Fantomina Themes

Identity and Disguise

Disguise is not only a ‘Frolick’ in Haywood’s novella. It is a necessity for Fantomina to act freely in a male-dominated society. The protagonist becomes four different women through the medium of disguise: Fantomina, The Servant Girl, The Widow, and Incognita. It is only through acting as characters that belong to lower classes than she does that Fantomina can lose her virginity without losing her virtuous reputation. She presents an uncanny ability to transcend social spheres altogether, as she is able to change the appearance of her class through aesthetics alone. In the eighteenth century, social status determined identity. Therefore, Fantomina would be judged on her status as a Lady. However, Haywood inverts this to suggest instead that class and social status is based on outward impressions, not on one’s blood.


Discussions of gender are central to this eighteenth-century novel, as it is based primarily on the behavior of a male and a female. Fantomina manipulates what is expected of a woman: instead of exhibiting mildness and virtue, she instead exhibits an entertaining wit and ability to outsmart others. Beauplaisir, on the other hand, can be described as a ‘rake’, a typical eighteenth century ‘stock’ character that represents the vulgar and predictable nature of male behavior. Beauplaisir is accentuated as a fool through the different scenarios that Fantomina places him in, as we see especially well towards the climatic ending as she writes to him as Fantomina, Widow Bloomer, and Incognita all at once. Yet, at the end of the novella, Beauplaisir escapes unscathed, with the same lack of responsibility he has held throughout the story. This presents a complex picture: that men are promiscuous and easy to predict, yet they are still accepted as the superior gender in eighteenth-century society.


Female and male desire are completely different ideologies in the eighteenth century, and Haywood expects this to be common knowledge for her readers. Even when acting as a prostitute, belonging to a profession that centers on desire, Fantomina must still act with modesty. When in the disguise of Celia, her body is ‘half-reluctant, half-yielding’, displaying the struggle that women faced in the expression of their desires. In public, they must adopt a modest and mild exterior, yet they are still expected to please men in private. In the world of prostitution and casual intercourse, these spheres are confused. However, as a man, Beauplaisir can be both public and extremely forward with his desire. He is ‘rapacious’ in seeking the affections of all four characters Fantomina plays, and barely waits for her consent before he seeks satisfaction.


Within this novel, class hierarchies are not described from a privileged and content perspective, but rather from the perspective of one who is restricted by her class. Despite their sordid careers, prostitutes are highlighted due to the social freedom they hold in talking to men, whether or not they are of appropriate class or demeanor. Therefore, the theme of class centers on movement between the classes, and not interaction within a class. Fantomina’s actions are restricted by her reputation as a higher class Lady, as her public relations are constantly monitored and her eligibility to marry based upon virginity as well as status. Her act of relocating herself to a lower class is thus portrayed as positive, as it allows Fantomina the freedom she seeks. It remains interesting that she only poses as the lower class, and thus has the option at any point to return to the privileges of a richer life.

'The persecuted maiden' stereotype

In the eighteenth century, novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela set out a female model that many novelists followed: virtuous maidens would be rewarded with marriage, and those who lost their virginity were ‘persecuted’ by men. In this model, the heroine is usually vulnerable and naïve.

In contrast to this standard model, Fantomina is described as witty; she observes the workings of prostitutes in society before becoming one of them, knowing fully what her actions involve. The endings for traditional heroines in eighteenth century novels also end in disgrace or death; in Fantomina, Haywood allows neither to happen. Fantomina is sent to a French monastery, but there is no description in the novel of public opinion or the protagonist’s emotion. She neither apologizes nor repents for her promiscuous activities, and this silence is extremely powerful. Haywood rejects this stereotype of the ‘persecuted maiden’ subtly, but firmly.


Haywood’s novella contains prostitutes, a deceitful maiden, and a philandering male. Despite this, the love displayed by Fantomina is both constant and sincere. Haywood is extremely modern in the way that she includes sexual relations in the idea of love: in the eighteenth century, sex was traditionally strictly reserved for married couples. Through Fantomina losing her virginity, she is no less worthy to love Beauplaisir as a virtuous maiden is. The realization that sex involves genuine love also alters the psychology of the protagonist. Fantomina transforms from a sociopathic individual seeking control over men in the only manner possible (sex), to an individual merely doing all she can for the affections of the man she loves.


The concept of prostitution and two unmarried individuals engaging in sexual acts was a scandalous idea to an eighteenth-century society. Yet Haywood’s novel is not an exploration of the morality of the character’s decisions. Fantomina very briefly regrets losing her virginity, but after a day’s recovery she engages in the same act without another concern. This is not a case of forgetting morality, but merely of considering it to be irrelevant to the novella. The very title page describes a ‘Secret Amour’ ‘Between Two Persons of Condition’, an obvious acknowledgement from Haywood that the two protagonists do not even pose as the morally good. Once they have been categorized as people ‘of Condition’ and morally perverse, then the reader can focus upon Fantomina’s wit, and not on the moral implications of her decision making.