Disguise, Satire and Vice in Eliza Haywood’s ‘Fantomina’

If you’ve never heard of Eliza Haywood before, welcome (and you can thank me later)! Eliza Haywood is the lady whom Alexander Pope attacked in his satirical poem ‘The Dunciad’, and Jonathan Swift once famously called a ‘stupid, infamous woman’. Haywood wrote and published over seventy works during her lifetime including fiction, drama, translations, poetry, conduct literature and periodicals and supported herself financially after leaving her husband. Many of her novels were based on scandals involving leaders of society — there’s a key in The British Museum giving the full names of those leaders whom Haywood denotes using initials. She’s great, basically.

Today I want to talk about disguise in her short novel, Fantomina; or Love in a Maze, a story about a unnamed Lady whom disguises herself as four different women as a sort of experiment, to understand how a man might interact with each persona. Perhaps the most obvious way to approach the issue of disguise in Fantomina, is to address the way in which the nameless female protagonist disguises herself as several different women throughout the course of the narrative in attempt to receive the affections of the man she desires, Beauplaisir. While this is the form of disguise most explicit within Fantomina, it is not the only form that it takes in the narrative. Haywood’s text is not only a witty, entertaining narrative that follows the capers of a young girl, chasing after the affections of a gentleman; Fantomina masks vice within it’s charming characters and its entertaining form in order to unmask it in front of its readers, allowing readers to see vice anew, refreshing their disapproval of it.

Fredric Bogel writes that satire conceals vice within an ‘emblem of goodness’ in order to allow it to move through the narrative, undetected. As the satiric narrative unfolds, Bogel suggests, the satirist works to slowly reveal the vice to the reader, stripping away the disguise, the ‘emblem of goodness’ and allowing the reader ‘to see vice afresh’. It seems that Eliza Haywood, in Fantomina; or Love in a Maze, mimics the workings of satire as Bogel understands it. Haywood’s narrative works as a satirist may work; it replenishes the reader’s disapproval of sexual immorality and the injustice inherent within the class system. Haywood takes these vices and disguises them within ‘emblem[s] of goodness’, a charming, upper-class male and a witty piece of literature, and slowly strips away that disguise, revealing the vices and refreshing the reader’s disapproval of them. ‘Satire allows us to see vice afresh, to break our own approval of and identification with it, and thus to push it away as we push away our approving self in agreeing to disprove of those – including ourselves – who are tolerant of vice’ and Fantomina works in a similar way; Haywood allows the reader to begin to understand, as vice is revealed, that they may have been passively accepting of the sexual immorality of the libertine and the injustice within the class system; condemnation of these vices is reinstated in Fantomina. In the same way that satire disguises vice in order to reveal it in front of an audience, Fantomina disguises vice in order to expose it, later, as something truly abhorrent, allowing readers to ‘see vice afresh’ and to understand that it is not something that should be approved of.

