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Abstract

Writers of fiction capitalize upon dress’s potential as an agent of deception, using clothing as a means through which characters control their identity to perpetuate lies. Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina; or, Love in a Maze (1725) contains this type of heroine, and the novella shows dress can provide women with power that they can find in few other arenas. This novella constructs lying and dress as potent related tools that allow the protagonist to achieve her desires by creating untruths that pass for realities. In so doing, Fantomina capitalizes upon two related phenomena: the cultural perception of women’s status as innately deceptive and the pervasive accusation that clothing hides the truth. This essay discusses how Fantomina celebrates deception by using clothing as visual rhetoric. To do so, it first sets out the popular association of dress with deception, paying particular attention to the hoop petticoat. A discussion of the ways in which Haywood’s heroine employs dress as visual rhetoric follows, establishing how Fantomina celebrates lying as a useful strategy for women.
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Joseph Addison’s Tatler 116 of January 5, 170910, places a hoop petticoat on
trial, and while the charges against it are never made explicit, the petticoat’s
enormous size seems to be the cause for which it appears before Isaac Bickerstaff.
Yet Bickerstaff does not find in favor of the petticoat. Instead, Bickerstaff
concludes this number of the Tatler by clarifying that he would have women
“bestow upon themselves all the additional Beauties that Art can supply them
with, provided it does not interfere with, Disguise, or pervert, those of Nature”
(44). At the heart of Bickerstaff’s rationale is a concern with clothing’s
relationship to truthfulness. Bickerstaff worries that the hoop strays too far from
nature or too easily allows women to fictionalize their appearance. Nor was the
Tatler the only outlet for such beliefs, with thinkers from Sir Joshua Reynolds to
Samuel Johnson presenting dress as antithetical to truth.
i
Writers of fiction capitalize upon dress’s potential as an agent of deception, using
clothing as a means through which characters control their identity to perpetuate
lies. Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina; or, Love in a Maze (1725) contains just such a
heroine, and the text suggests that, through dress, women can obtain power. The
novella constructs lying and dress as potent related implements that allow the
protagonist to fulfill her desires by creating untruths that pass for realities. In so
doing, Fantomina capitalizes upon two related phenomena: the cultural perception
of women’s status as innately deceptive and the pervasive accusation that clothing
hides the truth. Haywood’s novella harnesses the power created by these beliefs.
As a result, Fantomina presents an example of lying as useful. In this essay, I
discuss how Fantomina celebrates deception by using clothing as visual rhetoric.
To do so, I sketch out the popular association of dress with deception, paying
particular attention to the hoop petticoat, which itself was frequently associated
with deception in the eighteenth century. Then, I discuss the ways in which
Haywood’s heroine employs dress as visual rhetoric to establish how Fantomina
celebrates lying as a useful strategy for women.
Reality and deception
In early eighteenth-century Britain, the emerging genre of the novel perpetuates
the popular idea that clothing is deceptive, often depicting dress as a tool through
which a character reshapes his or her identity. If one’s “true” identity is expected
to be static, clothing’s participation in the alteration of identity aligns dress with
falsity. The idea that the novel itself participates in deceit amplifies the potential
deception conveyed by intradiegetic clothes. As Lennard Davis argues, “English
novels of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were perceived by many
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Hansen: Dress as Deceptive Visual Rhetoric
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of the middle and upper classes as immoral and illicit not only for their criminal
content but for their very enterprise of fictionalizing, inventing, forging reality,
and lying” (131).
ii
In part to counter such perceptions, many mid- to late-
eighteenth-century writers like Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney, and others
assert that fiction tells larger philosophical truths through constructed plots. But
the prevalence of deception in earlier eighteenth-century novels helps to
perpetuate the idea that the novel is a form predicated on untruth. However, what
constitutes “truth” is open to interpretation, particularly in dress. Sumptuary laws
proscribing what garments were acceptable were, by the eighteenth century, no
longer enforced, leaving individuals responsible for their own clothing selection.
This freedom of dress selection allowed individuals greater latitude in shaping the
perception of aspects of their identity like class, occupation, or religion. Clothing
could thus present a constructed identity as real, and this aligned clothing’s
function with that of fiction because both share the potential to blur distinctions
between seeming and being through the simulation of identities.
Jean Baudrillard’s ideas concerning truth and falsehood help provide a framework
through which to understand the workings of simulation. Baudrillard writes that
simulation is “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (3). In
other words, simulation can generate a lie that is accepted as truth, which then
influences or alters reality itself. The breakdown of reality is seen in the
substitution of “the signs of the real for the real” (2). When Baudrillard calls
images “murderers of the real” (5), he suggests that images are perceived as
reality itself, removing any distinction between truth and falsity. That is, images
signify reality without requiring a reality to anchor them. Although Baudrillard
writes of the twentieth century, the fear of what he outlines as the manipulation of
reality registers as a threat in period discussions of the eighteenth-century novel.
As the novel begins to solidify as a genre, it takes on the characteristics of a
“hyperreal.” The Baudrillardan hyperreal is, in essence, the non-real made to
seem real, which could also function as a loose definition of the novel.
