Fantomina and Female Identity

The Face Behind the Masquerade: Fantomina; Or Love in a Maze, and Female Identity

by Jeremy DeVito

    In spite of the immense popularity of her novels which, at the time of their publication, were legitimate sales rival to works by such writers as Pope and Swift, traditional scholarship has attached little importance to the name of Eliza Haywood. Such scholarship, however, is misguided; as one of the founders of popular literature, and especially the popular novel, Haywood is a key figure in Eighteenth Century Literature whose influence remains with us to this day. Moreover, Haywood’s works were, and still remain, revolutionary in theme as they focus largely upon the role of the female within patriarchal society, the possibilities of female empowerment, and even the taboo subject of female sexual freedom. In Fantomina: Or Love in a Maze, Haywood’s revolutionary views on society come to the fore in relation to the topic of female identity. Ultimately, this short novel offers the troubling thesis that the very notion of female identity is displaced by patriarchy, which forces women into restrictive, powerless roles.

    Fantomina is fittingly labelled “A Masquerade Novel” (786). Indeed, the central plot of the work revolves around masquerade as the protagonist constructs for herself several different personas in an attempt to win and to keep the object of her desire, Beauplaisir. However, the implications of the term ‘masquerade’ seem to go deeper than this. Haywood introduces her main character as “A young Lady of distinguished Birth, Beauty, Wit, and Spirit” (786); other than this somewhat generic description, which could fit any number of upper-class Eighteenth Century “young ladies,” Haywood’s characterization of her protagonist is virtually non-existent. In fact, this young lady is not even provided a name. In short, she is not so much a three-dimensional character as she is a typical persona, a recognizable female role rather than a specific individual. While on the surface this may seem to be an indication of inferior writing skills, the lengths to which Haywood goes in the maintaining her protagonist’s lack of individuality and identity, such as having her referred to as “Lady Such-a-one” (787), suggest that a specific motif is being consciously developed. Haywood seems to be indicating that, before her protagonist has begun to scheme, before the very outset of the novel even, the masquerade has already begun. Within the world presented by Haywood, the woman’s role always involves the wearing of a mask.

    It is for this reason that the transformation of Haywood’s protagonist from a “fine Lady to a prostitute takes place with such ease. Her disguise does not involve the covering of her true identity with a false one; rather, it is achieved through the mere shedding of one persona for another. Haywood’s Protagonist is, in essence, a tabula rasa of sorts; her only identity is the one that she constructs. Thus, when Beauplaisir encounters her playing the role of Fantomina, a prostitute, he does fancy “that she very much resemble[s] the Lady whom she really [is]; but the vast Disparity there appear[s] between their Characters, prevent[s] him from entertaining even the most distant Thought that they could be the same” (787). This theme is played out throughout the novel as Beauplaisir repeatedly fails to recognize the protagonist as being anything other than that which she professes to be, in spite of his having intimate relations with each of her several personas. As readers we may be tempted to view Beauplaisir as being overly gullible in this respect; it must be noted, however, that in many ways Fantomina (along with the personas that follow) does, indeed, come to life as a far more real, mire believable, character than the protagonist she starts out as. In fact, the persona of Fantomina is actually chosen by Haywood as the character after whom the novel is entitled.

    Certainly, the several personas of Fantomina are most fascinating in their ultimate success in becoming believable to the protagonist herself as she changes not only her appearance, but also, as it would seem, her very character. In taking on the identity of the prostitute, Fantomina’s actions soon come to match her appearance as she allows Beauplaisir sexual privileges to which the “fine lady” described at the beginning of the novel would, most assuredly, not have consented. Further, she is offered “a purse of Gold” (789) as reward for her consent; although she does not accept it, Beauplaisir’s offer nevertheless forces us to realize that Fantomina’s sexuality has, indeed, become commodified. This pattern continues as she takes on the role of Celia, a country girls, and offers “herself to Service in the House where Beauplaisir [is] lodged” (792). In doing so, she not only gives up her upper-class status to the “Amorous Violence” (792) of the man she has been hired to serve. While she considers herself fortunate that Beauplaisir, whom she desires, is the only man at the house who is able to take such liberties, she never makes her desires known but, rather, gives in to his. As the Widow Bloomer, she retains this air of vulnerability and, “not thinking it Decent, for the Character she [has] assumed, to yield so suddenly […], she counterfeit[s] a fainting” (795) and allows him to carry her off to bed. Simply put, her concern is not that her actions remain consistent with any notion of selfhood that she may have, but that they remain consistent with the persona of “the character she has assumed.” In short, Haywood’s protagonist does not simply take on several false appearances; she actually takes on, actually becomes, several different roles.

