Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina”

Here’s just a little something that I wrote up last year in my British Literature class about Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina (a rather fun and interesting novella). It’s a bit lengthy, but I thought I did a pretty good job (not to boast or anything, ha):

The Great Arbitress of Passion:
Haywood’s Fantomina and its Place in the British Literary Canon

Harry Potter. Yes, that is where my mind wanders when thinking about British literature. There is no doubt that it has significantly impacted modern day literature, perpetuating a large fandom that I am glad to say I am a part of. However, does popular success necessarily equate to literary success? The short answer is not precisely, but it is highly important to look at both sides of this dyad to understand a work’s place within the critical literary context. The British literary canon has formed and reformed itself over quite a few centuries, and the inclusions are almost ever-changing, though multiple staples certainly remain (like Shakespeare and Milton). However, these pieces of literature are mainly chosen by upper-class white men, and thus the canon has a slightly skewed viewpoint; in other words, works which are represented within the canon are usually those written by other upper-class white men. But, as I have mentioned, the literary canon is changing, and that gives other authors a chance for their pieces to be included, as well. One particular piece of literature, Eliza Haywood’s 1725 classic Fantomina; or Love in a Maze, is a prime example of how the British literary canon continues to shape itself.  Fantomina proved to be quite popular when first published, but quickly fell out of fashion until the 1980s. However, the piece has been reinserted into the canon in recent years, and to wonderful effect. By exemplifying the modality of early 1700s British life, Haywood has depicted an invigorating tale grounded in a slightly-heightened reality. Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina not only illustrates the historical context during the early 18th century, but it is also thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining, which certainly qualifies its inclusion in the British literary canon.

Not much is known about Eliza Haywood’s life, but as Christine Blouch suggests, we can look at the texts she wrote, such as Fantomina, to understand and surmise that one is comparable to another. In “Eliza Haywood and the Romance of Obscurity,” Blouch finds it astonishing that this “author of more than seventy pieces in six genres over four decades—one who played a key role in the novel’s evolution and defined central issues in the portrayal of eighteenth-century female subjectivity—should have elicited so little critical interest” (536). Eliza Haywood’s origins are shrouded in mystery: she was born, according to Blouch, on one of three possible dates, and to whom she married is also up for debate. However, one thing is certainly clear, and that is she buried “in St. Margaret’s parish churchyard…adjacent to Westminster Abbey and…the poets whose reputations she never equaled” (535). Although Haywood’s life is not completely clear, we can look at the heart of her works to more fully understand her placement in society and her thoughts about it.

Haywood is considered a prolific amatory fiction author, meaning that many of her prose pieces involved some sort of strong love aspect, and that is certainly the case for Fantomina, where the central character disguises herself as Fantomina, Celia, Widow Bloomer, and Incognita, all to seduce one man: Beauplaisir. This, of course, was basically uncharted waters during this time. Yes, there were other amatory fiction writers, such as Aphra Behn and Delarivier Manley (who complete, as James Sterling notes, the “fair triumvirate of wit”), but Haywood seems to have taken the more controversial route, especially since she produced more works, with a similar subject, than either Behn or Manley. The power of women in the social sphere, a common theme in amatory fiction—and especially Fantomina—makes sense when considering the historical context of early 18th century England. Although the nameless central character in Fantomina is hazy around the edges, which begs the reader to ask if she is a reliable narrator, she still represents at least some women during this time era, including Haywood; whereas most women would not act on their sexual desires, unlike Fantomina, it gives the reader a chance to explore and confront their own passions through the “explicitly erotic writing” that made Haywood famous or, perhaps, infamous (Backscheider and Richetti 153). And as Backscheider and Richetti state, the subject matter of Haywood’s works was “visible and controversial enough to assure that traces of the historical woman survive” (153).

Popular English authors and their writings, besides Haywood, in the early to mid-18th century include Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Aphra Behn, Samuel Johnson, and Charlotte Lennox. Haywood held her own, however, as Backscheider and Richetti state that “[i]n the first half of the eighteenth century, only Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels matched the sales of her Love in Excess (1719)” (153). Haywood’s 1720 translation of Edme Bursault’s Ten Letters from a Young Lady of Quality “attracted 309 subscribers” and “[h]er Dramatic Historiographer (1735) went into at least seven editions before 1756” (Backscheider and Richetti 154). Haywood and her writings were quite influential; so influential in fact that “Sir Walter Scott used her in his equivalent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s more familiar competitive complaint about a ‘damned mob of scribbling women’” (Backscheider and Richetti 153). As one can see, however, even though Haywood was a rather successful author, the writing field was still predominantly headed by men, and their writing conventions remained more or less intact, making it difficult for female authors to explore new territory. In “Reworking Male Models: Aphra Behn’s Fair Vow-Breaker, Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, and Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote,” Catherine A. Craft writes that as “greater numbers of women began taking up pens and writing books, men became increasingly nervous about what women would say” (821). Men were controlling of the subject matter in women’s writing, and as Jane Spencer explains:

