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)