Tuesday, December 18, 2007

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

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