Academic Writing

Performative Physicality in Eliza Haywood's "Fantomina"

One of Eliza Haywood’s earlier works, “Fantomina” is part of Haywood’s investigation into female sexuality and expression through her fiction. Particularly, “Fantomina” develops the persona of a masked woman, as the novella bears the title of the first alias, rather than the woman herself. Throughout the work, details and specifics of the setting are elided in favor of broader schematic explanations. However, the instances in which Haywood provides detailed physical descriptions prove important in understanding the role of performance in creating such characters in her fiction. Drawing on her past experience as an actress, Haywood brings a performative nature to her works, and as such, she condenses the physical geography of “Fantomina” to a stage setting. For Fantomina, her disguises enable her to perform her internal emotions and sexual desire, yet she is unable to reconcile her performativity with her own physical biology, leading to her eventual unfortunate end. With physical descriptions limited to Fantomina’s disguises, the novella takes on a theatrical nature, emphasizing Fantomina’s performance of emotion; however, the physical nature of the plot suggests the danger of true female expression, no matter how performative.

Throughout the novella, Haywood deliberately obscures the true character of Fantomina from the audience. The only substantive description given to Fantomina is that she is a “young lady of distinguished birth, beauty, wit, and spirit”. Observable from this description is that Fantomina is of considerable class, setting her above the prostitute she watches in this scene. To the characters in this scene, clothing and cosmetics serve as extremely visible markers of class and social role, as eighteenth century society exhibited the “principle of dressing the body as a mannequin, as a vehicle for marking by well-established conventions”. Thus, the lack of any real physical description by Haywood stands out as peculiar. This first encounter with the character of Fantomina takes place in the theater, yet the narrative eye follows the movement of the theatergoers and not the play itself. Both the setting and the carefree way Fantomina puts on this disguise suggest an aspect of performance, albeit one of little consequence. In fact, Fantomina’s first disguise is notably less performative than the disguises she concocts later in the work. Haywood’s description of the first costuming is minimal, writing only that Fantomina “thought it not in the least a fault to put in practice a little whim which came immediately into her head, to dress herself as near as she could in the fashion of those women who make sale of their favors” (2797). At first, Fantomina’s true desire is rather ambiguous, wanting mainly to understand the different form of social expression but not yet prepared for the sexual awakening she experiences. Emily Hodgson Anderson’s view of “performance as a moment of expression” critically informs the role of disguise and performance in “Fantomina” as Fantomina employs various disguises to continually reenact the seduction of Beauplaisir. However, Haywood reflects the shallowness of Fantomina’s emotional and physical desires at this moment with the vague description of this disguise suggesting an imperfect performance. Emphasizing her unpreparedness, Fantomina almost breaks character when faced with “the apprehension of really losing her honor” and contemplates “reveal[ing] the whole secret of her name and quality” (2799). Though this moment of emotional instability suggests Fantomina may not be in control throughout the novella, it is really just the lack of a “carefully planned performance, as unpremeditated spontaneous behavior does not anticipate or enable repetition”. What here begins as a whim and nearly ruins Fantomina becomes a thorough transformation of her character after her first sexual encounter with Beauplaisir, as the disguising scenes become more elaborately illustrated as her desire fully actualizes and she perfects her performative expression.

As the plot progresses, Fantomina and her disguises become the physical setting of the novella, since the detailed descriptions of her costumes are the only method Haywood uses to situate the characters throughout the work. The first disguise, that of Fantomina herself, exists simultaneously with the character of the young lady as a way to maintain the sexual relationship with Beauplaisir. Haywood describes the juggling of the two façades:

Slippers, and a night-gown loosely flowing, has been the garb in which he has left the languishing Fantomina;—laced and adorned with all the blaze of jewels has he, in less than an hour after, beheld at the royal chapel, the palace gardens, drawing-room, opera, or play, the haughty awe-inspiring lady. (2801)

Whereas before Fantomina’s prostitute costume was ambiguous, here it is richly depicted in the image of the flowing night-gown. Moreover, the listing of multiple different locations, though specific, merges them into an indistinct backdrop that again refocuses the setting of the action onto Fantomina herself. Often, a change in costume accompanies a change in location, but Haywood omits the depiction of the locations themselves, relying on Fantomina’s various personas to set the scene for the reader, a technique that is exceptionally theatrical in nature. Haywood herself “acted in at least six plays and was the author, co-author, or probable author of at least four more” between 1729 and 1737. Despite Haywood’s prolificacy, accompanied with her reputation was “the fact of her femininity and the constraints on expression that accompanied this fact”, thus, Haywood becomes a consummate performer, both on and off the stage, in order to construct a representation of herself that was as true to life as allowed by her society. This conflict translates itself in the character of Fantomina, who carefully crafts her disguises to create opportunities for emotional expression. Even Haywood herself describes “crafted presentations as expressing the key component of a woman’s identity”, justifying Fantomina’s actions as more intentional than a mere flight of fancy. Moreover, Haywood’s theatrical experience influences her fiction works, as the physical setting becomes unimportant in comparison to the emotional and social “space to assert and reassert the fact of female desire” created by Fantomina’s performances.

