Class and Gender Politics in Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina

In her novel, “Fantomina,” Eliza Haywood manipulates what is expected of an eighteenth century man and woman, giving the female and the lower class character dominance over the aristocratic male for the majority of the story and yet ends it as expected with the male in power.

Haywood’s use of women-controlling diction in the beginning forecasts the end of Fantomina’s story. At first, Fantomina, an upper class woman, averted how aristocratic and supposed intelligent men had the audacity to disregard the play and fawn over prostitutes of the lower class at the playhouse. Haywood wrote that as the inexperienced young woman wondered about their actions, her aversion resulted in “curiosity.” Then, Haywood suggests that Fantomina’s curiosity was once suppressed and now freed because she would have been “oblig’d to be accountable for her Actions” if her guardians were in town. She writes that Fantomina did not find fault in dressing up and acting as a prostitute, who makes “sale of [her] favours,” in an effort to gratify “an innocent Curiosity.” This adds on to her freedom as no one could hold her accountable. Thus, words such as obliged, fault, favors, curiosity and gratification expose the representation of females at the time. In the eighteenth century, a woman, no matter the man’s faults, was blamed for both her and his actions, because it’s she who was selling her “favors” to the male and satisfying her “curiosity”— not he who initiated it. Therefore, the ideal woman is the total opposite of Fantomina, but Haywood continues to manipulate the image to expose the male’s faults.

As the story moves on, Haywood reveals the objectification of women— especially the poor. To be a prostitute, Fantomina changed her name, wore promiscuous clothing, and joined the lower class. That shift in total image and class indicates that the rich cannot be seen among the dishonorable— unless they are men objectifying these women. After she became involved with Beauplaisir, a man who had won her affection, she realized her wrongdoing. But, she told him his “Love alone can compensate for the Shame you have involved me in; be you sincere and constant, and I hereafter shall, perhaps, be satisfy’d with my Fate, and forgive myself the Folly that betray’d me to you.” Haywood wrote that Fantomina’s “vivacity and wit” assisted her in everything, but where it was most needed as she became in charge of her personal life, but failed to grasp how harmful sexual activity is to her future. She continued to use that power she found by also controlling Beauplaisir’s life when she found out he would never be faithful to her. She changed her name and disguised herself with different dresses and hairstyles. She fooled Beauplaisir at his own game, which caused a clash in power between genders. The man became submissive to each character she played, but eventually Fantomina lost her own power when she became pregnant and had to fight societal reactions by hiding the truth, but failed to. Her mother wanted Beauplaisir to marry her at first “to repair the supposed Injury you had done this unfortunate Girl,” but no longer did after she found out the truth. “Now I know not what to say: — The Blame is wholly her’s,” she said. Haywood here takes us and her main character back to reality—reiterating that the man is always in power, no matter his faults, while the woman is always held accountable for her faults.

One thought on “Class and Gender Politics in Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina

  1. It is so interesting that Fantomina begins with an experiment in “curiosity” on the young woman’s part, and ends with a ruling/judgment and decision on her fate by her mother, who serves as judge and upholder of social hierarchy in this text. The young woman begins with full control and *works* (as an actress, writer and sexually) to maintain that curiosity–her curiosity, as well as his–throughout, until she is no longer able due to pregnancy and the arrival of the Law, aka her mother. When her mother pronounces the judgment, “The Blame is wholly her’s,” it is true that the man is now relieved of his responsibility because the actress/writer/widow/prostitute usurped his manly power/right to decide who he slept with.

    Liked by 1 person

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