The concept of the non-real made real is particularly pertinent to novels of the
early eighteenth century because they frequently present themselves as truth
rather than fiction. The title page of Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) provides an
example, advertising that the book is written “from her [Moll’s] own
Memorandums,” and the preface begins with the lament that “the World is so
taken up of late with Novels and Romances that it will be hard for a private
History to be taken for Genuine where the Names and other Circumstances of the
Person are concealed, and on this Account we must be content to leave the Reader
to pass his own Opinion upon the ensuing Sheets, just as he pleases” (37). While
many eighteenth-century readers may well have understood this maneuver as part
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ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830, Vol. 11 [2021], Iss. 2, Art. 6
https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/abo/vol11/iss2/6
DOI: http://doi.org/10.5038/2157-7129.11.2.1275
of the novel’s extended fictional world, such claims for a novel’s truth muddy the
distinction between reality and fiction. Defoe’s preface, presented in the guise of
the editor of Moll’s memoirs, solidifies the link between clothing, writing, and
deception by asserting “the Pen employ’d in finishing her Story, and making it
what you now see it to be, has had no little difficulty to put it into a Dress fit to be
seen” (37).
iii
In this metaphor, words and dress share a glittering surface that can
obscure something deeper beneath: an idea, an identity. Defoe’s metaphor might
at first appear merely to uphold the assumed connection between words and dress
that Alexander Pope had perpetuated when he wrote True Wit is Nature to
Advantage drest” (l. 297). But Defoe’s metaphor here also denies the female
protagonist exclusive control over her own story. Though the editorial persona is
not explicitly named, Defoe’s name on the title pages of modern editions creates
the sense that he is Moll’s editor. The conceit that an editor exists and admits to
making changes in Moll’s linguistic “dress” takes the ability to employ authorial
power away from Moll.
In contrast, Haywood’s protagonist in Fantomina exercises total control over her
dress, and by extension, her story. Critics have noted the sartorial power evident
in the novella. For instance, Juliette Merritt argues that Haywood reverses the
expected power structure of the gaze, “subjecting her male characters to scrutiny”
and thereby objectifying them, “creating for her female readers a critical position
to occupy” (49). The heroine reworks the visual order, and Merritt provides a
listing of the heroine’s tools in this process: “Disguise, secresy, private and public
identities, are all involved in Fantomina’s manipulation of the scopic world” (51).
Yet, while Merritt is interested in the power involved in directing the gaze, she is
less interested in dress’s role as shaping the perception of the object of that gaze.
Ros Ballaster also demonstrates great interest in the power dynamics inherent in
the novella, suggesting “that in this early fiction, Haywood glimpses a means of
empowering the female within amatory conflict, of making her a weaver and
dilator of her own amatory plot, through the elaboration of a familiar concept-
metaphor of the early eighteenth century, that of the masquerade” (179). For
Ballaster, clothing is merely costume, a “concept-metaphor” (179) rather than a
literal object. Ballaster emphasizes the power of textiles, using a cloth metaphor
by indicating that Haywood’s heroines are “weavers” of plots. However, she does
not explore further this text/textile metaphorical alignment.
iv
Instead, she points to
the novella’s emphasis on fiction’s power, conceding “[u]nrealistic though
Haywood’s fictional romance world is, it constantly reinscribes the ‘truth’ of
women’s oppression at the hands of men, and seeks to compensate them with the
pleasures of fiction” (195). Here, however, my argument differs from Ballaster’s
in two key ways: Ballaster focuses on the pleasures that women, not men, receive
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from fiction, and Ballaster describes Fantomina as evoking a larger truth, while I
present an opposing claim that the novella celebrates deception.
My argument’s focus on lying also differs from that of critics who have linked the
masquerade topos in the novella to the idea of the expression of societal truths.
Catherine A. Craft views clothing in Fantomina as an extension of the
masquerade phenomenon that allows women to exert control over themselves,
writing that the protagonist’s “masquerade, rather than a submission to the
dominant moral and social codes, is a resistance to them” (830). Craft mentions
this theme in service to the novella’s emphasis on women-authored narrative:
“While Fantomina’s tale is a fantasy of female freedom, more realistic stories are
embodied through the characters of her disguises” (830). As with Ballaster’s
argument, the focus here homes in on the novella’s realism or correspondence to
some kind of truth rather than on its endorsement of lying. Ashley Tauchert also
contributes to the discussion of the novella’s invocation of the masquerade motif,
asking “what—if anythinglies behind the masquerade?” (475). Like the others,
she construes clothing as a surface to be cast aside to find a true meaning
underneath it.
Dress as visual rhetoric
I argue, however, that, in Fantomina, dress functions as an avowed but covert
deception, which differs from functioning as costume. The masquerade topos
deeply involves the concept of costume, or garments that are implicitly
acknowledged not to reveal their wearer’s actual identity. Yet in Fantomina, the
heroine presents her clothing as actual day-to-day wear rather than as costumes.
Despite the fact that the protagonist’s garments do not actually correspond to her
real identity, her clothing takes power from viewers’ acceptance of it as real rather
than as fiction.
Dress is also powerful precisely because of dress’s frequently lamented status as
frivolous. Despite fears that clothing misleads, as Isaac Bickerstaff voices in
Tatler 116, its accepted province as a woman’s preoccupation tends to make dress
register as beneath the notice of the rational and practical, especially the rational
and practical man. While this is a gambit seemingly constructed to deny clothing
the extraordinary power that critics cannot seem to help but admit that it
possesses, it nonetheless works to construct clothing as a feminine pursuit. Erin
Mackie has explained that “as a feminine concern, fashion has been denigrated as
trivial and inauthentic, even as it is feared as a dangerous realm of female power”
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ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830, Vol. 11 [2021], Iss. 2, Art. 6
https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/abo/vol11/iss2/6
DOI: http://doi.org/10.5038/2157-7129.11.2.1275
(xii). Dress becomes an easy way to lie because of its popular association with
frivolity and insignificance and, simultaneously, because of its perceived function
as a true broadcaster of its wearer’s identity. Dror Wahrman discusses “the
possible literalness with which dress was taken to make identity, rather than
merely to signify its anterior existence” (17778). Wahrman writes of clothing as
an artifact of history rather than as a component in fiction, but this helps to
explain why dress can aid fictional characters in creating alternate identities. The
referential truth of dress is generally trusted in the early eighteenth century, and
this assumed truth makes dress a powerful element in Fantomina’s protagonist’s
construction of narratives. By reading dress as visual rhetoric, the novella’s
endorsement of lying as a successful strategy becomes clear.
