For ages and ages, women have been subject to their husbands’ authority. Their role in the household and their sexual impulses had to conform to certain rules, generated by men and which are typical of a so-called “patriarchal society”. By attending this course I had the opportunity to read a good amount of novels, written by female authors. I immediately noticed how the characters represented in these texts are very different from those that may be found in narratives written by the opposite sex. These new heroines “are powerful for good or for bad, and the men often weak and boorish” (Backscheider 105). The innovation of this new class of writers was, in fact, to take an ordinary woman and make her of central importance, creating indeed a heroine. This “is considered the most revolutionary aspect of the early novel” (Backscheider 7). During the eighteenth century, female authors were more persuasive and prominent compared to their male counterpart. The reason was that women writers “responded to the felt need for a space that mediates “private” concerns and “public” action”(Backscheider 5). With their stories, they challenged the boundaries between the public and private sphere. These texts were predominantly read by women, but due to their enormous success, it is possible that men were interested in them too.
Throughout my paper I would like to analyse Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina: or, love in a maze. I will draw my attention to the masquerade of the protagonist, and I will particularly concentrate on the first disguise, as I find it the more significant for the argument of my essay. I will also dedicate a paragraph to a young girl named Miranda that, in Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt, plays the role of a “rape victim”. With the help of some secondary literature, I will also try to explain which was the real condition of women in Haywood and Behn’s society. In this proseminar paper, I will then argue that the roles played by the protagonists of the two novels, are a way to express female frustration and conditions during the eighteenth century. Moreover, I will demonstrate that the masquerade is a way of blurring social boundaries and fulfilling sexual desire.
Fantomina: or, love in a maze is a novel written by Eliza Haywood and published in 1725. It can be defined as an amatory fiction, which is a term that identifies a novel, which focuses on female sexual desire and passion. This type of fiction reverses completely the specific roles of the genders. For example in Fantomina, it can be easily seen that it is the lady who seduces the male character and not vice versa, as it usually happens in the text of their male counterpart. In Haywood’s novel, the protagonist, which is conventionally called Fantomina, disguises herself as four women coming from a very different background one from the other: a prostitute, a servant called Celia, a widow called Bloomer and Incognita, an aristocratic woman. The reason behind her masquerade is that she is aware that Beauplaisir, like all other men, grows easily tired of things and people. In the text, in fact, Fantomina reflects and comes to the conclusion that men “still prefer the last Conquest, only because it is the last” (Haywood 60). Furthermore, a few lines later, Fantomina explains that the Widow Bloomer, despite being interpreted by the same person as Celia and the prostitute, attracts him more just because she is “a more new Acquaintance … , and therefore esteem’d more valuable” (Haywood 60).
The role played by Fantomina, on which I am going to concentrate and that I will analyse in this essay, is “the prostitute”. In the first part of the text, the protagonist is very attracted by the erotic freedom of the prostitutes and decides for this reason, “to dress herself as near as she could in the Fashion of those Women who make sale of their Favour” (Haywood 42). She immediately gets a lot of attentions from the gentlemen present at the theatre that night, but she is interested only in one. The name of the men she desires is Beauplaisir, which is a synonym of great pleasure (see Lo 120). As it has already been said, the masquerade allows the woman to have a sexual freedom, while she is in her disguise. Into the bargain, the anonymity of Fantomina’s costume gives her the possibility to talk to Beauplaisir without restrains. Restrains that would instead be present if she were to use her real identity, that of a noble lady. A woman of her social class has, in fact, to conform to certain standards and cannot socialize the way a prostitute would. Moreover, Fantomina is so skilled in her disguises, that her lover has no idea that she is instead a noble lady. In Beauplaisir’s mind, there is in fact the idea that “she very much resembled that Lady whom she really was; but the vast Disparity there appear’d between their Characters, prevented him from entertaining even the most distant Thought that they cou’d be the same” (Haywood 42-43). I think that there are two very important points here, which I will now develop. The first matter is that by masking herself, Fantomina, like all the aristocratic women who benefit of the advantages of the masquerade, can live her social life without feeling the weight of her social status and without being bound to the social restrictions, which imprisoned women in the private sphere (see Castellano 14). In the text, it is in fact shown how the higher in the social hierarchy a woman was, the less autonomy she had. Haywood clearly makes this idea explicit in the text by showing that while playing the role of a prostitute, Fantomina, can play the coquette and flirt with Beauplaisir with no restrains. Whereas, when she plays Incognita, an aristocratic woman, she has to blind her face with a mask to keep her identity, and consequentially her reputation, safe (see Castellano 14). As Terry Castle points out “the masquerades of the eighteenth century were an institutional setting in which different ranks (as well as the sexes) met with a level of freedom seldom achieved elsewhere in eighteenth-century English society” (Castle 33). This means that middle and upper class women perceived the masquerade as an escape from their social boundaries.