[M]en would allow women to write only so long as they produced works which focused upon women and women’s subjects, particularly love and marriage, and only so long as their treatment of those subjects remained within the boundaries prescribed by established male literary traditions. (qtd. in Craft 821)

It is quite astonishing, then, that Haywood was able to break out of these male-dominated conventions with her erotic prose and unconventional subject matter (though, she did adhere to the love prerequisite, one of the acceptable “women’s subjects”). And, as Emily Anderson puts it, “Haywood recognized and manipulated the societal expectation that women could and should only write about what they knew” (11). With an obvious change to the social norm, this led to popular success among British women—both writers and readers—but its critical success left much to be desired for the male-controlled literary center. Likewise, it is also prudent to note that the form in which Haywood writes, a sort of novella, was not quite accepted during this time period. However, “[t]he general resistance to the novel and, later, her Tory politics,” write Backscheider and Richetti, “contributed to making her a satiric target, but, as is so often true, these arrows testify to her importance in the history of the novel” (153).

It would be historically inaccurate to write that women have had little power in the British social sphere. Elizabeth I of England, queen regnant of England and Ireland, held sole power from 1558 to 1603, is a prime example of how some women were able to exert their power. However, it would also be inaccurate to write that many women held this kind of authority, especially in such a large scale. To visualize 18th century England, and the women who reside there, we can look to Fantomina to understand the role of the female in that particular society. Craft writes:

While Fantomina’s tale is a fantasy of female freedom, more realistic stories are embodied through the characters of her disguises: tales of daughters of merchants, women betrayed into prostitution by men like Beauplaisir, so intent upon his pleasures that even pleas of virginity and genteel birth have no effect; tales of serving girls seduced and ruined by the men they work for; stories of widows deprived of means through a system which passes property from man to man. (Craft 830)

Through Craft’s viewpoint, a realistic understanding of various women’s lives can be obtained. Even though the central character masks herself as four different personas, she is reliably acting the part of each, convincing Beauplaisir that each persona is actual fact and not the façade put up by his singular lover; the class and gender systems become even clearer as the unnamed central character progresses from a pricy prostitute to an authoritative aristocrat. Charles H. Hinnant concurs, stating that Haywood’s “representation of the dilemmas confronting a woman who seeks, like Fantomina, to escape from the constraints of a socially prescribed femininity” can be more fully understood by looking at the cast of characters she presents (404).

Perhaps one can better comprehend, and accept, that these are realistic representations of varying women if one considers the full title of Fantomina; or Love in a Maze, which is subtitled as “A Secret History of an Amour between Two Persons of Condition.” A “secret history” is of paramount importance. The genre of the “secret history” was originally designed to be non-fictional: “a version of historical events which differs from the official or commonly accepted record and purports to be the true version” (“secret history”). Therefore, one must consider Fantomina as a window into the lives of the English woman, no matter which class she resides in. Lawrence Lipking and James Noggle, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, confirm this, stating that the “popular genre of ‘secret histories,’ promised a peep at what went on behind the scenes of fashionable society; and even though Haywood’s story is obviously made up, it suggests that private lives, and especially love lives, are very different from what the public sees” (2566). Therefore, it can be postulated that our heroine’s multiple disguises are accurate portrayals of women within the different social classes.