A brief overview of visual rhetoric will help scaffold my analysis. Sonja K. Foss
explains visual rhetoric as constructing the “visual object as a communicative
artifact” (145). For an object to quality as visual rhetoric, it must satisfy three
criteria: it “must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an
audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience” (144). In
Fantomina, the heroine fulfills one of Foss’s criteria by resolving to indulge her
curiosity. A “little Whim” comes to her “to dress herself as near as she cou’d in
the Fashion of those Women who make sale of their Favours” (Haywood 42). To
clarify the human interaction criterion, Foss explains, “trees are not inherently
visual rhetoric. They become so only when human beings decide to use them as
rhetoric, as when they are brought into homes to symbolize the Christmas
holiday” (144). In dressing herself as a prostitute, the heroine uses clothing not as
protection from the elements but as an implicit non-verbal statement that she is a
member of the sex work force. Further, she does so with the intention to
communicate this information to those in attendance at the theater, fulfilling
another of the criteria of visual rhetoric. When serving as visual rhetoric, visual
elements are arranged and modified by a rhetor not simply for self-expression
although that may constitute a major motive for the creator of an imagebut also
for communication with an audience” (144). The heroine’s communication is
successful, and she finds herself surrounded by a crowd of men as soon as she
enters a gallery at a theatre. The narrator emphasizes the communicative role of
dress in explaining that the protagonist “found her Disguise had answered the
ends she wore it for” (Haywood 42). Several men, including one named
Beauplaisir, recognize a “mighty” resemblance between the prostitute and Lady
Such-a-One (42), as the narrator refers to the nameless heroine, yet the narrator
explains that “the vast Disparity there appear’d between their Characters,
prevented [Beauplaisir] from entertaining even the most distant Thought that they
could be the same” (4243). The social disparity between what Beauplaisir
believes to be two women dictates Beauplaisir’s behavior. This indicates the
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heroine’s ability to manipulate clothing as a lieher dress labels her a prostitute,
even though she is in actuality an aristocratso as to effect real results.
Beauplaisir discourses with her in a freer manner than he would with a
gentlewoman, allowing the fiction of the heroine’s dress to create a reality that
she could not experience in her “true” identity. Sartorial lying allows the heroine
to experience an exhilarating freedom.
Here, clothing conveys an idea more concretely than does even Beauplaisir’s
faculty of vision, which suggests the power that visual rhetoric can wield. Despite
seeing an amazing “resemblance” (42) between the heroine and the fine lady,
Beauplaisir completely trusts the message transmitted by the clothing. The
heroine succeeds in creating a hyperreal, because the false prostitute persona
registers to Beauplaisir as true. There is no such self as the prostitute to whom he
believes he speaks, yet to him, her prostitute identity is very much a part of
reality. When Beauplaisir resolves not to part without engaging her services, the
heroine realizes that she has trapped herself within the lie that she has created.
The heroine admits to donning her prostitute guise as a whim but, to avoid
revealing her actual selfhood, claims to be a country gentleman’s daughter in
town to buy clothes. Fantomina’s heroine uses the common cultural association of
women with dress to her advantage and finds that, again, clothing provides her
with a powerful tool. In her shopping explanation, the heroine subtly conveys the
idea that she is largely alone and thus less likely to entangle Beauplaisir in a knot
of angry relatives anxious to defend her virtue. Because much of the purchasing
transacted by fashionable country dwellers took place as long-distance orders
rather than as purchases conducted in person in London, the heroine’s constructed
arrival in town to shop hints that she has no relative knowledgeable enough to
transact business for her at a distance.
v
She relies on the power of dress in not
only its material form, but as a conceptual element referenced in her verbal
narratives as well, which suggests that she places a great deal of confidence in
dress’s ability to afford plausibility to her simulations.
When Beauplaisir’s interest wanes in “Fantomina,” the name that the heroine
gives her country-gentleman’s-daughter persona, she revives his interest by
dressing herself as “Celia,” a maid at an inn. But once more, Beauplaisir’s interest
fades after consummation. In the heroine’s next identity, she reinforces the
commonplace method of reading an individual’s clothing to ascertain identity.
Here, although the narrator mentions that the heroine wears mourning clothes, the
narrator provides no details of the clothing: “The Dress she had order’d to be
made, was such as Widows wear in their first Mourning” (5354). This indicates
that the narrative suggested by the mere category of mourning dress is sufficient
for the heroine’s purpose. This, too, helps establish the protagonist’s clothing as
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visual rhetoric in fulfilling the criteria of symbolic action. To be considered visual
rhetoric, an object “must go beyond serving as a sign . . . and be symbolic,” with
the object being only “indirectly connected to its referent” (Foss 144). Mourning
clothing has no direct connection to widowhood, only a symbolic one. This can be
seen in the fact that many cultures use clothing of a different color to indicate a
state of grieving the dead, so while Western culture might correlate black clothing
with mourning, it is symbolic rather than inherent.
vi
The symbolic nature of
mourning dress gives further proof that the heroine’s clothing functions as visual
rhetoric.
