Fantomina: Disguise, Disguise, Disguise

As an English student, you read a plethora of books, plays, short stories, and scripts. It comes with the territory. Sometimes it feels as though all those texts just merge into one as you read strategically for essays.

The Fair Nun Unmasked, a painting by Henry Morland

However, every now and again a text you read will unexpectedly grip you and you will remember ‘Wow yeah this is why I fell in love with reading.’ For me, this text was Fantomina by Eliza Haywood.

Fantomina is a text like no other and it is filled with tricks and turns you will not expect. Written in 1725 by author Eliza Haywood, Fantomina depicts the tale of the eponymous Fantomina, an upper-class young woman who disguises herself as multiple different women to capture the attention of a man named Beauplasir. The name Fantomina is fictitious and acts as a pseudonym as the protagonist’s real name is never revealed. Instead, we follow this capricious woman as she disguises herself as a prostitute, then a maid, then a widower, and finally a mysterious socialite all to keep seeing the same man, over and over again. 

To give an overview of the story, we follow an unnamed protagonist as she watches a group of prostitutes and the men who solicit their services from the balcony of an opera performance. The protagonist is enchanted by the sight and the boldness of the women’s actions as well as their ability to act without persecution in front of polite society. The next day the protagonist adopts the attire and moniker Fantomina to poses as a prostitute, resulting in her catching the attention of the handsome Beauplasir. Fantomina and Beau flirt and converse for hours, him wondering if she is a high-end prostitute and her believing him to be courting her earnestly. (It is a mess, she fully forgets she is posing as a prostitute). However, things turn for the worst when Beau sexually assaults Fantomina and our protagonist finds herself discarded and evaded by Beau after the act. This discretion leads to Fantomina’s preceding actions as she learns of his residence at his uncle's house and disguises herself as a maid, thus creating the character Celia. As Celia, our protagonist purposefully seduces Beau, who believes her to be another woman, and explores her sexuality without the stigma of purity culture. However, as the song goes, Celia is not a respectable enough woman for Beau and he subsequently abandons her once again. Catching on to Beau’s inability to commit himself to one woman or respect women of lower class, Fantomina adopts her third disguise, a widower. Through this persona, Fantomina once again tricks Beau into believing he is seducing an emotionally vulnerable widower and enters another sexual relationship with him.

By this point, Fantomina has caught on to the reality of sexual relationships between men and women. Unlike the tales of chivalry and romance her upbringing had impeded upon her, the adult world of dating is a lot more callous, opportunistic, and challenging than once believed. After receiving a love letter from Beau addressed to both Fantomina and the widower but none to Celia, Fantomina determines to play Beau in his own games. Therefore, she adopts her final identity as the Incognita and buys a lavish mansion, hires maids, and lives at the property to immerse interest in her appearance. With her being visible in high society, Fantomina writes a letter to Beau desiring to know him carnally due to his sexual notoriety. Intrigued by the proposition Beau meets the mysterious ‘Incognita’ but is unhappy with what unfolds. Instead of adhering to traditional sexual behaviour, Incognita takes control of the situation and acts as an active agent rather than a passive receiver. By adopting a masculine, dominant role, Fantomina disallows Beau to take the upper hand and instead becomes the figure of authority. Beau leaves dissatisfied and emasculated and Fantomina empowered. However, her success is cut short with the reentrance of her guardian, her aunt, and a surprise pregnancy. Knowing the father but also the scandalous reason for her pregnancy Fantomina must act as though she is unaware of the father’s identity and is instead cast away to the countryside as was the customary fate of unwed mothers in her social class. With that, the adventures of our protagonist come to an end. 

From the overview of the novel, Fantomina can be perceived as obsessive, slightly unhinged and maybe even crazy, however, within Fantomina lies a tale of eighteenth-century female sexual freedom and the struggle women face to establish sexual and emotional monogamy. Fantomina’s initial objective in disguising herself as a prostitute was ignited when she witnessed the attention prostitutes were given while also evading the judgmental eyes of upper society. It is through disguises that the young protagonist is allowed to live her life in freedom, away from the oppressive gaze of upper-class society, and instead explore her sexuality, financial freedom, and travel without a chaperone. While Fantomina’s tale ends less than favourably, the protagonist nevertheless demonstrates wit, cunning, and perception as she becomes wise to and navigates the sexual politics of men and women. While our protagonist ends up exiled, bastardised, and alone at the end of the tale, we have no doubts that she will find a way to live her life independently and fruitfully. 

Fantomina is one of my favourite stories of all time. It also reminded me that old literature can still enthuse and excite as much as contemporary literature can. Your degree will surprise you with the gems it can introduce you to. 

Written by Valentia Adarkwa-Afari, Digital Student Ambassador, on 24 February 2022.

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