Commerce and Gender in Fantomina

Dublin Core


Commerce and Gender in Fantomina


Public life, gender, and politics


An analysis of the 18th century class system and how Fantomina steps outside the boundaries to fulfill her desire to entertain herself with prostitution.


Ana Navascues


Marymount University's English Department






Daniel Johnson









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During the Enlightenment, men and women lived by a “rigid class system” that put renewed emphasis on the public life (Lawall 297). This public sphere of money, politics, and business was reserved primarily for men. In Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina,” the title character blurs the traditional gender and society roles that prohibited women from entering the public sphere of money and politics by stepping out of her prescribed private life as a high born woman. As a woman of the upper class, Fantomina would have been expected to follow “well-defined codes of behavior,” which would preserve her reputation and increase her value on the marriage market (Lawall 297). These codes of behavior are applied to the different classes of women Fantomina inhabits. In Fantomina’s use of her own money, she enters into the male, and therefore public, world of commerce, while maintaining her guises and their specific roles in society. She not only purchases her many costumes but she rents multiple homes, hires employees, and works when she does not have to. Moreover, each of the different women she pretends to be has in some way control over their own funds, whether as a prostitute, maid, widower, or wealthy aristocrat. It is because of her plentiful funds she is able to create elaborate alternate personae in order to fool Beauplaisir into believing that it is he who is doing the chasing and not the other way around. It is made clear that almost anything can be bought for a price, except Beauplaisir’s affections and in the end Fantomina’s freedom. Throughout the story the discourses of commerce highlight Fantomina’s role in this monetary world that is usually reserved for men.

The language of mercantilism is expressed almost immediately as Fantomina becomes consumed with curiosity about the interactions between men and women, specifically the men of her rank and their interest in the prostitutes at the theater. She goes undercover to better understand this forbidden culture. Dressing up like a prostitute and making her way down to the pit; there Fantomina (the name she gives herself when she pretends to be a prostitute) is immediately surrounded by a “crowd of purchasers…each endeavoring to outbid the other in offering her a price for her embraces” (Haywood 632). As a prostitute, Fantomina is a public figure who actively participates in the business of buying and selling goods, namely herself. Released from the restrictions of her class, Fantomina finds a “vast deal of pleasure in conversing with him [Beauplaisir] in this free and unrestrained manner” (Haywood 633). Eager to keep Beauplaisir’s attention, despite trying to convince herself otherwise, Fantomina rents “lodgings in a house not very far from it, intending, that if he should insist on passing some part of the night with her, to carry him there, thinking she might with more security to her honor entertain him at a place where she was mistress” (Haywood 634). Even at this early stage she is taking control of the situation, accounting for the possible consequences of being seen or letting Beauplaisir have the upper hand. Her introduction to the world of commerce illuminates her naiveté as she reacts with hurt and disgust at Beauplaisir’s attempt to pay her as an assurance of his affection. She has either forgotten that she is indeed a prostitute to Beauplaisir or lacks an understanding of the role she is playing. Fantomina is beginning to understand what can and cannot be bought in this public, commercial world as well as the very real dangers to her reputation and her heart.

Noticing that she is loosing Beauplaisir’s interest, Fantomina dons a new disguise that will enable her to remain close to Beauplaisir as he attempts to distance himself from her. Celia, a maid, is able to earn her own money just as a prostitute does, but now she is entering a more private place in society. As Celia, a maid in the house Beauplaisir is renting on his way to Bath, Fantomina does not just play at being a maid, but actually does her duties as she fully embraces this new role. Understanding what is expected of her, she responds with a “well counterfeited show of surprise and joy,” demonstrating her knowledge of what would be socially expected of a woman in her position (Haywood 638). Just as before, Beauplaisir offers Celia money or a salary in return for services. It is not until she acts as the Widow Bloomer does she begin to create business on a microcosmic scale, when she hires a servant along with a coach and horses to travel. This seemingly small occurrence puts Fantomina in a powerful position as she is now responsible for a servant’s livelihood and generating the economy. As the Widow Bloomer, Fantomina has her own money, money that no longer belongs to her husband. She is a fully independent woman masquerading as a helpless widow. Indeed, she must be helpless in order to invoke sympathy and affection from Beauplaisir. By letting him believe that he is comforting her, as he “kisses away her tears,” Fantomina is manipulating the situation by appearing to act in accordance to the societal conventions that were expected of a woman of her assumed class (Haywood 640).

Finally as Incognita, Fantomina reaches her goal in securing Beauplaisir’s affections. In this process though, she has elevated her position in the economic sense by hiring two “necessitous men” (Haywood 643). As the Widow Bloomer there is no account of how she hired the servant she employed only that he was hired. As Incognita, however, the reader gets a full report on her interaction with these men. This becomes important as she is seen as a competent business woman. Incognita goes into the park where many poor men roam, disregarding the potential danger of her situation, in order to find the perfect men for her plan. Incognita begins:

To communicate the business she had with them in these words: I am sensible, gentlemen (said she), that through the blindness of fortune, and partiality of the world, merit frequently goes unrewarded, and that those of the best pretensions meet with the least encouragement. (Haywood 643)

Melissa Mowry points out that it is Fantomina’s successful “ability to forge a collation with… commoners” that gives her the upper hand (654). This display of impressive persuasive tactics, in which Incognita is flattering the men and convincing them that she is their ally against the social world that has rejected them, demonstrates her ability to function as a woman in a man’s world. Fantomina is able to sell herself (so to speak) and make her enterprise attractive to the men. She is a part of the many facets of commerce, not just as a consumer but as a seller too.

Fantomina’s downfall does not happen when she discovers that she is pregnant but when her mother comes into town. A pregnancy out of wedlock would have been catastrophic for a woman of this time, but Fantomina does not even appear to panic at her situation; in fact she is levelheaded and able to conceal the pregnancy until she begins to go into labor at a ball. The narrator maintains that Fantomina “would easily have found means to have screened even this from the knowledge of the world, had she been at liberty to have acted with the same unquestionable authority over herself as she did before the coming of her mother” ( Haywood 647). At last the strict rules of convention and social expectations have finally caught up to Fantomina, not because she made a mistake but by simply being reined in by the voice of tradition and authority, her mother. Like her daughter, though, Fantomina’s mother takes on the role of head of the family as she demands that Beauplaisir marry her daughter. It is also significant that it is Fantomina’s mother and not Beauplaisir that has exposed Fantomina’s secrets and not Beauplaisir himself. Even more interesting is the refusal of Beauplaisir’s offer to “discharge it [his daughter] faithfully” by both Fantomina and her mother. Not only does this once again put the women in financial authority, it effectively cuts off any power Beauplaisir might have had. Even while living in the confines of societal expectations Fantomina and her mother remain in control of their lives.

Haywood’s story can be seen as moralistic as the heroine is punished for her misdeeds and manipulative behavior, by being sent off to a convent and being removed from the world that she is familiar with. Or it can be looked at as a woman’s journey into the male world of commerce and power while have to work within the confines of society. It is Fantomina’s ability to adapt to the public world of commerce and exchange that permitted her to get as far as she did before the inevitable crushing influence of social expectations stopped her.

Original Format



Ana Navascues, “Commerce and Gender in Fantomina,” Enlightenmens, accessed February 7, 2023,

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