The last disguise that the heroine effects complicates her usage of rhetoric,
because she heightens Beauplaisir’s desire by selectively withholding
information. This time, the heroine’s behavior raises in Beauplaisir a greater
desire for story than for sex. She calls herself “Incognita” and writes a letter
inviting Beauplaisir to participate in a sexual liaison. But the letter contains no
information regarding the heroine’s identity, commanding, “endeavour not to dive
into the Meaning of this Mystery, which will be impossible for you to unravel”
(Haywood 63). While the letter showcases verbal skill, it also undermines the
importance of verbal elements to indicate identity. The protagonist writes of her
refusal “to fill up my letter with any impertinent Praises on your Wit or Person,”
and says that she “need not go about to raise your Curiosity, by giving you any
idea of what my Person is” (63). The heroine’s letter hides more than it reveals.
Here, she casts aside the need to lie actively and, instead, deceives simply by
withholding her identity. As “Incognita,” the heroine wears a mask and refuses to
allow Beauplaisir to see her face. Instead, “she dress’d herself in as magnificent a
Manner, as if she were to be that Night at a Ball at Court, endeavoring to repair
the want of those Beauties which the Vizard should conceal, by setting forth the
others with the Greatest Care and Exactness” (65). Her care in dressing splendidly
only incites Beauplaisir to wish more passionately to see what she conceals. Much
as her letter teases him with verbal withholdings, the heroine’s “Incognita”
appearance teases him with sartorial withholdings.
The heroine’s clothing is a sort of blank screen upon which Beauplaisir can
project any desire, inviting him to create whatever fantasy identity for his partner
that he wishes. Yet Beauplaisir demonstrates no interest in creating a fantasy of
his own, and is in fact upset that he is called upon to actively fantasize; instead, he
prefers his amorous narratives to come to him fully formed. The heroine revels in
creating deceptions, but Beauplaisir is happiest when he is fooled by a narrative
and can passively accept it. The protagonist admits that her persona is a hyperreal,
making no attempt to simulate a realistic identity. “Incognita” is an overtly
fictional disguise and is enjoyable to the heroine because of its exaggerated
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fictionality and the power that deception provides her. Emily Hodgson Anderson
reads the heroine’s mask in this encounter as emphasizing truth because it is
“representative of the performance that allows her to articulate her genuine
desires” (7). However, if the clothes that the heroine wears in this encounter are
read as visual narrative, they must be seen to communicate with an audience.
Because masks are unlikely to communicate the state of being genuine, I argue
that the heroine’s mask emphasizes deception to Beauplaisir. The narrator attests
to the pleasure brought about by this last false identity, asserting that “if there be
any true Felicity in an Amour such as theirs, both here enjoy’d it to the full”
(Haywood 65). This suggests that, for the heroine’s goal of sexual pleasure, the
withholding of narrative succeeds, and it also cements her power over
Beauplaisir.
vii
Yet this encounter demonstrates that Beauplaisir wants new fictions
as much or more than he wants sexual gratification: he is so angered when denied
a fully formed narrative that he swears never to return to the heroine. The
heroine’s simulations thus secure both sexual enjoyment and a feeling of mastery
over Beauplaisir for her.
I use the Baudrillardan term simulations purposefully. Baudrillard’s language in
defining simulation conveys danger when he writes that simulation “threatens” (3)
the distinction between truth and falsity. Particularly in narratives of the early
eighteenth century, this is a very real danger. The exaggeratedly titillating story of
the narrative demonstrates what is at stake with the permeability of fiction and
reality: women might not only indulge their own sexual desires outside the
bounds of male control, but they may also gain the upper hand over men by
deceiving them. This insult to male pride, knowledge, and power is threatening
partially because it destabilizes the assumption that all women desire marriage
and domesticity. Yet Fantomina’s heroine instead demonstrates only the desire
for sex without recrimination and for power over Beauplaisir. Tauchert questions
the heroine’s enjoyment, asking “Does Fantomina really achieve sexual pleasure
in Beauplaisir’s repeated rapes?” (47778). Yet the heroine repeatedly constructs
elaborate scenarios within which to bring Beauplaisir back into contact with her,
and since she knows that his interest evaporates after a short period of sexual
enjoyment of a woman, she disguises herself. This suggests that she does
experience some fulfillment of desire, though not necessarily only sexual
fulfillment; arguably, the greater draw for the heroine is the enjoyment in
deceiving Beauplaisir.
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Clothing’s Power as Visual Rhetoric
Part of what allows the heroine to continue her adventures is that her careful
planning and her well-hidden identity render her in control of her own reputation
until the novella’s end. The narrator repeatedly emphasizes the distinction
between the reality of a woman’s virtue and the appearance of a woman’s
reputation. The heroine’s worries center more on “the Danger of being expos’d,
and the whole Affair made a Theme for publick Ridicule” than on the loss of her
virginity (Haywood 46). The divide between virtue and reputation replicates the
divide between reality and falsity because, as long as the protagonist can maintain
the false semblance of virtue, she ceases to worry about the loss of her virtue in
reality. Though she initially considers arranging her affairs so as not to run “any
Risque, either of her virtue or her reputation” (45), she comes to think exclusively
in terms of the preservation of her reputation. The narrator soon adds that the
heroine “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 (49). When the heroine worries about the possibility of Beauplaisir’s
abandoning her, she comforts herself:
And if he should be false, grow satiated, like other Men, I shall
but, at the worst, have the private Vexation of knowing I have lost
him;and the Intrigue being a Secret, my Disgrace will be so too .