Throughout the novella, Fantomina’s disguises act as a way for her to express and achieve her desire, which is ultimately the power and pleasure of a man kneeling to her. Realizing that Beauplaisir tires of her original company, Fantomina recalls “the height of transport she enjoyed when the agreeable Beauplaisir kneeled at her feet, imploring her first favors,” and “she longed to prove the same again” (2802). After this, the plot proceeds through the whirlwind of Fantomina’s numerous encounters with Beauplaisir, marked only by the change in disguise. Perhaps most evident of the increased focus on description is in the disguise of Celia, which marks Beauplaisir’s social flight to Bath. As Celia, Fantomina wears “a round-eared cap, a short red petticoat, and a little jacket of gray stuff,” and puts on “a broad country dialect” and “a rude unpolished air,” (2802), securing a position as a maid in the house at which Beauplaisir stays. Since her later disguises more closely align with her true socioeconomic position, Fantomina’s embodiment of Celia is particularly emblematic of the opportunity that performance creates to express feminine sexual desire. In her role as a maid, Fantomina matches Beauplaisir’s increased licentiousness, bantering with him “with such seeming innocence, as more enflamed the amorous heart of him who talked to her” until he “lost the power of containing himself” (2803); thus, Fantomina receives the submission she so craves. Importantly, that these moments of sexual expression occur within a disguise do not lessen the sincerity of the expression itself. In the eighteenth century, private selves were trivial, and “expression as a presentation of emotion [was] the actor’s job”. Though Fantomina uses performance to exhibit her private self, the emotions expressed “are no less genuine because the expression of them is premeditated”. In fact, Fantomina asserts that though she sheds the virtue of virginity, “she had not also thrown off another virtue equally valuable, though generally unfortunate, constancy” (2802). Fantomina is constant in her pursuit of the sexual conquest of Beauplaisir in particular, and her performances allow her to balance these two positions of virtue.

Inevitably, Fantomina’s performative safety from the consequences of seduction becomes fragile, as the novella’s sparse physical setting conflicts with the undeniably physical nature of the seduction plot. In fact, it is the use of performance to express female emotions that makes Fantomina’s deception so unsustainable in eighteenth century society, as female expression is ultimately dangerous and subversive. Even at the conclusion of the novella, Fantomina’s mother dismisses the events as a “distracted folly,” (2813) diminishing the agency of performance Fantomina so evidently employs over the course of the plot. However, prior to this, Haywood allows for the most specific description of setting in the novel during the creation of Incognita. In addition to the veil Incognita wears, when Beauplaisir goes to bed with her, he does so in a room whose windows are covered “in such a manner, that not the least chink was left to let in day” (2811). That this room receives description while Beauplaisir is, in fact, unable to see his physical surroundings is stiking, and it indicates a narrative perspective connected with Fantomina’s character and the setting of the performance that she orchestrates. Here Fantomina skillfully manipulates the physical facts of the setting and her costume to exhibit the power of her deception. Furthermore, though Haywood earlier reassures that Fantomina “was so admirably skilled in the art of feigning, that she had the power of putting on almost what face she pleased” (2805), Incognita wears an actual mask to disguise her face. In this way, Fantomina’s final disguise as Incognita “acknowledges the fact that her identity as a sexual object is a masked identity” that is “contingent upon performance”. Thus, when the physical fact of her pregnancy can no longer be concealed, all the various performances fails, as does Fantomina’s expression of her sexual desire. While previously Fantomina is able to control her own emotions and performance, she is ultimately unable to control either the internal fact of her own biology or the society that represses “external representation of an internal emotion”. Sennett emphasizes that “an identity is the meeting point between who a person wants to be and what the world allows him to be”, the two parts of which, unfortunately, are irreconcilable for Fantomina. Though the novella centers on her expressing her desires through a variety of false identities, her world, as well as the world in which Haywood is writing, cannot permanently allow her this freedom. At the end, Haywood avoids making a definitive statement about the morality of Fantomina’s actions, summing up the tale as simply “an intrigue, which, considering the time it lasted, was as full of variety as any” (2813); however, Fantomina’s betrayal by her own body does suggest an inability to completely manipulate performances without consequence.

Fantomina’s reliance on disguise and performance collapses when confronted with the physical truth of her own childbearing capacity, and her internal expression is suppressed. After her first sexual experience with Beauplaisir, Fantomina’s desire fully crystallizes, and her disguises increase in descriptiveness as she repeatedly renews Beauplaisir’s desire for her. Each of these personas acts as a sort of performative role, informed by Haywood’s own experience in the theater. Fantomina upholds her deception as a way to outwardly express her emotions, and is able to do so rather competently; however, eighteenth century society is ultimately unaccommodating of a powerful, expressive woman.

EnglishSarah Burk