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Written by Victoria Joss
The irony of dressing as a prostitute, but maintaining the expectations of a Lady
In Haywood’s novella, the protagonist Fantomina is a lady that dresses as a prostitute to experience their freedom. She is therefore aware of her higher status, despite her lower-class dress. To others, such as Beauplaisir, they see only her outward dress, and not her true status as upper class. It is ironic that Fantomina dresses as a prostitute, yet expects her virginity to be treated with respect when her and Beauplaisir spend the night together. This highlights the difference between female and male expectation of desire. For Fantomina, a woman should be treated in accordance to their social status, whereas Beauplaisir assumes her as lower class due to her clothing. Ironically, Fantomina expects treatment in accordance to the very status she wants to keep secret.
The irony of accusing Beauplaisir of treachery
After Fantomina has played out her roles as Widow Bloomer, Celia and Fantomina, she returns to London and writes letters to Beauplaisir under the different personas. When Beauplaisir refuses Fantomina, but agrees to see the Widow the next day, Fantomina accuses him of treachery and betrayal. There is an undeniable sense of irony present, as she brands Beauplaisir as a typical, lying male, when she has fooled him no less than three times already dressed as different women. Yet, the motive behind her deception almost makes this irony acceptable. In becoming three different women at once, this is the only way in which Fantomina can prove that Beauplaisir is a rake, promising affection to many women simultaneously. This irony does not, then, mock Fantomina, but is an effect of the necessities she must act out to prove the unreliability of the male gender.
The irony of claiming control over female sexuality
The motivation behind Fantomina’s actions throughout the entirety of Haywood’s novellas is freedom from the constraints that accompany her role in society as a lady. Most importantly, this is inclusive of sexual freedom; without her usual upper-class dress, she can now interact with men without any judgement. Fantomina therefore possesses control over expressing her female sexuality, and refuses to conform to the constraints of a society that expects women to only become sexually active as a man’s wife. It is therefore ironic at the end of the story. Despite her greatest efforts, Fantomina goes in to labour and is finally a slave to the bodily functions that only occur to the female sex. Thereby, Fantomina has fought for the entire novella to dictate her own secret desires, only to be forced to submit and admit to society her condition.
The irony of the ending
Similarly, Fantomina is able to claim so much sexual and social freedom as she has no guardian present in town, a point mentioned early on in the novella. Every action in the plot is a decision that she controls, and allows her to entertain her fantasises of all her different disguises. There is, then, a slight irony in the return of her Mother. For a character that is so adamant that she makes her own choices, Fantomina submits extremely quickly to the will of her strict, socially-conscious Mother. She is sent to the French monastery with no protestation. It is perhaps as strange as it is ironic that Fantomina is dealt with as a naughty child, after such a complex and independent scheme occurring in the rest of the novel.
The irony of loving Beauplaisir, yet approaching him as a prostitute
Upon meeting Beauplaisir for the first time, Fantomina mentions that she has seen him before and taken a shine to him. Whilst the only way she can approach him is dressed as a lower-class prostitute, this comment confirms that she seeks him out specifically, suggesting there is more to her interest than just lust. It is therefore heavily ironic that Fantomina perhaps seeks something similar to love, when she approaches Beauplaisir dressed as a prostitute. This implies an important discussion in Haywood’s novella; Fantomina, with little experience, perhaps does not understand that sex and love can exist as different acts. In Beauplaisir believing she is a prostitute, Fantomina’s feelings will only ever be ironic; misplaced, and misinformed.
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