. . it will not be even in the Power of my Undoer himself to
triumph over me; and while he laughs at, and perhaps despises the
fond, the yielding Fantomina, he will revere and esteem the
virtuous, the reserved Lady. (49)
The “Lady” must live in a world that, despite all of her money and station, renders
her powerless to satisfy her desires. But she takes advantage of the world of
fashion to generate a narrative that affords her enjoyment (of desire, or power),
making use of the tools that a woman has at her disposal. The narrator explains
that Beauplaisir sees the heroine in “Slippers, and a Night-Gown loosely flowing”
during the day, but does not recognize the same women when he sees her at night
“Laced, and adorned with all the Blaze of Jewels” (50). Clothing delineates
difference in identity so clearly that it provides Fantomina’s protagonist with the
means through which to script affairs with Beauplaisir without the fear of losing
her reputation. As Merritt has explained, “[b]y creating an alternate self,
specifically, one whose sexual role is visibly clear, Fantomina satisfies the
impulses of private (sexual) life and the demands of public reputation” (51). In
Baudrillard’s terms, the simulation of the heroine’s virtue is more real than her
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actual sexual activity, and correspondingly, the façade of her reputation becomes
a hyperreal. The protagonist’s shift from terror at losing her virginity to happiness
at preserving her reputation functions as perhaps the text’s most dangerous threat
to the divide between reality and deception. The specter of a woman taking
control of her own sexuality, especially a woman of high social rank like
Haywood’s heroine, threatens the social order. Her skill in dress allows her to
hide this threat: “By eating little, lacing prodigiously strait, and the Advantage of
a great Hoop-Petticoat, however, her Bigness was not taken Notice of” (68).
Clothing serves as the avowed deception that allows her to control the pregnancy
that is the consequence of her sexual activity, and the narrator’s use of passive
voice “her Bigness was not taken Notice of” suggests that the heroine has
hidden the pregnancy from everyone who has seen her.
Because the protagonist carefully maintains the deception that her virtue is intact
for most of the novella, she uses visual rhetoric to defend the proposition of her
good reputation. The novella’s narrator emphasizes the power of visual rhetoric.
In the Widow Bloomer story, the narratorial voice intrudes, interrupting the
narration of a sexual encounter to defend the novella’s premise of a repeatedly
fooled hero. The content of the narrator’s intrusion demonstrates the power of
visual rhetoric to register as truth. “It may, perhaps, seem strange that Beauplaisir
should in such near Intimacies continue still deceiv’d: I know there are Men who
will swear it is an Impossibility” (57), the narrator begins. The narrator’s defense
of Beauplaisir begins with highlighting the “Alteration which the Change of Dress
made” in the heroine’s appearance, and ends the defense with the power of verbal
lies to shape reality: Beauplaisir, “being told by [‘Widow Bloomer’], that from
her Birth, she had never remov’d from Bristol, . . . he rejected the Belief of having
seen her, and suppos’d his Mind had been deluded by an Idea of some other,
whom she might have a Resemblance of” (57). The “near Intimacies” to which
the narrator refers imply the heroine’s lack of dress. Anne Hollander argues that
the perception of nudity is “dependent on a sense of clothing” (xiii), or in other
words, that the perception of dress affects the perception of the naked body. Even
though Beauplaisir makes love to the same body, he does not perceive it as the
same because, in each encounter, the heroine’s clothing (even in its absence)
dictates how Beauplaisir senses her body. Beauplaisir reads the protagonist’s
body as an extension of the “texts” that she creates with her clothing. The
protagonist thereby safeguards her reputation with clothing because her dress
makes Beauplaisir believe that he engages with multiple different bodies.
However, the heroine eventually must negotiate what her body insistently and
increasingly reveals: her pregnancy.
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By writing of the heroine’s pregnancy, Haywood ends the novella with the
creation of a reality that the heroine cannot easily reshape. Yet even pregnancy is
a happenstance that her visual rhetoric skills might have allowed her to keep
hidden if she had remained steadfastly in control of her identities. The narrator
asserts that the heroine would easily have hidden her pregnancy “had she been at
liberty to have acted with the same unquestionable Authority over herself as she
did before the coming of her Mother” (68) and provides the heroine’s sartorial
strategy for dealing with this inconvenience. Despite her forced relinquishing of
power, the heroine controls what she can of her situation through strategic use of
clothing: tight-laced bodices give her torso a slender appearance and her hoop
petticoat disguises her growing belly. The heroine is so successful at manipulating
others’ perception of the truth of her virginity that her mother thinks her child is
“struck with the Hand of Death” (69) until the doctor informs her of her
daughter’s actual condition. The heroine’s dress successfully shapes her mother’s
perception of truth, and, because Haywood’s narrator describes the heroine’s
mother as a woman of “Penetration” (68), the heroine’s power of manipulating
truth must be formidable. Haywood here hints at the possibility that the
protagonist might have succeeded in controlling her reputation and sexual
activities indefinitely because clothing allows her a measure of control that, had
her child not arrived early, she might have maintained. This narrative possibility
relies largely on the cultural capital of the hoop petticoat, the very item of dress
on which Isaac Bickerstaff passed judgment as an emblem of female duplicity.
