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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Class 20

Nov 7: Eliza Haywood, Fantomina (2566)

    Post #10 Due - Group A


    Class Objectives:

  • To discuss female chastity and male promiscuity in the context of 18th Century seduction narrative
  • To compare Fantomina with Pope's Eloisa and Wortley Montagu's Mrs. Yonge
  • To analyze the language of Haywood's prose narrative

    This short story presents us with the third in a line of passionate female voices struggling with sexual desire and society's expectations for chaste women. What makes a nice, upper class girl want to play at being a prostitute? Curiosity? Desire? Liberty? What are the consequences for pursuing this path to knowledge? In many ways, Eliza Haywood foregrounds the power and presence of the physical human body, and this story demonstrates the real differences for men and women in acting out their fantasies. Haywood was an extremely popular writer in the burgeoning field of prose fiction; her seduction narratives were widely read and influential, although the explicit sexual nature of some of her early stories would seem crass and inappropriate by the middle eighteenth century.


    Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:


    1.

    Eliza Haywood's short story takes up the problems of a specifically gendered virtue, chastity, and like the previous work, exposes the hypocrisy of the beau monde as well as the double-standard of sexual behavior for men and for women. As you read the story, consider the ways in which female chastity -- the intact female body -- is represented.

    The story opens in a playhouse. What is significant about this setting? (Who is there? What is happening?) How does role playing (acting) become a dominant feature of the plot? How does this opening, then, set the stage (as it were) for what happens in the story?

    Note the description Haywood provides for the main character. What can we infer is important to know about her?

    What leads Fantomina to don the mask of the prostitute? What will this allow her to do that her ordinary role would not?

    What does Fantomina struggle against in her decision to see Beauplasir on the second evening? What does she mean when she tells him that she has forfeited her honor? In what way has she materially changed? What consequences does she pay? What might we infer about the concept of female honor? (Consider other works, such as Oroonoko as a basis for comparison.)

    Why does she never tell Beauplasir her real name?

    In the course of the story, Fantomina constructs three other identities to seduce or entice Beauplasir. Examine the roles of Celia, Mrs. Bloomer and Incognita. What are the important characteristics and traits that she changes? To what does Beauplasir respond in each case? How is class or status a factor? How is beauty a factor? How is perceived virtue a factor in his behavior to these women?

    What does this role playing suggest about Fantomina? What does it suggest about Beauplasir? What does it finally suggest about the nature of romantic or erotic love?

    On pages 2575-6 the narrator raises the absurdity of Beauplasir's continual deception regarding the person (i.e. body) of his beloved. What does the narrator ask us to believe about Fantomina's character? What does the narrative suggest about the interchangeability of female bodies in the male imagination?


    2.

    Note the two letters that Beauplasir writes to Fantomina and Mrs. Bloomer. What do their differences suggest? What do their similarities suggest? What is Fantomina's reaction?

    She continues on with this deception to gratify "the inclination she had for his agreeable person, in as full a manner as she could wish" (2577). What does this suggest about Fantomina?

    The narrator suggests that pride goeth before the fall: "Thus did she pride herself as if secure she never should have any Reason to repent the present Gaiety of Humour" (2580-1). And the narrator further suggests that the enjoyment of such an amour is limited. What do these indicate about the narrator's attitude toward Fantomina? In what ways does the female body itself become problematic?

    Things change rapidly when Fantomina's mother returns to town and Fantomina finds herself pregnant. Explain the mother's response to discovering her daughter's pregnancy. Explain Beauplasir's response to being named the father. Why is he exonerated?

    What does the story conclude? What are the implications of such an abbreviated ending?

    3.

    Alexander Pope's poem "Of the Characters of Women" begins with the following lines:

      Nothing so true as what you once let fall,
      'Most women have no characters at all.'
      Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,
      And best distinguished by black, brown, or fair.

    What does it mean that women have no characters? If true, then what distinguishes them? How does Fantomina construct her character? Does she have an abundance of character (or characters) or an extreme lack of character? Why?

    Consider Pope's lines and Haywood's story as commenting on the nature of female character or subjectivity. What motivates Fantomina's repeated changes? What does the story suggest about female "nature", is it constructed or is it determined by biology?

    Compare the representation (or construction) of gender and sexuality (male and female) in this work with that in "The Disappointment," "The Imperfect Enjoyment," "Eloisa to Abelard," and "Epistle from Mrs. Yonge." Look to the language used to describe the behaviors and the implications of the images and terms.

      Is female sexual desire the same or different than male sexual desire in these works?

      Is female sexual behavior natural or monstrous?

      Is male promiscuity natural or monstrous?

      How do we know?

      What are the consequences for women of fulfilling sexual desire?

      What are the consequences for men?

      How does each work represent the female body? Some ideas to consider include: is it described? Is it present? Powerful? Seductive? Dangerous? Playful? Exchanged? Commodified? Mysterious? Pleasurable? Punished? Frightening? Absent? Sick? Natural?

    Based on these readings, what generalizations might you make about early eighteenth-century representations of female sexuality? This is important because such constructions begin to shift with the rise of middle class readers and their taste for domestic, chaste female characters. Certainly by Victorian times, a Fantomina or a Mrs. Yonge would be marginalized as monstrous.

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