Charles Hinnant makes an interesting connection between Fantomina and Paul Scarron’s Histoire de l’amante invisible (The History of the Invisible Mistress), detailing, in his article, the similarities in plot. Both Beauplaisir, Fantomina’s leading male character, and Don Carlos, the Spanish nobleman and hero of Scarron’s text, are fooled by a lady whose identity is concealed, presenting herself as several different women, all offering their love to the male that they desire. This, of course, makes for an amusing tale, particularly in moments such as the one at the beginning of Fantomina when gentlemen suggest that the unnamed female protagonist, whom this essay will refer to as Fantomina, disguised as a prostitute, ‘very much resemble[s] that lady whom she really [is]’. Hinnant’s article, however, reveals that Haywood does something interesting with her narrative that may suggests that Fantomina is something more than a comical piece of entertainment. While comparing the two texts, Hinnant points to the one outstanding difference between the two texts: Don Carlos remains faithful to the ‘first lady’, Princess Portia in her first form; Beauplaisir, on the other hand, promises his love to ‘all’ of the ladies, to Fantomina in each of her forms. For Hinnant, this is crucial to understanding Beauplaisir’s character in Haywood’s text; it makes him a ‘rakish libertine’, sexually immoral yet charming, appealing. There is certainly convincing textual evidence to support Hinnant’s reading of Beauplaisir as a ‘rakish libertine’, the most explicit, perhaps, being the aforementioned inconsistencies, the fickleness of Beauplaisir’s affections and desires. Fantomina takes on the identity of four different women in the narrative: first, a prostitute; second, a serving girl; third, a widow and fourth, the masked ‘Incognita’ and to each of these personas, Beauplaisir affects affection. To Fantomina as a prostitute, Beauplaisir makes ‘a thousand vows of […] affection’, but, unable to ‘prolong desire to any great length after possession’, he travels to Bath, where he meets Fantomina as a serving girl. His ‘enflamed […] amorous heart’, heated by her beauty, soon cools and Beauplaisir grows ‘more weary of her than he had been of Fantomina [as a prostitute]’; on his travels back home from Bath, he meets Fantomina as a widow, who he later claims to adore more ardently than any other man could. Finally, Beauplaisir is introduced to Incognita, to whom he declares himself her ‘everlasting slave’. Beauplaisir desires each of Fantomina’s forms and ensures that his desires are fulfilled. These actions, the attaining and neglecting of women are the immoral actions of a libertine; Beauplaisir is a man ‘who freely indulges in sensual pleasures without regard to moral principles’. Yet Hinnant’s description of Beauplaisir as ‘rakish’ is fitting. Fantomina is compelled to meet with him a second time as a counterfeit prostitute, aware of the possibility that her virtue may be lost as a consequence of the meeting, because ‘[a]ll the charms of Beauplaisir came fresh into her mind; she languished, she almost died for another opportunity of conversing with him’. Beauplaisir is a wealthy, ‘accomplished’ man, his name itself, translating from French to mean ‘fine pleasure’; he is indeed ‘rakish’, charming and gallant upon first impression. Hinnant’s reading of Beauplaisir as a ‘rakish libertine’ is resonant of the idea of Fantomina as a text that works as satiric literature works; it suggests that Haywood’s character is a libertine, someone of ill sexual morals, seeking only hedonistic sensual pleasure, disguised within the persona of an idealised man, wealthy, cultivated (for Fantomina first meets him at the playhouse), and infinitely charming; an ‘emblem of goodness’. In slowly revealing the fickleness and the inconsistency of Beauplaisir’s desire as the narrative unfolds, Haywood strips the disguise; Beauplaisir is no longer charming or admirable, he is exposed as a man of few morals. Haywood disguises vice, the crude and indecent treatment of women and ill sexual morals, within the idealised Beauplaisir and then slowly strips her ‘emblem of goodness’ of his disguise, revealing nothing but his vice. This allows readers to ‘see vice afresh’, to reawaken the reader’s understanding that the vice that Haywood disguises within Beauplaisir is something truly horrible that should be disapproved of.

While it is clear that Haywood expresses a disapproval of sexual immorality and inconsistency in affection in Fantomina, there seems to be something much more subtle happening in this text. The issue of class is one that has frequently been discussed among critics of Fantomina for there are certainly suggestions of the problems inherent within the class system in Haywood’s narrative. The problem most explicitly depicted is the restrictive nature of class, particularly the way in which people of a high class are inhibited by their social standing. Fantomina initially takes on the role of a prostitute in order to escape the social conventions that she would be expected to adhere to as a young lady of high quality speaking to a male of a similar social standing; taking on the role of a low-class prostitute allows her to meet with Beauplaisir without the hindrance of social conventions standing in her way. While this is certainly perceptible in Fantomina, there is, simultaneously, a much more subtle suggestion of a different class issue embedded in the narrative. As Catherine Craft writes, Fantomina presents

‘realistic stories […] embodied through the characters of [Fantomina’s] disguises: tales of daughters of merchants betrayed into prostitution […] serving girls seduced and ruined by the men they work for; stories of widows deprived of means through a system which passes properties from man to man.’

Haywood incites refreshed disapproval of sexual immorality in Fantomina, but also of the class system that allows upper-class men to exploit lower-class women. Each of the identities that Fantomina assumes during the course of the narrative are of women of a less privileged socio-economic position than Beauplaisir. When Fantomina adorns her first disguise as a prostitute, she is able to adjourn the fulfilment of Beauplaisir’s expectations, but meeting him for the second time, she is not as successful. Growing impatient, Beauplaisir is forceful:

‘He was bold;– he was resolute. She fearful– confused […] she struggled all she could […] ‘tis probable, that had he been acquainted both with who and what she really was, the knowledge of her birth would not have influenced him with respect sufficient to have curbed the wild exuberance of his luxurious wishes.’

