Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina; or, Love in a Maze, satirizes the archetypal depiction of man’s infidelity. The irony enters, however, in Haywood’s use of an aristocratic woman’s infidelity to highlight man’s infidelity.
In the novella, Beauplaisir is used, as his name suggests, to represent all the men who “regardless either of play or circle, [throw] away their time in such a manner” as pursuing prostitutes (2566). The aristocratic woman, who, throughout the work, remains as unnamed to the reader as her final alter-ego remains to Beauplaisir, does not represent womankind. Instead, the aristocratic woman, often referred to as Fantomina, represents the few women capable of countering man’s infidelity with wit and ingenuity.
Fantomina ponders how some women let men destroy their lives through infidelity with “How do some women make their life a hell, burning in fruitless expectations, and dreaming out their days in hopes and fears, then wake at last to all the horror and despair?” (2577). Fantomina classifies herself above these women and notes how she has “outwitted even the most subtle of the deceiving kind, and while he thinks to fool me, is himself the only beguiled person” (2577). Fantomina’s attitude towards outwitting men is one unique element of social commentary highlighted in Fantomina. For if even the skillful Fantomina, a woman who places herself on a pedestal above other women in regards to her deceptive nature, fails in deceiving man, then is any woman truly capable of “beguiling” man?
Adding to this unique element of success and failure is the means by which the two “players” attempt to win the “game.” Beauplaisir does nothing to avoid is deception while Fantomina uses all of her wit to guard her reputation. Eliza Haywood is perhaps pointing out how in 18th century London, even ignorant men are viewed by society as superior to women. In the end, Fantomina fails and is sent to a monastery while Beauplaisir is left to inevitably continue finding new mistresses to quiet his lustful appetite. Fantomina sinks to a level that most women would deem disgraceful but is still unable to conquer Beauplaisir at man’s own game: deceiving women.
Existing with the archetypal image of the unfaithful man is the dichotomy of what society deems acceptable for men and women. Just as in Fantomina, there is a double standard regarding unfaithful men and unfaithful women today. Fantomina is sent to a different country to hide from the shame she has bestowed upon her family. Beauplaisir continues to live in the same city with no harmful effect on his reputation. Clearly, some of the satire present in 18th century London is still applicable to today’s society.