While Eliza Haywood’s short story first appears as a cautionary tale — a woman engages in sinful physical pleasure and is, in the end, utterly disgraced — it is much more empowering than it outwardly appears.
The unnamed heroine of this story, whom we know as Fantomina, Celia, the widower, and Incantata, defies all expectations of how a “gentlewoman” and real lady of position should behave and feel. She eschews romance and engages in deception, physical pleasure, more deception, and more physical pleasure all in order to “conquer” an unscrupulous man with wandering eyes — all actions that would normally be carried out by a man.
There is also frequent talk of “Power” and “Freedom” in Fantomina. Before their initial sexual encounter (during which he rapes her and takes her virginity), she delights in having power over him:
“Three or four Times did she open her Mouth to confess her real Quality; but the Influence of her ill Stars prevented it, by putting an Excuse into her Head, which did the Business as well, and at the same Time did not take from her the Power of seeing and entertaining him a second Time with the same Freedom she had done this.”
Then, she fantasizes about rejecting his advances just for the sheer fun of it. Because she can:
“[N]ever having been address’d by him as Lady, — was resolv’d to receive his Devoirs as a Town-Mistress, imagining a world of Satisfaction to herself in engaging him in the Character of such a one, and in observing the Surprise he would be in to find himself refused by a Woman, who he supposed granted her Favours without Exception.”
She also acts alone to plot and scheme, without help from anyone, various ways to find herself back in Beauplaisir’s bed — as a maid, as a widower, as a mysterious and unnamed woman behind a mask. She is, in a couple words, fiercely independent. Yes, she is disgraced in the end, but it is almost as if the ending to the tale is an afterthought tacked on to satisfy publishers who would otherwise have never been able to publish the work because of its indecency. By adding this “moral” and making it a cautionary tale, it fits the narrative of this time in history, when virtue is held in the highest regard and reputation is everything. But I could not help but notice how absolutely feminist 90 percent of this story is (literally… the story is ~13,000 words, yet fewer than 1,300 of them have anything to do with her ultimate fall from grace at the end of the tale).
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the rape of Fantomina early in the story. In the story, she “asks for it” and Beausplaisir simply can’t help himself — he cannot control his manly urges and simply must have her (and Celia, and the widower). We have, of course, made progress in this area since the 18th century, though we have only recently come to label such incorrect attitudes and assumptions as “rape culture,” and we certainly have a very long way to go in reversing these beliefs and attitudes which, as evidence in Fantomina, have been pervasive for the majority of humankind’s recorded history.