Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"These Aids from Nature, join'd to the Wiles of Art": Some Thoughts (and more questions) on Fantomina's Roles

by Emily Friedman (University of Missouri)

When teaching Fantomina, my students hit a wall very quickly. Their most common question, I confess, remains my question: how on earth can Fantomina pull off her many transformations?

In the classroom, I start off by using my students' questions about Fantomina's disguises to explain the nuances of eighteenth-century dress. Fantomina alters her appearance with every new role, changing from a tight-laced dress and diamonds to loose gowns, blacking her hair and brows as the servant Celia, pulling her hair back severely as the Widow Bloomer, and masking entirely as the Incognita. When she discovers her pregnancy, she attempts to disguise even this bodily reality by "By eating little, lacing prodigious strait, and the Advantage of a great Hoop-Petticoat" (29). I accompany classroom discussions of Fantomina’s disguises with period illustrations. Such examinations of the massive architecture of eighteenth-century hair and dress usefully remind students of the differences between our world and that of the texts we read.

However, it is not merely dress that Haywood uses to describe Fantomina's many roles. Indeed, she notes the improbability of mere "costume changes" explicitly:

It may, perhaps, seem strange that Beauplaisir should in such near Intimacies continue still deceiv'd: I know there are Men who will swear it is an Impossibility, and that no Disguise could hinder them from knowing a Woman they had once enjoy'd. In answer to these Scruples, I can only say, that besides the Alteration which the Change of Dress made in her, she was so admirably skill'd in the Art of feigning, that she had the Power of putting on almost what Face she pleas'd, and knew so exactly how to form her Behaviour to the Character she represented, that all the Comedians at both Playhouses are infinitely short of her Performances: She, could vary her very Glances, tune her Voice to Accents the most different imaginable from those in which she spoke when she appear'd herself. (12)

Fantomina's skill-set here is, of course, the logical extreme of the gentlewoman's "accomplishments." Any woman of her class and (presumed) wealth would be well-skilled in not only the art of dressing and the use of cosmetics, but also in the performance of accepted behavior: the alteration of the body and the body's movements to conform to a set pattern appropriate to her place. What is so often discussed in conduct books as appropriate female behavior is, after all, a set of artificial behaviors set up as "natural." The paradox of the conduct book is if such behaviors truly were inherent, there would be no need for writing didactic material in order to redirect female behavior.

Haywood capitalizes on this paradox in the passage quoted above. She does not identify Fantomina's acting abilities as exclusively learned; instead she refers to them as "These Aids from Nature, join'd to the Wiles of Art" (12). Haywood here seems intentionally ambiguous; she does not articulate which abilities are “natural” and which are “art.” It is tantalizing to ponder which is which and consider the possibility that Haywood purposefully muddles the distinction.

Moreover, Fantomina's gifts do not stop there. She also has talent for feigning her handwriting and for elaborate set-dressing, and she is able to hire and maintain appropriate rooms for her different characters; sometimes she does all of this simultaneously. She even has a knack for casting, as she bribes various attendants to do her bidding (and moreover, keep her secrets) in ways quite unlike most servants in prose fiction (or drama, for that matter). As has been discussed elsewhere, Fantomina is a creator of fictions, and like Haywood, has an eye not only for her own performance, but the entire mise-en-scene in which she performs.

When considered, all of this seems even more improbable than Beauplaisir's selective vision, given Fantomina's initial introduction as "young, a Stranger to the World" (1).

Hence, my enduring question: what effects this transformation? Is there a transformation?

(citations are from Jack Lynch's electronic edition of the 1725 first edition)

Desire and Deception

by Aimee Levesque (Buffalo State College)

Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina is an amatory work of fiction that follows a young woman (Fantomina, Celia, Widow Bloomer, Incognita) of distinguished birth who, through the use of masquerade, expresses her sexuality and wins the man of her desires, Beauplaisir. By successfully overturning eighteenth-century literary conventions and societal expectations of women, Haywood strips the power of passion and desire away from men and gives it to their female counterparts to do with as they please. Thus, Haywood illuminates the double standard that exists in the eighteenth century regarding matters of the heart.

The female character in Fantomina is dangerously inexperienced. Haywood writes that she is “young, a Stranger to the World, and consequently to the Dangers of it” (41). Yet she also comes across as being quite confident. She initiates interactions with Beauplaisir and is a force to be reckoned with as she shrewdly gains his affections four separate times through the anonymity of disguise. Sadly, however, Beauplaisir tires of Fantomina on each occasion and lives up to the societal stereotype of the male rake that turns women into tragic heroines.

