In her novella Fantomina; or, Love in a maze, Eliza Haywood, “one of the most popular, prolific, and versatile authors of her time,” satirizes 18th century society through her fictional escapade that explores the social aspects of class mobility in regards to sexual conquests (Abrams 2566).
From the opening of the story, Fantomina, for lack of a more permanent name, clearly struggles with the confines that her high “quality” and “degree” impose (2567, 2573). Fantomina does not understand why the upper echelon’s gentlemen turn to the basest women in order to shed their superficial formalities and act with “freedom” (2567). Her observations at the playhouse force her to see, but not yet understand, the irony that belles cannot satisfy their peer’s most primal and intimate desires.
It’s not until Fantomina transforms into Incognita that she realizes the true nature of why Beauplaisir is so superficial and philandering: “The most violent passion, if it does not change its object, in time will wither” (2580). Beauplaisir, an exaggerated eighteenth century beau and another object of Haywood’s satire, is a prime teacher of this lesson because he falls victim to his sexual vices far more often than not. In essence, he teaches Fantomina that his pleasures, and perhaps the pleasures of most upper class men, arise from the challenge of getting a woman to acquiesce to his physical desires. Basically, the thrill is in the conquest, and Fantomina illustrates her understanding of this philosophy in a none too subtle way when she addresses her letter to “the All-conquering Beauplaisir” (2579).
Thus, as Fantomina finds out through experience, the actual woman does not matter to these hedonistic men; they only care about successfully completing their missions. In fact, what bothers Beauplaisir so much in his dealings with Incognita is that he would never be able to lay his conquest to rest and move on to the next victim without gaining knowledge of her identity. Interestingly, the identity of the woman does not matter until it is absent. Fantomina knows the power she has over Beauplaisir in obstructing his hunt. “I have him always raving, wild, impatient, longing, dying.—O that all neglected wives and fond abandoned nymphs would take this method!—Men would be caught in their own snare, and have no cause to scorn our easy, weeping, wailing sex!” she says (2580). Once Fantomina gains this valuable advantage “she would rather part with him for ever” than go back to being a helpless victim of seduction (2581).
By the end of the story Haywood successfully satisfies Fantomina’s initial curiosity, that of why the gentlemen pay more attention to the prostitutes than to the fine ladies. Essentially, the ever-present focus on reputation, emphasized by Fantomina’s meticulous secrecy, creates an environment in the upper portions of the social hierarchy in which women care too much about being dishonored to have sex in the flippant manner that the conquest philosophy calls for. The biggest irony in the story, and the main target of the satire, is that for all the problems it creates, the apparent honor and dignity maintained by the upper class is utterly deceitful and hypocritical.
Abrams, M. H.; Greenblatt, Stephen; Lipking, Lawrence; Et Al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2006. Print.