banished from the writers’ world (Craft 822).
Indeed, numerous books intended to teach women how to behave properly
and what qualities they should acquire, including a “submissive
temper” and the repression of their passions. In other words,
qualities admired in men, for instance independence, had to be
suppressed (Harrington 44). Their role was limited to affective
abilities such as tenderness, benevolence, sensibility and virtue.
Secluded within the domestic sphere, they were considered as
“moralising agents of society” who were meant to keep calm and
tranquility in the household (Harrington 42). Facing such
constraints, several female writers, notably Eliza Haywood, decided
to give voice to these oppressed women. In her novel Fantomina
(1724), Eliza Haywood’s
eponymous heroine Fantomina adopts different roles in order to seduce
multiple times the same man, Beauplaisir. Through her story, Haywood
cautiously displays eighteenth-century women’s conditions, including
hers, and their ways to surmount these restrictions throughout
masquerade.

Fantomina’s high-class status

As
for Fantomina’s real identity, readers do not gather enough
information to determinate precisely who she is, except for the fact
she is a “Lady of distinguished Birth, Beauty, Wit, and Spirit,”
(41) which means that she possesses a high social status which forces
her to conform to restrictive behavioural standards. For instance,
her “Quality and reputed Virtue kept him (Beauplaisir) from using
her with that Freedom,” (42) which signifies that women from high
rank are, in a way, unattainable and men ought to remain reserved
when approaching them instead of seducing them frankly. Obviously,
the presence of such constraints are accompanied by consequences if
they are transgressed. As Fantomina almost reveals her real identity
to Beauplaisir to avoid a sexual relationship with him, she is
abruptly stopped by the thought of “being expos’d” and of
“publick Ridicule” (46). This exposes the pressure society
exercises over its members. Indeed, Fantomina would rather engage in
an unwanted sexual intercourse than face dishonour. Moreover, she
reflects upon her condition, after being raped by Beauplaisir, and
comes to the conclusion that she might have lost her virtue since she
lost her virginity but she still “had Discernment to foresee, and
avoid all those Ills which might attend the Loss of her Reputation”
(49). This statement suggests that reputation is more valuable than
virtue, maybe because virtue is intrinsic to the soul whereas
reputation is the public appearance of oneself. Regarding the
conservation of her secret identity and the avoiding of public
exposition, Fantomina appears strongly confident: “I shall hear no
Whispers as I pass,-She is Forasaken:-The odious Word Forsaken
will never wound my Ears; nor will my Wrongs excite either the Mirth
or Pity of the talking World,” (49) signifying that rumours will
not reach her ears since the identity of the forsaken one will not be
discovered. Her optimistic temper might be explained by the numerous
precautions she takes: first, she makes “no Person in the World a
Confident in it”, meaning she is the only one who is aware of her
masquerade and secondly, she conceals “from Beauplaisir himself the
knowledge who she was” (50). This suggests that, in the case where
their affair was revealed, Beauplaisir would not be able to humiliate
her publicly. Furthermore, she “was never miss’d from any Assembly
she had been accustomed to frequent,” (50) which signifies that she
continues to attend events where she is expected to be seen as a lady
of high class. She also rents different houses as she adopts new
roles to stay in control and avoid suspicion at the same time (50 and
62), and she constantly manages to transform her physical appearance
as well as characteristics of her own personality. For instance, she
answers Beauplaisir’s questions “with such seeming Innocence”
(53) when she disguises herself into a maid, and darkens her “Habit
and her Air” (54) as she switches into the sorrowful widow Boomer.
In other words, she mentally develops the trait of innocence when
performing the role of a maid and physically adopts the personage of
a widow. Her talent for performance is acknowledged by Eliza Haywood
herself as she intervenes within the text. She emphasizes the fact
that Fantomina

was so admirably skill’d in
the Art of feigning, that she had the Power of putting

on almost what Face she
pleas’d, and knew so exactly how to form her

Behaviour to the Character
she represented, that all the Comedians at both

Playhouses are infinitely
short of her Performances (57).

Possessing such a talent for
performing allows Fantomina to experiment what women from other
classes experience, beginning with prostitutes who are allowed to be
free with men.

Fantomina in the role of the
prostitute

As
introduced above, the idea to adopt the role of a prostitute comes to
Fantomina’s mind when she is at the Play. More interested in what
happens in the Pit than in the Play itself, she observes how
prostitutes are addressed by gentlemen and, “having at that Time no
other Aim, than the Gratification of an innocent Curiosity,” (42)
dresses up as a prostitute the following night to experience the
routine of these women for the sake of her own curiosity. As
Beauplaisir approaches her, she starts to appreciate “conversing
with him in this free and unrestrain’d Manner” (43). Fantomina
seems in fact to enjoy this more direct and sincere way of talking
which deeply contrasts with the polite and refined manners she is
habituated to encounter. She enables herself to perform a role she
has “independently conceived for herself- to achieve an affective
expression of female passion which would, in another setting, be
disastrous and unavailing” (Anderson 1).