There are times in the narrative when one might find the idea of Fantomina’s numerous transformations completely unbelievable. Interestingly, Haywood does little to ensure believability beyond stating that Fantomina is a master at metamorphosis and although there are those who swear that, “no Disguise could hinder them from knowing a Woman they had once enjoy’d…she was so admirably skill’d in the Art of feigning, that she had the Power of putting on almost what face she pleas’d” (57). Ultimately whether or not one accepts Fantomina’s disguises in love, in a time when literary realism has not yet developed, is in the hands of each reader.

Although I found Fantomina to be charmingly mischievous and unconventional, I admittedly had my own issues with the believability of the text and often found myself wondering how Fantomina could have successfully navigated the maze of multiplicity without making a mistake on at least one occasion – a small slip of exposure, one wrong accent, or an absent-minded choice of dress. Perhaps she did fail at some point that we are not told of by Haywood I have often wondered if Beauplaisir himself actually knew of Fantomina’s true identity and, rather than end the conquest he enjoyed, played ignorant and continued to take advantage of her until she was pregnant. It would be easy for him to deny paternity and although doing so would end this game of a practiced Libertine, there were surely more games to play and more women to conquer. I am not sure if I would stretch the narrative this much, but thoughtful scenarios such as these allow for the continued exploration of desire and deception in eighteenth-century literature.

The unconventional ending of Fantomina is another aspect of the novel worth considering. When the female protagonist is sent away to live in a French Monastery because of her indiscretions, there appears to be an unexpected freedom that is given to her by her mother. Although the blame of conquest and the fault of her subsequent pregnancy are put entirely upon Fantomina, her departure does not signal the onset of harsh consequences. Rather, the doors of opportunity are opened for a young girl who has made a few mistakes along the way toward maturity. Hope remains that Fantomina will learn from her mistakes and make a new life for herself in France. We may imagine that a girl like Fantomina, who is so entrenched in fantasy and disguise, will never find happiness in marriage. Perhaps she will find more amorous intrigue in France. The uncertainty of Fantomina’s future is, to some extent, exciting by comparison to the ends of other transgressive heroines. By the end of the eighteenth century, a prototypical femme fatale will emerge in Gothic literature, one who if placed in the same situation as Fantomina, might suffer a fate of physical brutality or death.

After reading Fantomina, I continue to wonder about the following: Why does Haywood construct a scenario in which a woman of distinguished birth chooses to step into the role of a prostitute as a way to get a man. Surely, every eighteenth-century woman knew that prostitution would not be conducive to true love and finding a husband. Secondly, are readers meant to see the first sexual encounter between Fantomina and Beauplaisir as a rape because of her indecision, her tears and her lamentations before, during and after the act while he is described as being “bold” and “resolute” (46)? If we do consider the first encounter rape, then what does Fantomina’s continued pursuit of Beauplaisir say about the quality of her character? And of the status of women in eighteenth-century society?

I am also intrigued by Fantomina’s class “jumping:” she goes from gentlewoman to prostitute, then maid to widow and finally, to Lady. While each of these roles illuminate feminine power in each of their classes, what does Fantomina’s reversal of social status – high to low to high status again – imply about how she sees the world in which she lives. Finally, although cross-dressing and role-playing are visual tricks meant to entice Beauplaisir, what does their use in the novel imply about eighteenth-century society?

Works Cited

Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina and Other Works. Eds. Alexander Pettit, Margaret Case Croskery, and Anna C. Patchias. Ontario: Broadview Press, Ltd. 2004

Woman Power in Fantomina

by Anita Nicholson (Cornell)

Contrary to its putatively gender-normalizing conclusion, Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina generates a narrative of sexual subversion and female authority. The repetitive occurrence of female protagonists inverting gender hegemonies from the prostitute to Fantomina’s mother to the convent, produces a ‘gynocratic’, or woman-centered novel. When juxtaposed alongside the nameless, beguiled admirers and the named, yet four-flushed BeauPlaisir, the narrative constructs a hierarchy of female over male, contradicting the possibility of its reinstating archetypal gender roles through its questionable inclusion of assault. While acknowledging seemingly anti-feminist sections, this essay will articulate how Haywood’s text empowers its atypical heroine through Haywood’s syntax and plot, her covert theme of naming and the conclusion itself. Despite her antithetical ideologies, Haywood remains centuries ahead while incorporating the very themes of contemporary pop culture: Woman Power.

The novel’s opening section establishes a socially inverted, female-oriented paradigm through the novel’s architecture, Fantomina’s authorial perspective and her gender-based assumptions. By deliberately situating Fantomina above the male aristocracy, through her box location, Haywood spatially partitions the PlayHouse a la the Panopticon where Fantomina serves as judging Syndic above the pit-seated male audience. Haywood’s syntax iteratively casts men as na├»ve tools subject to Fantomina’s scrutinizing eye. Fantomina articulates her ‘contempt’ of the men while labeling them as ‘depraved’ (227). By writing the narrative from her protagonist’s perspective, Haywood furthers the dichotomy of female as subject and male as object while infusing her discourse with chess-based imagery by making Fantomina a queen and the males her pawns.