As Tatler 116’s trial suggests, Fantomina’s mere mention of a hoop petticoat
invokes feminine deception. Critics of the hoop point to its unnatural changing of
a woman’s shape to characterize it as the means for feminine duplicity. Erin
Mackie explains that the hoop petticoat was, in the eighteenth century,
“[i]dentified with the feminine, most specifically with female reproduction, with
the excessive and the fantastic, with the most uncurbed onslaught of fashion’s
flood” (107). The popularity of the hoop helps it to function as an implement of
female power: because so many women wore hoops, it became impossible to
simply define the hoop as an attempt to hide pregnancy. Yet because of its
widespread popularity, women who were pregnant could often hide their secret
under the billow of a hoop. Kimberly Chrisman explains the hoop’s cultural
impact: “whether the hoop concealed or simply mimicked pregnancy, it created a
false, undesirable appearance and was therefore immoral” (21). Concealing a
pregnancy is the most feared function of the hoop, as Tatler 116 demonstrates.
When both the hoop and its wearer have difficulty entering Bickerstaff’s house,
he “desired the Jury of Matrons, who stood at my Right Hand, to inform
themselves of her Condition, and know whether there were any private Reasons
why she might not make her Appearance separate from her Petticoat” (41).
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Addison invokes the jury of women who determined whether a woman was truly
pregnant when she claimed pregnancy to delay a sentence of death. With a hoop’s
aid, simulated innocence can pass freely for real innocence, allowing women to
put into play the substitution of “the signs of the real for the real” (Baudrillard 2).
The use of a hoop by Fantomina’s heroine succeeds, at least temporarily, in
visually conveying the story of the heroine’s continued virginity that renders
pregnancy a narrative impossibility. When she wears a hoop, the heroine wears
clothing that functions explicitly as a deception.
Because women were thought to use the hoop as a way of changing men’s
perceptions of reality, critics perceived the hoop to be a threat to men’s
dominance over women. Complaints about hoops “focused on the disjunction
they created between reality and appearances” (Crowston 52), allowing them to
serve particularly effectively as instruments of Baudrillardan simulation. The
hoop made many viewers anxious that they could not observe clear visual links
between appearance and women’s “true” selves, and women seemed to enjoy the
power that this allowed them. The hoop helps to perpetuate what critics saw as
“an utterly female domain, where rational men could have no say” (Crowston 54).
The protagonist of Fantomina is what critics of the hoop petticoats most fear: a
hoop-wearer who deceives others regarding her virginity.
viii
The hoop is integral
to the heroine’s narrative of a sterling reputation because the hoop “is at odds with
a conception of woman’s body as ‘natural,’ as unconstructed, and it is hostile to
the masculine desire that assumes unchallenged control of this body” (Mackie
135). The hoop threatens because it can make women authors of false personae
and, therefore, authors of their own identities.
Conclusion
Though the heroine’s body ultimately undermines her control, her deceptions
repeatedly succeed in allowing her to maintain control over Beauplaisir. In fact, at
the novella’s end, Beauplaisir provides evidence of the success of the heroine’s
skill because he can scarcely believe “that he should have been blinded so often
by her Artifices” (70). In highlighting Beauplaisir’s “blindness,” Haywood’s
narrator invokes an irony: because Beauplaisir trusted what he saw in the
heroine’s visual rhetoric, he allowed himself to be “blind” to truth. The narrator
even praises the heroine by admitting that “it must be confessed, indeed, that she
preserved an Œconomy in the management of this intreague, beyond what almost
any Woman but herself ever did: In the first Place, by making no Person in the
World a Confident in it; and in the next, by concealing from Beauplaisir the
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Knowledge who she was” (4950). This tribute emphasizes the protagonist’s
cleverness and organization.
ix
The praise that ends the novella emphasizes the
heroine’s use of “variety” or imaginative innovation: “thus ended an Intreague,
which, considering the time it lasted, was as full of Variety as any, perhaps, that
many Ages has produced” (71). These skills lauded by Haywood’s narrator are
the very skills necessary for the construction of rhetoric. Further, since the
protagonist’s rhetoric is so often visual, Haywood implicitly advocates visual
rhetorical skills as effective tools for women in a way that embraces and validates
deception. If women use both narrative and sartorial deceptions to further their
own ends, as does Haywood’s heroine in Fantomina, men will not know that a
simulation is not real and will, therefore, incorporate the female-created
hyperrealities into reality. When this transpires, women have used the tools at
their disposal to exert power over their identities and reputations without the men
in their lives knowing. Fantomina thus illustrates that clothing is a singularly
effective tool for women’s creation of simulations and exercise of power over
men.
Setting a tone about the dangers of fiction that would color popular ideas about
the novel, Richard Allestree wrote in 1673 that the “amorous passions” which it is
the business of fiction to depict “to the utmost life, are apt to insinuate themselves
into their unwary readers, and by an unhappy inversion, a copy shall produce an
original” (12). As this Baudrillardan idea that a “copy” might “produce an
original” suggests, many moralists worried that fiction was simply an increasingly
popular form of acceptance of lies, presenting pernicious untruths that readers
were likely to accept as truth and subsequently reproduce in their real lives.