    Ironically, this role playing is seen by Haywood’s protagonist as a source of power and freedom. Although the roles that she takes on are for the most part powerless, she believes herself to be in control of her situation; it is herself, after all, who decides which role she will step into. Certainly, Fantomina does manipulate Beauplaisir quite effectively in leading him to believe that he is being unfaithful when, in reality, he is having several affairs with the same woman. Of this manipulation she triumphantly declares, “while he thinks the fool of me, [Beauplaisir] is himself the only beguiled person” (796). Nonetheless, we see in Haywood’s protagonist a character who is trying desperately to retain a relationship with a man who has no desire to so the same. Thus, it is she who is forced to jump through hoops and take on roles while he is free to do as he wishes and remain true to his own identity, as contemptible as that identity may seem.

    Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue with Fantomina’s reasoning that as long as Beauplaisir is kept from “discovering her true Name and Quality […] he should not have it in his Power to touch her Character” (790). This passage, however, seems to imply that it is not so much the taking on of new roles that empowers Haywood’s protagonist as it is the shedding of her old role. Haywood seems to be suggesting that the only way in which women can achieve true power within patriarchal society is to resist being confined to any role whatever. This hypothesis is made most explicit in the persona (or lack thereof) of Incognita. It is only as Incognita that Haywood’s protagonist gains any true control over Beauplaisir. As a woman without any identity or reputation Incogniat is, for the first time, able to make advances on “the All-conquering Beauplaisir” (798). By shedding all roles and refusing to take up a new one, Haywood’s protagonist is finally able to enter a relationship with Beauplaisir in which she is not limited by any preconceived expectations of behaviour and is, thus, free to conquer him, rather than allowing for herself to be conquered by him. In fact, Beausplaisir seems well aware of his defeat and is “so much out of Humour […] at the Disappointment of his Curiosity, that he resolve[s] never to make a second Visit” (801).

    Unfortunately, this development, coupled with “the Arrival of her Mother” (801), finally forces Haywood’s protagonist back into her original role. However, by now it has become obvious that this role is nothing more than another of her many personas. In order to fit the expectations placed upon her as “A Young Lady of distinguished Birth” (786), she is forced to conceal the fact that “[s]he is with child” (801). Of course, she is ultimately found out when she goes into labour, thereby changing roles once again from the “fine lady” to the “fallen woman.” Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Haywood’s novel is the reaction of the protagonist’s own mother to her daughter’s plight as “[a]ll the Pity and Tenderness she had been for some Moment before possessed of, now [vanish], and [are] succeeded by an adequate Shame and Indignation” (802). In short, even the feelings that the protagonist’s mother displays are, like those of Beauplaisir, based upon what rather than who she perceives her daughter to be.

    In the final analysis, Haywood’s novel, Fantomina, presents a critique of patriarchal society in which female identity is virtually non-existent. Instead, the person is displaced and overshadowed by the personas that women are forced to put on. Hence, Haywood’s works are of prime importance as they provide not only a bridge between elitist and popular literature, but also offer some valuable insights concerning the role of the female within Eighteenth Century society, as well as our own.

Work Cited

Haywood, Eliza F. Fantomina: or, Love in a MazeBritish Literature 1640-1789: An Anthology. Ed. R. Demaria Jr. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. 786-803.