Beauplaisir, here, is clearly the dominant force; his libertine desires prevail over Fantomina who, for a moment, seems to wish to revoke her performance. It seems to be suggested in this moment that class is irrelevant, that Beauplaisir would act with the same enflamed passion had Fantomina revealed herself as something other than a lowly prostitute, had she been undisguised, as the Lady. Of course, it is possible that this is not an issue of class but, rather, an issue of profession. Beauplaisir arrived at the lodging under the impression that he would pay for sex with a prostitute and although the aggression in this moment is inexcusable, Beauplaisir cannot be blamed for his assumption that a prostitute would ‘grant her favours without exception’; perhaps Beauplaisir is not exploiting the lower class, but taking what he deems to be rightfully his, something that he is paying for. Early in the narrative, however, Haywood admits that Fantomina had met Beauplaisir, before she became a feigned prostitute, in the drawing-room of the playhouse, as the Lady. While disguised as a prostitute, Fantomina reflects upon this initial meeting, contemplating the way in which her ‘quality and reputed virtue kept him from using her with that freedom she now [as a counterfeit prostitute] expected he would do’. The suggestion, here, is that Beauplaisir refrained from ‘using’ Fantomina before she wore her disguise, not because she is not a prostitute, but because she is of high class. Yes, Beauplaisir may have continued to act with force had Fantomina revealed who she really was, incited by his libertine desires, but Fantomina, undisguised, would not have found herself in the situation that Fantomina the feigned prostitute finds herself in because she is of ‘distinguished birth’. It is her class, nothing else, that protects her from the enflamed libertine and so women not of Fantomina’s socio-economic status are unprotected, at risk of being treated in the crude way that Beauplaisir treats not only Fantomina as a prostitute, but as a maid and as a deprived widow; Haywood disguises this vice of society in the narrative’s form.

As already noted, Fantomina is, at times, a comical text and it is certainly entertaining throughout, yet this does not mean that Fantomina’s only purpose is to amuse; it does not mean that the world in which Fantomina and Beauplaisir inhabit is purely fictional, only existent to provide a backdrop for the entertainment. The full title of Haywood’s text is ‘Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze. Being a Secret History Of An Amour Between Two Persons of Condition’ and it is significant that Haywood deems her narrative a ‘secret history’. The secret history is a literary form that, as Gretchen Woertendyke notes, ‘makes the tension between private and public history visible’. In the act of publishing a ‘secret history’, a writer publicises a something private; it is no longer ‘secret’ and it because it is no longer secret, it is possible to draw connections between the ‘secret’, the private history, and public history, known to all. Woertendyke, in her discussion of Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or The Horrors of St. Domingo (1808), claims that because the novel presents itself as a secret history, ‘the narrative demands to be read not only as a novel […] but also as a real and concealed history’, concluding that ‘reading [Sansay’s text] as a secret history reveals […] the extent to which the bodies of women are an excessive feature of story, one that threatens both the fictional and the real marketplace’. If we are to apply Woertendyke’s thinking about secret histories as a narrative form to Fantomina, then, it is possible to see that perhaps Haywood, like Sansay would do much later, takes a private history, one between Fantomina and Beauplaisir, publishes it as a ‘secret history’, making it public, to expose the idea that a wealthy male can easily exploit lower-class women. Perhaps the significance in publishing Fantomina as a ‘secret history’ is that it suggests that the exploitative class system is a threat to ‘both the fictional and the real marketplace’. Yes, Fantomina is a fictional narrative, but its society is resonant of our own; issues in the text are also issues in reality. Haywood disguises vice within a ‘secret history’, a literary form that, first, may seem to serve only one purpose, to entertain. She reveals the injustice hidden within the ‘emblem of goodness’, the frivolous and entertaining novel, and this reignites the reader’s disapproval of the vice, the exploitative class system, while revealing the literary form of the ‘secret history’ to be something much more than a form of senseless entertainment.

Fantomina renews the reader’s disapproval of the vices concealed within her ‘emblem[s] of goodness’ by allowing them to see vice anew. Haywood’s Fantomina is a narrative both amusing and illuminating, entertaining, yet markedly important in its criticism of vice within society.

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