Popular fashions were analogous to lies in this respect, as the example of the hoop
petticoat demonstrates. Fantomina presents a heroine who uses sartorial
deceptions to gain her own ends, much the sort of behavior that someone like
Allestree would fear. But while Haywood’s heroine initially satisfies her sexual
desires through her clothing changes, she soon finds herself enchanted with
creating her many lies for Beauplaisir. The heroine even fools herself with one of
her lies. When she envisions the way in which her wearing the clothing of a
prostitute would afford her enjoyment, the heroine initially imagines “a world of
Satisfaction to herself in . . . observing the Surprise that [Beauplaisir] would be in
to find himself refused by a Woman, who he supposed granted her Favours
without Exception” (44). This is, of course, not what transpires. The heroine later
exults in her power over Beauplaisir, telling herself that she has “outwitted even
the most Subtle of the deceiving kind, and while he thinks to fool [her], is himself
the only beguiled Person” (44). As much as she might enjoy the sexual
component of her stratagems, she takes equal, or perhaps greater, pride in her
ability to perpetuate successful lies. Creating these deceptions seduces not only
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Beauplaisir and the text’s readers, but the heroine herself. The heroine’s skill in
creating hyperreal identities allows her a satisfaction much like that which an
author experiences in creating realistic enough worlds for readers to believe.
Fantomina perpetuates a parallel between the manipulation of dress and the
authorship of narratives that challenges ideas like those mentioned in Tatler 116.
Specifically, Fantomina challenges the idea that women should be barred from
deciding what are the “Proper Ornaments of the Fair Sex” (Addison 44), and it
challenges the notion that deception is a negative force. When Isaac Bickerstaff
complains about anything that “interfere[s] with, Disguise[s], or pervert[s] those
of Nature” (44), a fictitious persona expresses the opinion that dress should not be
deceptive. Yet the deceptions in which Fantomina’s heroine engages are bids for
freedom that she is denied without the constructed personae she achieves through
dress. However, the novella problematizes any simple readings of deception as
unilaterally empowering for women. For one thing, the protagonist enjoys an
almost impossibly unsupervised existence through much of the narrative. The
novella’s ending also forces the heroine to do the one thing that she endeavored to
avoid: reveal her actual name and identity to Beauplaisir. Yet the heroine and, by
extension, Haywood each maintain a perverse control over the reader in
withholding the protagonist’s name. Beauplaisir learns “Fantomina’s” identity,
but readers never do. Readers only know of her high social station, a necessity of
the protagonist’s costly plans. This is a limitation that bars most women from very
closely replicating the heroine’s escapades and clearly establishes the tale as a
fantasy. Haywood’s narrator honors her heroine’s disguise work by withholding
the heroine’s name from readers.
x
This suggestively implies that the identitarian
possibilities inherent in clothing are immensely powerful, even if readers could
not hope to copy the protagonist’s specific adventures. When Beauplaisir does
learn of the protagonist’s “true” identity, this ending reminds readers that women
suffer under different constraints than do men, and any woman who engages in
the creation of narrative must remain aware of this. Anonymity cannot be
guaranteed. Yet Haywood’s narrative suggests that fluidity of identity can be
immensely enjoyable for women since she shows how the heroine’s employment
of simulations allows her enjoyment and power over Beauplaisir as well as, for
most of the novella, over others’ perception of her reputation. The novella also
provides a strong caution in the form of its heroine’s punishment, though her
banishment to a nunnery can be read as an opportunity to experiment with
constructing more identities away from her watchful mother.
xi
The work of dress in the plot of Fantomina succeeds in large part due to its
widely accepted truthfulness as a visual fiction. The heroine uses it to construct
herself as a series of copies, or false identities, that produce originals, or personae
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that Beauplaisir perceives as true. In so doing, however fantastically, the heroine’s
exploits suggest that dress can allow women outside of fictive worlds the power
to alter their realities. The key to this possibility is the double valence of dress. As
Isaac Bickerstaff’s mention of a jury of matrons in the trial of a hoop petticoat
demonstrates, dress is widely perceived as an agent of deception. But dress
simultaneously is denigrated as an unimportant and frivolous female interest, so
its ability to deceive is strengthened because it is culturally constructed to be
beneath the notice of men. This paradox creates a space in which dress can
deceive successfully.
What this means is that, in Fantomina, dress emphasizes and even celebrates
deception as a powerful visual rhetorical tool for women. The embracing of
sartorial deception helps to shape the novel itself into something that critics label
as dishonest. However, women’s mercurial changeability, expressed through their
dexterity with lies as well as fashions, threatens to collapse distinctions between
reality and fiction. Thus, dress mirrors the functions and the dangers of the novel
since they both are believed to reveal truth as well as perpetuate lies. Early
eighteenth-century texts like Fantomina strongly tie together the ideas of
women’s inborn deception, the early novel as a lie, and fashion’s status as
duplicity. In so doing, they leave later writers little choice but to scapegoat
fashion to rescue women and the novel from accusations of falsity. As suggested
by Isaac Bickerstaff’s warning that women’s employment of art and nature must
be regulated, dress’s ability to function as woman-controlled visual rhetoric
jeopardizes the borders separating reality from fiction.
i
Reynolds demonstrates the view of dress as tantamount to falsity when he uses a dress metaphor
to argue for the superiority of classical artists, since “the modern artist, before he can see the truth
of things, is obliged to remove a veil, with which the fashion of the times has thought proper to
cover her” (14). Johnson similarly testifies to the connection between clothing, lies, and fiction:
“The Muses wove in the loom of Pallas, a loose and changeable robe, like that in which Falsehood
captivated her admirers; with this they invested Truth, and name her Fiction” (qtd. in Spacks 1).