Coming back to the lines previously quoted, the second point which is important to observe, is that the protagonist is that skilled in her disguise, that she could fool anyone into thinking she is not a noble woman. The fact that despite looking like a higher-class woman, she does not get caught, demonstrates that she deliberately creates a disengagement between the image she provides to people with her disguise and her real self. The reason she does this is that she wants to protect herself from the consequences that her actions might have (see Lo 121). As I said in the previous lines, Fantomina disguises her appearance to have more opportunities to socialize. However, she is also well aware that, if caught, the consequences for a noble lady living that kind of life would be very bad. Furthermore Fantomina “was so admirably skilled in the Art of feigning, that she had the power of putting on almost what face she pleas’d, and knew so exactly how to form her behaviour to the character she represented” (Haywood 57). These few lines are very important; they show in fact her abilities in the masquerade. Not only, she is very skilled in the physical transformation, she is also very good at reproducing the behaviour of the person she is playing. By becoming a complete new person, no one will figure out who she really and this can be related to the importance of not being recognized. Men, at that time, had indeed the liberty to go wherever they wanted without disguise, it was socially accepted for a man to go out, have fun and socialize. Women, however, did not have this freedom. For this reason, they had to find a way to escape this situation, in this respect they adopted a disguise which comprehended masks to protect their honour (see Castellano 13). Haywood is well aware of the necessity of masking and hiding the feminine power, whether it is in the reality of in a novel. We find this idea in these few lines that she wrote for The Female Spectator:
“A modest wife should therefore never affect the virago, and for her own sake be wary even when most provoked, that nothing in her behavior should bear the least resemblance with such wretches. ? I have in a former Spectator taken notice, that it is not only by force our sex can hope to maintain their influence over the men, and I again repeat it as the most infallible maxim, that whenever we would truly conquer, we must seem to yield.”
If during the 17th century “”women still possessed their traditional association with excessive sexual appetite” (McKeon 297), one hundred years later, in the 18th century, the image of women changed drastically. The idea of romantic love was established and this meant that they had to give the image of modesty and purity (see McKeon 297). In this period, as McKeon says, “the “love” of the wife will be sharply distinguished from the “interested sexuality” of the prostitute”(297). McKeon continues by explaining that the conjugal bond justifies the sexual desire of married a woman, as its purpose is the procreation. Whereas when talking about prostitutes he states that during this period “their sexual activity lacks this justifying end” (297). The most important thing to specify is that this “rule” was applied only for the female part of the population, men could in fact have sex outside the conjugal affair, for example with a prostitute, without being judged for their behaviour. There is a very important difference in the freedom between the genders. During this period there was, in fact, a patriarchal society, for this reason men abused of their power creating this disparity in what they could do and what their female counterpart could not. All of this was justified by believing that the role of women was simply to give birth and to be at the service of their husband in the household. The supremacy of men was seen as a natural thing. Another significant trait of this society was that women were considered morally, physically intellectually inferior to men. This might explain why in female writers texts, in this case in Haywood’s, the protagonists are women and the roles of the two sexes are completely reversed. It might be seen as sort of revenge that women took over society, which imposed them to be subdued to men’s control. During the 18th century, with the drastic change of idea which imposed that women had to represent purity and virginity, it also appeared the idea that men were the only one to have sexual desires. This is, of course, an invention of the male gender; every human being has in fact the same needs, even sexually speaking. Women had to pretend not to have those desires, by preserving their most valuable possession: their virginity. This reality is completely reversed by Haywood, she “inverts the conventional idea of the passive female victim raped by the rake by presenting a picture of a heroine who takes matters into her own hands in pursuit of her desire” (Lo 121). This means that women, in books written by female authors, do not accept their fate, they instead take control over their life and most of all over their sexuality. Moreover, it looks like the protagonists borrow the manners, which are usually correlated with their male counterparts, such as audacity, abuse and dynamism. (see Castellani 2)
Not only women writers wanted to revenge their rights, their texts might also be seen as a challenge to society’s stereotypes that Haywood and other female writers have launched. This has not been easy, Elizabeth Haywood, like Aphra Behn, had to struggle a lot for her successful career. Women writers were in fact at the time accused of influencing and provoking women, as they could identify themselves with the heroines of the book (see Barker-Benfield). Language was a sort of channel of contagion; it was believed that if women read about prostitutes and “bad” women, they would have wanted to act like those characters, by reproducing their behaviours. As Lubey explains in his book, the main fear was that “readers of amatory fiction might enter states of languor that gratify sensual appetite rather than engage imaginative curiosity” (94-95).
In Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt, the situation is fairly different. The protagonist, Miranda, plays a role too, which I will call “the rape victim”, but in this case, the masquerade is not implied in a physical sense. She seduces the young Henrcik without any mask, she is confident that her beauty will be enough. He indeed, finds her very attractive, but he refuses to renounce to his vows to commit with her. Miranda believes that this is “a little hypocritical devotion” (Behn 46) and she states that he “resolves to lose the greatest blessings of life, and to sacrifice Miranda to his religious pride and vanity” (Behn 46). Miranda tries to persuade the young friar to do “that which his youth and beauty were ordain’d to do” (Behn 46). Miranda, with this sentence, invites Henrick to accept the natural impulses that every human being has, but he refuses (Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt). Not succeeding in her intent, Miranda plays against Henrick by accusing him of rape. As she finds herself in a patriarchal society, where men often abuse of women just because “they have the power to do it”, Miranda is smart enough to turn that situation in her favour. She in fact cries out for help, explaining that she has been violated, knowing that people will be more prone to believe in her. In this case, as I said in the first lines of this paragraph, the protagonist does not employ any physical mask, she simply uses her “position” in society to her favour. In this novel the role played, is very differently implied than in Fantomina. In other words, in The Fair Jilt, the protagonist doesn’t need the masquerade to seduce the man, she in facts plays a role only when she understands that she has to turn things on her favour. Whereas in Fantomina, the protagonist implies the masquerade to decieve Beauplaisir.