The ability for Fantomina to truthfully illustrate the life of the English woman certainly gives credence to Haywood and her portrayal of 18th century British life. Not only does a reader get a full, though slightly biased, sense of female life during this time period, but one can thoroughly enjoy the novella, as well. Backscheider and Richetti state that “[t]hese fictions, as many of her other stories do, explore the part imagination, hopes, and wishes play in deluding human beings,” which I find to be highly entertaining and enjoyable (154). Entertainment value is something which is quite personal, as it can be drastically different from one person to the next. Fantomina is certainly one piece of prose that I find to be rather entertaining. It is not quite a novel, but it undoubtedly holds some of the same characteristics, such as a structured plot and characters with a real sense of depth and motive; therefore, it certainly goes well with the times, especially considering that the novel is probably the most read kind of literature nowadays. That is not to say that other, i.e., non-novels, pieces of literature are not entertaining, but I find myself more invested in a novel. The novel is also able to connect to more readers; Fantomina, for instance, was able to reach a greater audience due to the fact that (1) literacy rates were rising in England, and (2) it was written for a more general audience: it was for the masses, and so the “normal” English citizens were able to come into contact with it. Its accessibility certainly seems to help when thinking about its inclusion in the literary canon, especially when considering that it not only reflects the time period in the lives of British women, but it also allows the reader to garner how a different society-based variable, that being the rising rates of literacy, comes into play in English history. Therefore, the historical content and entertainment values mingle together to form an important piece of literature.

From a literary viewpoint, there are also quite a few things to learn from reading Haywood’s Fantomina. The novella strives to go against the conventional “Invisible Mistress” story, which usually depicts a woman who propels the story’s action, but is ultimately under her man’s influence; Backscheider and Richetti state that Haywood “illustrates that men are as vulnerable as Beauplaisir in Fantomina to their notions of what women are like and to the illusions desire creates” (154). In other words, Haywood has flipped the convention on its head, and details how men can be affected by a woman and her power. Hinnant confirms, stating that “What sets Fantomina apart, therefore, is the way the heroine’s use of the convention of the invisible mistress modifies and complicates the binary opposition that structured female seduction plots, where an active male is set against a purely passive female” (407). The restructuring of this literary trope is not only highly refreshing, but it is also interesting to note the differences between Fantomina and the rather bland “Invisible Mistress” counterpart.

It is also quite fun to see our nameless heroine left to her own devious devices. It is not often that a reader sees a character free from any source of authoritative power; yes, she is eventually sent to a monastery after she gives birth to her daughter, thanks to her mother, but that reads, at least to me, as a comical attribute than witnessing a crushing force making her go live with nuns (I was literally laughing out loud at the last line). Hinnant writes that “Thrust to her own resources, Fantomina…knows how to place a high value on her own worth as a human being, possessing an inner toughness that enables her to acknowledge and then make the most out of her own sexual desires” (411). It is encouraging to see a woman going her own way, even to this male essayist. The central character allows herself to fully find her freedom, and if it is through sexual exploitation, that is completely fine. Freedom is something everyone strives for, and so not only does Fantomina contain a universal theme, but it also illustrates the consequences of one’s actions, whether they be good or bad; and that does not change the fact that liberation and freedom of society’s chains is not something worth striving for. Hinnant concludes, writing that the central character “exhibits the self-respect and self-regard that enable her to survive outside the conventions of proper female behavior that prevail in her social world” (411). One could certainly say that Fantomina is a feminist novella, and that is probably why it was revitalized in the 1980s with the new feminist movement, but that does not reduce the impact of a person striving for what one wants, whether they are male or female.

Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina should certainly be included in the British literary canon. It produces a look at British life in the early 18th century for both the social roles of women and the historical context in which Haywood was writing. It pushed boundaries and collapsed literary conventions. It is rather enjoyable, but it also teaches us a thing or two about freedom and taking opportunities, even if they may be less than morally ideal. Plus, the mystery surrounding Haywood is quite intriguing. Craft sums it up best when she writes of Haywood’s lasting effect: “Seizing men’s own weapon, the pen,” Haywood has “push[ed] male stereotypes of women so far that [she] topple[s] them” (838).

Works Cited

Anderson, Emily Hodgson. “Performing the Passions in Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina and Miss Betsy Thoughtless.” Eighteenth Century. 46.1 (2005): n. page. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.

Backscheider, Paula R., and John J. Richetti. Popular Fiction by Women 1660-1730. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Blouch, C. “Eliza Haywood and the Romance of Obscurity.” Studies In English Literature (Rice) 31.3 (1991): 535. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.

Craft, Catherine A. “Reworking Male Models: Aphra Behn’s Fair Vow-Breaker, Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, and Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote.” Modern Language Review 86.4 (1991): 821-838. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.

Hinnant, Charles H. “Ironic Inversion In Eliza Haywood’s Fiction: Fantomina And ‘The History Of The Invisible Mistress’.” Women’s Writing 17.3 (2010): 403-412. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.

Lipking, Lawrence, and James Noggle. Introduction to Fantomina; or Love in a Maze. 8th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. Print.

“secret history.” Dictionary.com. 2012. http://dictionary.com (8 December 2012).


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