A Sensual Seduction: The Value of Sight in Haywood’s Fantomina

November 24, 2020 by Essay Writer

Two primary tropes guide Fantomina’s foray into sex and love with Beauplaisir: economic value and sight. Both of these tropes typically signify a text dominated by the masculine, treating women as commodities to be objectified and therefore controlled by a male gaze. For most of the novel, however, Haywood reverses typical gender dynamics by granting Fantomina a deceitful foresight that interrupts Beauplaisir’s gaze, replacing his sight with less valuable sensual experiences. As Fantomina changes her identity, she also changes the way Beauplaisir perceives and interprets her, and Haywood’s language reflects this shift—Beauplaisir tastes Celia but hears the Widow Bloomer, unaware that these experiences compromise the power of his gaze. In the final shapeshifting episode, when Fantomina becomes Incognita, the totalizing blindness with which she forces Beauplaisir to perceive her alerts him to his own blindness. This scene marks a fundamental change in the power dynamics of the text. After Beauplaisir leaves, Fantomina’s pregnancy—a physical condition specific to women—overshadows her ability to deceive those around her. By transforming herself to create a new sensory experience for Beauplaisir, Fantomina uses metaphorical sensual capital to confuse Beauplaisir’s literal and sexual capital. Haywood writes, “it must be confessed, indeed, that [Fantomina] preserved an Economy in the management of this Intrigue beyond what almost any Woman but herself ever did” (233). Connecting the two tropes, Fantomina’s sensual identity and its accompanying intrigue is capital to be managed. Because she manages this identity through the manipulation of Beauplaisir’s male gaze, the narrative situates the two characters as trading equally valuable commodities. Upon meeting one another, Beauplaisir “was transported to find so much Beauty and Wit in a woman,” while Fantomina “found a great deal of Pleasure in conversing with him in this free and unrestrained Manner” (228). Notably, “they passed their Time all the Play with an equal Satisfaction” (228). The “equal” satisfaction of their subsequent sexual relationship is ambiguous, but after this episode, but the dynamics of desire are clear: Fantomina wishes to continue the sexual relationship, while Beauplaisir’s passion has cooled. After her initial encounter with Beauplaisir, Fantomina recognizes that merely changing her appearance will not be adequate. Her transformation into Celia takes place on multiple sensual planes, the first of which serves to confuse Beauplaisir’s hearing: “[A]ll the rest of her Accoutrements were answerable to these and joined with a broad Country Dialect, a rude unpolished Air, which she, having been bred in these Parts, knew very well how to imitate” (234). Though sight is the most powerful trope in the narrative, Haywood presents Beauplaisir’s sight as easily compromised by other sensual experiences such as the sound of Fantomina’s voice. When Beauplaisir first meets Celia, “He was fired with the first Sight of her; and tho’ he did not presently take any farther Notice of her than giving her two or three hearty Kisses, yet she, who now understood that language but too well, easily saw they were the Prelude to more substantial joys” (235). In this first encounter, sight is not enough to immediately command all of Beauplaisir’s attention. Fortunately, Fantomina “hears” these kisses and translates them into Beauplaisir’s language. When he returns, he loses “the Power of containing himself” after gazing on her “blushing Beauties” (235). Instead of visually describing their encounter, however, Haywood uses gustatory language: “[He] swore he must enjoy her, though Death were to be the Consequence, devoured her Lips, her Breasts with greedy Kisses, held to his burning Bosom her half-yielding, half-reluctant Body…till he had ravaged all and glutted each rapacious Sense with the Sweet Beauties of the pretty Celia” (235). The way Beauplaisir perceives Celia here is as food, a more tactile commodity than her sexuality. He uses “each rapacious Sense” to experience her body, and Haywood’s word choice implies that afterward, Celia could be little more than bones. Though she successfully offered a sensual alternative to a sexual economy of inequality, Beauplaisir soon uses up these resources.Predictably, Beauplaisir leaves Bath without Celia after his sensual feast, provoking the narrative’s third episode: Fantomina in disguise as the Widow Bloomer. When she meets Beauplaisir on the road, she seduces him using