What makes Fantomina special for her time?

Eliza Haywood satirizes several elements of 18th century society in this novel including men and women and their expectations in society or their view towards relationships. For Fantomina, the standards that are forced upon the woman is what is being satirized. When we encounter “the lady” in the theatre she is described as “A young lady of distinguished birth, beauty, wit and spirit.” In this way she represents a typical female of the 18th century as someone who in public, they must adopt a modest and mild exterior, but yet are still expected to please men in private. Fantomina’s actions are restricted by her reputation as a higher class Lady, as her public relations are constantly monitored and her eligibility to marry based upon virginity as well as status. In those days those maidens seen as virtuous would be rewarded with marriage, and those who lost their virginity were ‘persecuted’ by men.

Because she is a woman of high birth and social ranking she is unable to interact with the lower class part of the theatre but Haywood soon describes how she is different than most women of her time. Following the normal model for 18th century writing, the heroine is usually vulnerable and naïve and when we first see her admiring the attention the prostitutes were getting I imagined she was simply a rich heiress seeking attention. However, Fantomina goes on to be described as someone with “wit” and she observes how the prostitutes act and operate in society before becoming one of them, knowing fully what her actions mean. Fantomina manipulates what is expected of the female race; instead of exhibiting mildness and virtue, she must be celebrated for instead exhibiting an entertaining wit and ability to outsmart others. We can however, see additional similarities and differences when we see her transform herself into her other characters. For example, even when acting as a prostitute, Fantomina must still act with modesty because that is what she has been told to do her entire life. Again, when in the disguise of Celia, her body is ‘half-reluctant, half-yielding’, displaying the struggle that women faced in the expression of their desires. Fantomina becomes lower class in her appearance and her sexual freedom, but remains higher class in that she still doesn’t have to live in poverty.

Instead of coming from the privileged upper class perspective we see someone restricted by their status in the upper class and someone wishing to escape it. Therefore, the theme of class centers on movement between the classes, and not interaction within a class. Lowering herself to a lower class is thereby portrayed as positive to the reader, as it allows Fantomina the freedom she seeks. In the eighteenth century, your social status deemed your identity. Therefore, Fantomina would be judged on her status as a Lady. However, Haywood inverts this to suggest instead that class and social status is based on outward impressions, and not one’s blood.

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