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Written by Victoria Joss
Identity and Disguise
Disguise is not only a ‘Frolick’ in Haywood’s erotica. It is a necessity for Fantomina to act freely in a patrio-centred 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 are lower class to her true identity as a Lady that Fantomina can lose her virginity, but not her virtuous reputation. This 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, your social status deemed your 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, and not one’s blood.
Discussions of gender are central to this eighteenth century novel, as it is based primarily around the behavior of a male and a female. Fantomina manipulates what is expected of the female race; instead of exhibiting mildness and virtue, she must be celebrated for instead exhibiting 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 represented the vulgar and predictable nature of male behavior. Beauplaisir is accentuated as a fool through the different scenarios that Fantomina places him in, especially noticeable towards the climatic ending as she writes to him as both Fantomina, Widow Bloomer and Incognita. Yet, at the end of the novella, Beauplaisir escapes unscathed, with the same lack of responsibility he has held throughout. This presents a complex picture: that men are promiscuous and easy to predict, yet 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 of her readers. Even when acting as a prostitute, with 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 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 from one who is restricted by her class. Despite their sordid careers, the prostitutes are focused upon due to the social freedom they hold in talking to men, whether 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. Lowering herself to a lower class is thereby portrayed as positive to the reader, as it allows Fantomina the freedom she seeks. It remains interesting that she only poses as the lower class, and has the option at any point to return to the privileges of a richer life. To conclude, the novel includes class movement, but in an entirely specific manner. Fantomina becomes lower class in her appearance and her sexual freedom, but remains higher class in that she need not experience destitution or poverty.
'The persecuted maiden' stereotype
In the eighteenth century, novel 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. Following this model, the heroine is usually vulnerable and naïve. However, Fantomina is described as with ‘Wit’ and 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. It is described how Fantomina is sent to a French monastery, but there is no description 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. Radically for the eighteenth century, Haywood is extremely modern in including sexual relations to this idea of love; this idea 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. This realization that it is genuine love also alters the perceived psychology of the protagonist. Fantomina transforms from a sociopathic individual seeking control over men in the only manner possible, 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 as to the morality of the character’s decisions. Fantomina very briefly regrets losing her virginity, but after a day’s recovery engages in the same act without another concern. This is not a case of forgetting morality, but merely considering it 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 the moral implications involved in her psychology of making her decisions.
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