her speech, a distinctly auditory maneuver. Relying on his appearance to ask for his assistance, the Widow Bloomer says that Beauplaisir has “the Appearance of a Gentleman” (236). She then baits him with a story, insisting that he “cannot, when you hear my Story, refuse that Assistance which is in your Power to give an unhappy Woman, who without it, may be rendered the most miserable of all created Beings” (236). Furthermore, the reason Beauplaisir concludes that the Widow Bloomer will be sexually responsive is her description of her previous marriage: “From that she passed to a Description of the Happiness of mutual Affection; —the unspeakable Ecstasy of those who meet with equal Ardency; and represented it in Colours so lively, and disclosed by the Gestures with which her Words were accompanied, and the Accent of her Voice so true a Feeling of what she said” (237). By distracting Beauplaisir with his own visual appearance, the Widow Bloomer supersedes his masculine power through her own auditory power. Ever perceptive, Fantomina recognizes her waning advantage as the Widow Bloomer. Prompted by this realization, she undertakes her final deceit, Incognita. Incognita writes to Beauplaisir first, an act that separates him from her sensually. Though he is drawn by her mysterious nature, she takes no precaution to distract him from realizing that his masculine gaze is compromised. In this episode, Incognita’s blinding disguise is totalizing—both literally and metaphorically. In refusing to expose her face and identity, Incognita strips Beauplaisir of the power that accompanies knowing and naming. Additionally, Incognita literally blinds him the morning after their escapade, leaving him “in the same Darkness as before” even though he perceives “the Noises in the Street” that convince him “it was Night no where but with him” (245). After she quickly leaves the chamber, the attendants “pluck down the Implements which had screened him from the Knowledge of that which he so much desired to find out,” alerting him to the intentionality of her manipulation. Remarkably, the responsibility of power and knowledge placed upon Fantomina also change the economic dynamics of the narrative: “[H]e went out of the House determined to never re-enter it, till she should pay the Price of his Company with the Discovery of her Face and Circumstances” (245). By shifting the economic burden to Fantomina while simultaneously negating her sensual advantage, Haywood presents the consequences to Fantomina’s follies, thereby altering the tone of the narrative. Ultimately, Haywood complicates her own reversal of sensual dynamics through reproduction; Fantomina’s mother interrupts her deceit, and Fantomina’s own motherhood confirms this interruption. First, she foreshadows Fantomina’s fall and then signifies it. She also uses the trope of sight to foreshadow Fantomina’s eventual downfall: “She had Discernment to foresee and avoid all those ills which might attend the Loss of her Reputation, but was wholly blind to those of the Ruin of her Virtue…” (232). Later in the narrative, Haywood uses gustatory language to describe Fantomina’s satisfaction with Beauplaisir: “She had all the Sweets of Love but as yet had tasted none of the Gall and was in a State of Contentment, which might be envied by the more Delicate” (240).Fantomina’s downfall is not the birth of her child, but the overtaking of her senses by labor pains. Her consequences are purely sensual. Without a sensual advantage, Fantomina’s mental capital is lost. At the ball, Fantomina’s labor pains immediately nullify the foresight that previously gave her an advantage—“the Time…happened much sooner than she expected” (246). For the entire narrative, Fantomina exhibits a sensual advantage over other women, but “those Pangs, which none in her condition are exempt from” (246). Haywood uses sensual language to describe the ways in which Fantomina might have concealed her condition at the ball, though she is unable to: “[H]ad her Tongue been mute, her wildly rolling Eyes, the Distortion of her Features, and the Convulsions which shook her whole Frame, in spite of her, would have revealed she laboured under some terrible Shock of Nature” (246). Though sound betrays Fantomina’s condition, Haywood also remarks that Fantomina is unable to control her appearance. The freedom and authority that accompanied Fantomina’s ability to withhold knowledge from those around her disappears, and she is banished back into the world of women, in which her sexual and sensual capital is worthless.

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