How does Haywood represent gender politics in Fantomina?
Throughout her novella, Eliza Haywood presents gender politics that almost become more confusing the more they are studied. Beauplaisir believes he is dominant of all the women that he comes across, able to objectify them and consistently place his own satisfaction over that of the women. Yet the reader is privy to the fact that it is actually Fantomina who is in control. She cleverly makes a mockery of Beauplaisir in a way that is unbeknownst to anyone but herself. In letting him believe that he is the dominant gender, she secretly secures the power for herself. Yet Fantomina troubles herself with the effort of donning different disguises because of her devotion to Beauplaisir, and accepts his exceedingly unfaithful behavior as normal. Therefore, it is perhaps indecipherable who has control over the gender politics in this novel. The most obvious answer would be Fantomina, as she is able to understand and manipulate Beauplaisir’s desires to achieve her own.
How does the novella fit into its time and genre? What eighteenth-century tropes and stereotypes are represented or subverted in the story?
Fantomina was an erotica novel written in 1725, and exhibits many different elements of its time and genre. In the eighteenth century, a subgenre began to develop known as amatory fiction. They were novels that were written about a mysterious woman, but could be subtly hinting that they are based on the life of a real person. Fantomina suggests this: in being a mysterious, upper-class woman, her pursuits could be based on a real account. A further eighteenth-century stereotype that Haywood embodies is the ‘rake’, a stereotypical morally repugnant man with little in the way of standards. Beauplaisir is the ultimate embodiment of this stock character, and acts exactly as the philandering male is expected to: he makes false promises, entertains many different women at once, and is far from a moral crisis at the thought of hiring a prostitute multiple times. The novella is "modern" in the way that Fantomina is presented: instead of inhabiting this stereotype of a ‘persecuted maiden’ who is helplessly wronged by a man, Fantomina relishes her deception and promiscuity.
How are class relations represented in the novella?
In eighteenth-century society, the traditional class system of previous years is inverted. While status and titles still mattered, class was now much more about your social identity: whom you knew, where you frequented, and what you wore. This is taken even further in Fantomina, as class and a social hierarchy only appear very subtly. They are most obvious at the beginning of the novella, where Fantomina is not only described as a Lady, but also as sitting in a privileged position at the theatre. From then on, Haywood almost abolishes the class system through letting Fantomina choose to descend the hierarchy, and by basing interactions on carnal desires, rather than on public, social interactions. Class is therefore only properly instated at the end of the story, where Fantomina’s Mother appears and acts as society would expect her to act: scolding her daughter then sending her off for punishment, away from the public eye.
How was Fantomina received when it was first published? How does the story's ending make it slightly more acceptable in the eyes of eighteenth-century society?
Haywood was a popular writer when Fantomina was first published in 1725; however, there was dispute in the reception of the presentation of Fantomina’s moral behavior and lack of remorse. Other eighteenth-century novels, such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, followed the traditional literary pattern for females: someone takes advantage of the protagonist against her will, and then ends up marrying the subject and restoring her virtue. Haywood instead presents a protagonist who not only enjoys sex, but also feels no remorse about having these relations outside of marriage. There were thus concerns upon receiving this novella that women would read it and believe that they could commit the same sins. The ending perhaps makes the novella slightly more suitable for public reception. In Fantomina finally having to repent for her sins, the novel suggests that all actions have consequences for which one will eventually pay.
Does the reader ever discover who the unnamed protagonist truly is?
The novella's entire plot is based on intrigue, in which the readers are naturally involved. Before the label ‘Fantomina’ is given to the protagonist, the readers are not given the protagonist's identity, and they never learn her true name. We can therefore only judge the protagonist on her actions throughout the novella. However, she completes nearly all her actions in her many different disguises; this suggests that perhaps the reader cannot conclude an accurate character judgement from these actions either, as it unknown whether it is something that the protagonist would genuinely do, or if she instead does it only for the sake of her disguised persona. It can therefore be argued that the readership never discover the protagonist’s true identity, an unusual relationship between reader and protagonist.