Tuesday, December 18, 2007

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 naïve 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.

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