What are the gender politics in Haywood’s Fantomina?
Throughout her novella, Eliza Haywood presents gender politics that almost become more confusing the more they are studied. Beauplaisir believes he is a patriarch and therefore dominant of all the women that he comes across, able to objectify them and consistently place his own satisfaction over that of the female’s. 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 he is the dominant gender, she secretly secures the power for herself. Yet, we must also examine Fantomina’s behavior to get a true picture of the gender politics. She troubles herself with the effort of donning different disguises because of her devotion to Beauplaisir, and accepts his exceedingly restless behavior as normal. Therefore, it is perhaps indecipherable who has control over the gender politics in this novel. The most obvious answer is Fantomina, as she is able to understand and manipulate Beauplaisir’s desires to achieve her own.
How does the novella fit in to its time and genre?
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 from the erotica. 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, whose 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 only way that the novella is seen as more modern than the 1700s is through the genre, and way that Fantomina is presented. Instead of inhabiting this stereotype of a ‘persecuted maiden’ who is helplessly wronged by a man, Fantomina relishes in her deception and promiscuity.
How is class presented?
In eighteenth century society, the traditional class system of previous years is inverted. Whilst it was still important whether one was of status or had a title, class was now much more about your social identity: who 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. It is most obvious at the beginning of the novella, where Fantomina is described not only as a Lady, but 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 furthermore, basing interactions on carnal desires, and not public, social interactions. Class is therefore only properly instated at the end, 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? How does the ending make it slightly more acceptable in the eyes of an 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: the protagonist is taken advantage of against her will, then ends up marrying the subject and restoring her virtue. Haywood instead presents a protagonist who not only enjoys sex, but 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 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, it suggests that all actions have consequences that eventually will be paid for.
Does the reader ever truly discover who Fantomina is?
Haywood’s entire plotline is based around intrigue. And she cleverly extends this to also include the readership. Before the label ‘Fantomina’ is given to the protagonist, the readers are not given an identity, and never learn her true name. We can therefore only judge the protagonist on her actions throughout the novella. Yet, 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 only for the sake of her disguised persona. It can therefore be argued that the readership never truly discover Fantomina’s true identity, an unusual relationship between reader and protagonist.
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