Although
her masquerade allows her to escape from the constraints imposed by
the high class, her role rapidly loses its appeal as Beauplaisir
“resolv’d not to part from her without the Gratifications of those
Desires she had inspir’d,” (43) meaning that he is determined to
have sexual relations with her. She “found herself involv’d in a
Difficulty, which before never enter’d into her Head, but which she
knew not well how to get over” (43). This suggests that she did not
anticipate prostitutes’ constraints, that is to say their duty to
provide sex in exchange for money. Her reaction after Beauplaisir
ruins her virginity is impulsive: “Her tears” and “the
Distraction she appeared in, after the ruinous Extasy was past,”
(46) the moment she realises that “she had nothing left to give”
and her “Air of Disdain” (47) as Beauplaisir pays for her
services provoke Beauplaisir into questioning her real profession. As
she confesses to be in truth “the Daughter of a Country Gentleman,”
(48) Beauplaisir trusts her and yet “did not doubt by the Beginning
of her Conduct, but that in the End she would be in Reality, the
Thing she so artfully had counterfeited,” (48) suggesting that
Fantomina would eventually become a prostitute. This scene portrays a
society in which women are betrayed into prostitution by men and
thereby considered as sexual objects whose condition allows them no
choice to refuse sexual demands.

In addition to her humiliation,
Fantomina soon realises that she has lost her value to the eyes of
Beauplaisir: her charms “soon lost their Poinancy, and grew
tasteless and insipid” (50). This distance that grows between her
lover and herself provokes in her a burning desire to possess him
again. Disguising herself for the purpose of curiosity at first, her
aim is clearer than ever now:

Her Design was once more to
engage him, to hear him sigh, to see him

languish, to feel the
strenuous Pressures of his eager Arms, to be compelled,

to be sweetly forc’d to what
she wished with equal Ardour, was what she

wanted (51).

The
previously virtuous stately lady seems to have developed a taste for
flesh and now craves for Beauplaisir. In order to seduce him again,
she adopts a new role: she becomes Beauplaisir’s maid. This time, she
does not need to open her mouth or do anything special to trick him:
as soon as he sees her, Beauplaisir gives her “two or three hearty
kisses” (52) and waits only until the next morning to satisfy his
thirst for women as he “lost the Power of containing himself”
(53). In this situation, Celia, Fantomina’s name as a maid, is
willing to engage in a sexual relationship with Beauplaisir. However,
it was not necessarily the case for all eighteenth-century country
maids. Their role was “making the Gentlemen’s Beds, getting them
their Breakfasts, and waiting on them in their Chambers” (52). The
first two tasks seem appropriate but the last one resembles strangely
the prostitute’s. Luckily for Celia, Beauplaisir is the only man in
the house, so she “was in no Apprehensions of any Amorous Violence”
(52). “Apprehensions” reflect the agitation that country maids
might feel when forced (the narrator uses the word “Violence”) to
sexually satisfy men. The verbs used in the description of how
tactile Beauplaisir is with his maid suggest that these women do not
seem to have choice either: “he catch’d her by the pretty Leg,”
then “pulling her gently to him” and “compelled her to sit in
his Lap” (52) for instance seem to gather three verbs that
designate Beauplaisir the active agent of the situation whereas Celia
seems to be assigned the passive role of the action. Additionally,
Beauplaisir “gave her a handsome Sum of Gold” (53) after it, as
if she was a prostitute. In other words, although country maids have
higher social status than prostitutes, they also are considered as
sexual objects. Obviously, Fantomina herself does not consider these
situations as restrictions since they allow her to entertain herself
with Beauplaisir. Nevertheless, the author uses the character of
Fantomina to denounce this odious duty of sexually satisfying men
that is attributed to women from any social class.

And
again, as Celia creates a new character to seduce Beauplaisir for the
third time since he grew “more weary of her than he had been of
Fantomina,” (53) it allows the author to describe another injustice
found in inheritance. Celia invents the sorrowful Widow Bloomer who
asks Beauplaisir for help. She explains that she has to “take care
of the little Fortune he (her husband) left behind him, which being
in the Hands of a Brother of his in London, will be all carry’d off
to Holland, where he is going to settle” and adds that if she does
not reach the “Town before he leaves it”, she is “undone for
ever” (55). Here, Widow Bloom undoubtedly benefits from
Beauplaisir’s pity who accepts to help her and clearly does not miss
the opportunity to comfort her in his ways: “He now took the
Liberty of kissing away her Tears, and catching the Sighs as they
issued from her Lips” (56). However, the crucial aspect of this
passage does not reside in Beauplaisir’s insatiable appetite for
women but rather in the explanation of inheritance’s issues regarding
women. Indeed, property passed from man to man, leaving widows
deprived of means. As if having no hand over their own bodies was not
sufficient, women also had no right on wealth.

