Fantomina Summary

Eliza Haywood


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Fantomina Summary

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In English writer and publisher Eliza Haywood’liza Ha Fantomina (1725), the protagonist, seeking to better understand the minds of men, creates four different personas to disguise herself in order to see how men interact with these four very different women. It is considered a classic example of amatory fiction—the first genre of fiction concerned with sexuality and romance—and is considered the forerunner of modern romance fiction. It was the first genre of writing that was primarily written by and for women. Fantomina explores several themes in depth, starting with gender and the way it impacts the way men and women interact, as well as the unfair advantage men have in society. Its view of class likewise addresses the way social status affects men and women differently. Finally, the book’s frank look at the sexual desire of women was considered revolutionary for the time. Fantomina was popular in its time, although it was controversial for its content. It fell out of favor in the eighteenth century as the culture shifted away from the genre. With the rise of feminist literary criticism, it has been rediscovered, along with other early examples of the genre, and reprinted in anthologies.

Fantomina opens in a playhouse in London, where the unnamed main character is intrigued by the men at the theater, noticing how they pay attention to the prostitutes there. She decides to dress up and play the role of a prostitute herself. In disguise, she especially enjoys interacting with the aristocrat Beauplaisir, whom she has met before. Previously, he paid no attention to her and she could not approach him easily due to the social restrictions placed on women. He does not recognize her now and asks to meet her later, presumably to purchase her services. She puts him off until tomorrow night and rents a room before meeting him. She realizes that he wants to have sex with her. She is a virgin and tries to put him off, but he is undeterred. Despite her protests, he pushes forward and rapes her. He offers her money, but she is in tears and rejects any offering from him. He is confused and did not think her protests were serious. When he asks her name, not wanting her identity to be known, she gives the name “Fantomina.”

Soon, Beauplaisir gets bored with her and decides to leave London for Bath. Although she continues to use her alter ego, Fantomina, through the story, she drops this identity as she follows Beauplaisir to Bath. She dresses as a country maid, and calling herself Celia, gets a job at the inn where he is staying. When Beauplaisir sees her, he thinks she is a new maid and immediately begins seducing her. She has planned this and pretends to object, but he does not listen. This time, he gives her money again, and she takes it.

After about a month, Beauplaisiris tired of Celia and leaves Bath. Heading home, he encounters Mrs. Bloomer, a widow whom he invites into his carriage. He senses her grief and attempts to raise her spirits. This leads to them having sex in an inn on the road. Unbeknownst to Beauplaisir, of course, “Mrs. Bloomer”ris the protagonist in disguise as well. Soon, he gets bored with Mrs. Bloomer as well and moves on.

She sends him an anonymous letter declaring her love for him and signs it “Incognita.” Beauplaisir meets a mysterious masked woman, who says she will sleep with him in the dark but will not reveal her face. He has an affair with her as well, never realizing all the women are the same woman. After this adventure, the protagonist realizes she is pregnant. After giving birth, she reveals Beauplaisiris the father at her mother’s insistence. Beauplaisir is shocked to find out that all four women are the same. As the story ends, the protagonist is sent to a monastery in France by her mother.

Eliza Haywood, born Elizabeth Fowler, was an eighteenth-century English writer, actress, and publisher. One of the most prolific authors of her time, she wrote more than seventy works during her lifetime,including fiction, drama, translations, poetry, and nonfiction. Fantomina is her most famous work today, although she was one of the most successful early female novelists. Successful in her time, she was controversial for her frank approach to female passion and her incisive takes on the social mores of the time. Her works fell out of fashion as the Victorian era dawned and English society became more conservative. She was active in politics for most of her life, even being questioned by the government once due to suspected Jacobite sympathies. Her works, which fell into obscurity after her death, have recently been gaining popularity again as early feminist literature. She is viewed as a major influence on later female novelists such as Frances Burney.