The novel’s female authority continues through its inversion of sexual commodification. Considering Haywood’s Fantomina is ’accountable to no body’, the syntax linguistically neutralizes the male audience’s power. While accountability implies responsibility for one’s conduct, the definition also means to ‘be computed’ or ‘chargeable’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Fantomina, lacking accountability, lacks ‘chargeability’ or ‘purchasable-ity’. Additionally, despite the ‘crowd of purchasers’ endeavoring to ‘out-bid’ themselves on her nameless guise and initially hidden face, they unknowingly invert the very structure they seek to instate in offering material goods with no promise on a return.

The novel iteratively obsesses over gender politics by repeatedly authenticating female power. In the opening, Fantomina is “a little diverted” in giving “disappointment” to so many, receives a “world of satisfaction” in engaging yet refusing BeauPlaisir (229), and pursues her lover in the hopes of ‘compelling’ him to do what she wished (234). Additionally, keeping 18th century syntax in mind, I find it interesting Haywood continuously capitalizes ‘power’ and woman’, while endlessly repeating both terms. Interestingly, Fantomina’s dominance seems incomplete if enacted upon the few, the low and the female; yet, satiated when enacted upon the masses, the many, and the male. The reoccurrence of the ‘observer’ ideology harkens to the panopticon, creating a dichotomy of intendant and intended: "observing the surprise he would be in to find himself refused by a woman who he supposed granted her favours without exception' again woman capitalized” (229). It is the low subverting the high, the female overcoming the male and the prostitute thwarting the client. However, Haywood’s validation of female power through sexuality, troublingly parallels yet possibly inverts the assault Fantomina already experienced at BeauPlaisir’s hands.

While Fantomina’s masquerade implies muted sexual power as Lady_ , in stepping outside herself she becomes more herself and in withholding her name she retains her power through her mutability. Her face and flesh remain fluid and easily shift from the facially wrapped Fantomina to the innocent-seeming Celia to the insatiable Widow Bloomer to the mythic masked Incognita, a la Psyche. In possessing multiple names, she possesses multiple ranks, titles and distinctions while maintaining her inverted gendered hierarchy: she "forebore discovering her true Name" so "he should not have it in his Power to touch her Character" (231). She remains ephemeral, untouchable and uncontainable while always denying BeauPlaisir the knowledge of her identity. To name is to own and Fantomina remains unowned.

Additionally, her initial nom-de-plume, Fantomina, implies ‘Phantom Pantomime’. In invoking the image of a shadow doppelganger, she creates a woman who she hides behind to become herself. In externally reflecting her internal desires, she deflects her known identity through linguistic difficulties while “hearing herself praised” in “the person of another”. Despite her muffles, wraps and veils, her admirers recognize her: some cried 'she is like' and named 'her own name' (227). However, the simile ‘is like’ in implying congruency also entails opposition. In seeming ‘like’ herself she cannot be, which forms a rhetorical masquerade. In stepping outside her identity, she retains her body, thoughts and form; but, in acting upon her sexual desires, she is assumed different from who she is. Ironically, her desire saves her reputation over the masquerade itself.

Although the novel’s ending seemingly reiterates 18th century sexual hegemonies, it is the female body who eventually captures, nullifies and suppresses Fantomina’s sexuality. It is her mother, a ‘woman of penetration’, who eventually penetrates her disguise: "though she would easily have found Means to have screened even this from the Knowledge of the World had she been at liberty to have acted with the same unquestionable Authority over herself" (246). It is the birth of her daughter that finally ‘invades’ her body and nullifies her guise by distorting her features (246). Finally, it is the nunnery, the Catholic representation of female authority, that imprisons and contains her.

Despite my rushed treatment of this novel, it is highly feminist including its allusion to Cupid & Psyche and to Haywood’s own novel ‘Love in Excess’. Additionally, from the cunning Fantomina exhibits in securing her safety: "she might with more security to her honor entertain him a t a place where she was mistress” (229), her refusal “to be treated at [her] own lodgings” (230) and her repudiation in granting him the “Power to touch her character” (231), all scream Girl Power. Yet, admittedly, I find Fantomina’s rape at BeauPlaisir’s hands and Haywood’s categorization of it as ‘ruinous pleasure’, questionable. Additionally, although Fantomina initially served as the author of her own story, Haywood disrupts the narrative by containing her sexuality despite the matriarchal ending. While I congratulate myself in avoiding referencing Terry Castle, it is the iterative use of the masquerade that enables Haywood to temporarily suspend sexual paradigms and craft a feminist text based on the manifestation of sexual desires through the carnival.