So now that widows are left indigent,
country maids and prostitutes are forced to engage in sexual
relationships and high-class women have to value more their
reputation than anything else, the purpose of masquerade becomes
evident.

Masquerade

Fantomina
“effects self-transformations that move her downward in social rank
and thereby allow her successfully to defy behavioural restrictions
imposed upon aristocratic women” (Craft 830). This means that her
various disguises do not mirror a submission towards constraints but
rather a resistance to them. Indeed, she gratifies her forbidden
pleasures by performing. Her main goal is to have Beauplaisir “always
raving, wild, impatient, longing, dying” (65). This continued
masquerade allows her to maintain the ravishing passion between her
lover and herself, which is something marriage slowly erases with
time. Indeed, marriage is far from being wished because of men’s
“Unaccountableness” (60). Fantomina wonders “How do some Women
make their Life a Hell, burning in fruitless Expectations, and
dreaming out their Days in Hopes and Fears, then wake at last to all
the Horror of Dispair?” (59) after receiving two letters destined
to both Fantomina and Widow Bloomer that contain approximately the
same content. Fantomina precisely escapes from marriage because she
is sent to a convent in France. Punished for her sins, this seemingly
moral ending where Fantomina feels guilty and humiliated for the rest
of her life probably hides another signification. Indeed, Fantomina
might integrate a convent that resembles Aphra Behn’s Galloping
Nuns, which is an example of
convent that does not constraint pleasures nor freedom (Craft 832).

Secondly,
as Haywood describes the roles of a prostitute, a country maid and a
widow, which are women from lower classes than the real Fantomina,
she renders them easier of access as their social rank increases and
therefore opposes the conditions of the eighteenth century society,
yet conforms to male sexual fantasies: Fantomina is a virginal
prostitute, Celia is an innocent and submissive country maid, Widow
Bloomer is quite rapidly consoled and Incognita, the last role the
heroine adopts, is a mysterious aristocratic beauty who hurries
Beauplaisir to join her even if they have not had any previous
contact. Haywood therefore feeds men’s reveries. These two aspects of
Haywood’s story allow her to appear to conform to male literary
standards even though she cautiously displays her own thoughts
between the lines. It seems that the novel itself is a masquerade
since its external appearance allows it to achieve its true aim. On
the surface, the novel seems to follow social codes but the mask it
wears hides the fact that it discusses forbidden topics in women’s
writings, especially those which oppose the standards.

Besides, the description of these
women and their restrictions mirror a great understanding of their
conditions. Indeed, the author herself faced limitations in her
career as a female writer. As explained in the introduction, women
were dictated the topics they were allowed to write about by men. To
surmount these curbs, Haywood herself modified her appearance, and
this can be justified by all the professions she practised: from
publisher to bookseller, including translator and editor of
periodicals, Haywood gained the understanding of the dimensions and
consequences of these constraints and created the character of
Fantomina in which she would use performance to surmount them
(Anderson 11).

Conclusion

In
conclusion, the story of Fantomina could be considered as a conduct
book at first sight because the heroine is punished for her wrong
behaviour. It might prevent young girls from playing with masquerade
to experience what is forbidden to their status. However, a more
profound analysis of the text allows the reader to understand
Haywood’s real intentions, which are to give voice to women who do
not have the opportunity to express themselves on their own
conditions since men are the ones who take the decisions, and to
expose her own issues regarding the subject. The plot itself aims to
divert male readers from the real meaning of Haywood’s novel. For
instance, Fantomina’s punishment is in truth a symbol of the
“continuation of that female society” (Craft 832) in which
unfaithful men are luckily missing. Moreover, her improbable roles
which seem to target male fantasies and embody the sin in its purest
form actually denounce social codes women suffered from. First,
Fantomina is betrayed into prostitution, then Celia becomes intimate
with Beauplaisir without her saying, the widow is impoverished by her
husband’s death and finally the stately lady has to value her
reputation over her own virtue. The stratagem used by Fantomina is a
way of transgressing standards and taking control of her own life.
Like Fantomina, female readers are in a way encouraged by Haywood to
empower themselves and become leaders of their existence.

Works 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, www.jstor.org/stable/41467959.

Craft, Catherine A. “Reworking Male
Models: Aphra Behn’s ‘Fair Vow-Breaker,” Eliza Haywood’s
‘Fantomina,” and Charlotte Lennox’s ‘Female Quixote.'”
The Modern Language Review, vol. 86, no. 4, 1991, pp.
821–838. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3732539.

Harrington, Dana. “Gender, Commerce,
and the Transformation of Virtue in Eighteenth-Century Britain.”
Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3, 2001, pp. 33–52.
JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3886041.