Most literary representations of the sexes include implicit and binary differences between women and men. Women are typically written as pure archetypes who strive to find constancy in their relationships. In contrast, men as seen as libertines who seek multiplicity, novelty, and otherwise rakish desires. In Fantomina, a venture of sex, love, and disguise, Eliza Haywood challenges these standards through Fantomina’s own multiplicity and change in identity to deceive Beauplaisir. Fantomina is a foil to Beauplaisir’s male gaze, and with her foresight and constantly being a step ahead of him, she finds a way to reverse typical gender dynamics. Through the heroine’s sexual assertion, verbal expression, and her deceiving of Beauplausir, she rebels from feminine constructs and ultimately contributes to the standing of Fantomina as a proto-feminist text.
The nameless protagonist’s initial disruptive sexual transformation and her resulting sensual assertion exemplifies her determination and ingenuity. While she adopts the Fantomina persona and appears as a prostitute, it is not at first her mission to seduce Beauplaisir, and he initiates the first sexual encounter despite her resistance and rapes her. But following this scene, Fantomina proves to be a swift learner and retaliates sensually (Levin). She uses multiple disguises to trick Beauplaisir into believing that he is seducing her, when she is actually seducing him: “…remembering the height of transport she enjoyed when the agreeable Beauplaisir kneeled at her feet, imploring her first favors, she longed to prove the same again” (Haywood 51). Through her disguises, Beauplaisir blindly falls into her trap and believes himself to be in control over multiple different women, when it is the protagonist in control of her own sexual decisions. Eliza Haywood also uses sexual imagery to describe Fantomina’s plan: “Her design was once more to engage him, to hear him sigh, to see him languish, to feel the strenuous pressures of his eager arms, to be compelled, to be sweetly forced to what she wished with equal ardor, was what she wanted” (Haywood 51). Here, the rhetorical conventions radically capture the experience of sensual passion and addresses the woman’s own desires, something certainly uncharacteristic for the time. Obviously, despite the heroine’s rape, she embraces her sexuality and uses it to gain power in her relationship with Beauplaisir.
Following her sexual assertion, the heroine’s confident rhetoric and use of verbal expression reveals her quick wit and clever scheming. When she first incites her plan to trick Beauplaisir, she weighs the possible consequences to herself. She realizes how her deception could have little consequence on her character and public opinion: “The odious word forsaken will never wound my ears; …it will not be even in the power of my undoer himself to triumph over me; and while he laughs at, and perhaps despises the fond of the yielding Fantomina, he will revere and esteem the virtuous and reserved lady” (Haywood 49). In crafty rhetoric, she iterates the value of her disguises and thus asserts confidence in her scheming. As the plot develops, she continues to fall deeper into her design to trick Beauplaisir. She mischievously notes her ingenuity: “She could not forbear laughing heartily to think of the tricks she had played him, and applauding her own strength of genius, and force of resolution, which by such unthought-of ways could triumph over her lover’s inconstancy, and render very temper, which to other women is the greatest curse, a means to make herself more blessed” (Haywood 64-65). Deviating from the norm, the heroine proudly applauds and embraces her retaliation and trickery. With tone and rhetoric, Haywood uses the protagonist’s verbal expression as a means to exploit her wit and confidence.
Finally, through her methods of sexual forwardness and scheming but wise rhetoric, the protagonist succeeds in her conquest of tricking Beauplaisir. Throughout the entire story, she successfully ties him to one love object while giving him the illusion of variety. Despite her position as a woman with little power over “the heart inclined to rove” (Haywood 51), she tricks him and plays upon his multiplicity: “But I have outwitted even the most subtle of the deceiving kind, and while he thinks to fool me, is himself the only beguiled person” (Haywood 59). She craftily outwits him until the end of the novel, when both the arrival of her mother and her pregnancy puts a stop to her relationship narrative. However, the end does not take away from the damage already caused; Beauplaisir is shocked to discover the truth: “…and he took his leave, full of cogitations, more confused than ever he had known in his whole life” (Haywood 71). The heroine and Haywood leave him confused and render him as passive and powerless as a woman. In this way, this Fantomina character succeeds in her trickery and ultimately dispels typical feminine power dynamics.
Midway through her multiple disguise foray, Fantomina muses that if all women took the same methods as she, men would always be caught in their own snare and would have no cause to scorn their “easy, weeping, wailing sex” (Haywood 51). Through the woman’s sexual assertion and prowess, confident verbal expression, and her successful trickery, she rebels feminine constructs and ultimately contributes to the standing of Fantomina as a feminist text. However, the question persists: is the protagonist a victim lashing out from her traumatic experiences or a victor constantly a step ahead of the male gaze? The answer is not so binary: Fantomina is both a feminist achievement and exposition of the contradictions and confusions of the female experience.