ii
For more discussion of the anxiety caused by the idea that written accounts might be false, see
Loveman.
iii
Moll also uses dress to lie, wearing garments of higher status than her own and even dressing as
a man to steal without her identity being detected.
iv
The word text derives from texere, the Latin verb for “to weave” (Miller 8). The OED provides a
rare definition for text as “texture, tissue” from the Latin textus, meaning “tissue,” furthering the
etymological link between text and textile (“text, n.2”).
v
Sending a shopping list with a relative who travelled to London was not uncommon among
ladies who lived in the provinces, so if the Fantomina persona has no one to do this for her, a
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reasonable assumption is that the heroine has few to no relatives or female guardians. For a
detailed examination of the shopping patterns of a country gentlewoman, see Berry 13155.
vi
Even in the West, mourning clothes have included red or gray clothing as well as black; see
Bedikian.
vii
Catherine Craft-Fairchild argues that the Incognita disguise is the heroine’s least successful:
“This nameless guise, however, in which Fantomina endeavors to say almost nothing about
herself, is paradoxically the least successful because in it there is some slippage: Fantomina here
comes closest to revealing to Beauplaisir that her semblance of womanly weakness is just that, a
semblanceher femininity is a masquerade” (66). As an acknowledged deception, the Incognita
disguise does indeed work differently from the heroine’s other personae, but as a tool through
which the heroine achieves sexual pleasure, Haywood’s narrator indicates that it is the most
successful.
viii
One example of such criticism is the anonymous poem The Origin of the Whale Bone-
petticoat. Defining hoop petticoats as mechanisms intended to deceive men, the poem connects
women with deception; the hoop is an exclusively feminine fashion, and one that employs artifice
to mislead, or “bubble,” men into providing women with sexual “Joys.” “Thus I have shewn”
writes the anonymous poet, “That Whale bone-petticoats they had their Rise, / To hide a filthy
Strumpet’s foul Disease” (p. 6). The poem presents the hoop as a cover for truth, exhorting
“Innocents” to “dislodge, and shew / They’re whole, they’re safe and sound: and if they do / The
Whale-bone-petticoats will tell who’s who (p. 8).
ix
This praise also provides practical advice as to how other women might duplicate the
protagonist’s success. The heroine speaks didactically when, after enunciating some of her
strategies, she exclaims “O that all neglected Wives, and fond abandon’d Nymphs would take this
Method!Men would be caught in their own Snare, and have no Cause to scorn our easy,
weeping, wailing Sex!” (65). As Merritt argues, “Haywood’s writing demonstrates a sustained
exposé of the conditions of female existence; to read her is to witness an analysis of those
conditions and a set of strategies through which women can enhance their social power” (22).
Fantomina gains further strength as a set of amatory strategies when placed in the context of some
of Haywood’s oeuvre, which includes such overt conduct literature as A Present for a Servant-
Maid (1743), The Wife (1755), The Husband (1756), and The Young Lady (1756).
x
I have perpetuated this namelessness by choosing to refer to the heroine as “the heroine” or
“the protagonist” rather than refer to her by the name of the novella, which is the name of just one
of her fictional personae. The frequent confusion of critics who conflate the heroine and her first
persona echoes the difficulty that Beauplaisir experiences in separating reality from fiction.
xi
Rivka Swenson reads the ending of the novella as subversive, noting that the nunnery
“would seem to denote reformation, if it were not for the material realities and cant connotations
attached to ‘abbess’ and ‘monastery’” (38).
16
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DOI: http://doi.org/10.5038/2157-7129.11.2.1275
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18
ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830, Vol. 11 [2021], Iss. 2, Art. 6
https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/abo/vol11/iss2/6
DOI: http://doi.org/10.5038/2157-7129.11.2.1275
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02 Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a radical change occurred in notions of self and personal identity. This was a sudden transformation, says Dror Wahrman, and nothing short of a revolution in the understanding of selfhood and of identity categories including race, gender, and class. In this pathbreaking book, he offers a fundamentally new interpretation of this critical turning point in Western history. Wahrman demonstrates this transformation with a fascinating variety of cultural evidence from eighteenth-century England, from theater to beekeeping, fashion to philosophy, art to travel and translations of the classics. He discusses notions of self in the earlier 1700s-what he terms the ancien regime of identity-that seem bizarre, even incomprehensible, to present-day readers. He then examines how this peculiar world came to an abrupt end, and the far-reaching consequences of that change. This unrecognized cultural revolution, the author argues, set the scene for the array of new departures that signaled the onset of Western modernity. Dror Wahrman is associate professor of history at Indiana University (Bloomington). Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a radical change occurred in notions of self and personal identity. This was a sudden transformation, says Dror Wahrman, and nothing short of a revolution in the understanding of selfhood and of identity categories including race, gender, and class. In this pathbreaking book, he offers a fundamentally new interpretation of this critical turning point in Western history. Wahrman demonstrates this transformation with a fascinating variety of cultural evidence from eighteenth-century England, from theater to beekeeping, fashion to philosophy, art to travel and translations of the classics. He discusses notions of self in the earlier 1700s-what he terms the ancien regime of identity-that seem bizarre, even incomprehensible, to present-day readers. He then examines how this peculiar world came to an abrupt end, and the far-reaching consequences of that change. This unrecognized cultural revolution, the author argues, set the scene for the array of new departures that signaled the onset of Western modernity. Dror Wahrman is associate professor of history at Indiana University (Bloomington).