Masquerades were prominent cultural phenomena in eighteenth-century England. After the first public masquerade was introduced to London at the Haymarket by the Swiss “Count” Heidegger from Italy (where it evolved from the carnival), the masked assembly became an immensely popular form of public entertainment in England in the 1720s and 1730s, often attracting huge crowds of costumed attendants. According to Terry Castle, the masquerade celebrated a licensed world of the world turned upside down, similar to Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of carnivalesque (6). The masquerade represented a kind of festive disorder in which the very principles of normal sexual, social, and metaphysical hierarchies were challenged. Disguises allowed the lower class to participate in the masked assemblies, while respectable women of the middle and upper classes enjoyed a certain freedom under the protection of the anonymity of the mask and costume, as the masquerade was the second place (after the church) where women were free to attend unescorted.
Of course, the new sexual freedom offered to women by this new entertainment provoked anti-masquerade sentiments. Castle notes that much of the fear the masquerade generated was related to the belief that it encouraged female sexual freedom and promiscuity generally (33). Many anti-masquerade writers equated the respectable women with the prostitutes who attended such masked assemblies, implying that the former came solely to satisfy sexual desires and were thus no better than the prostitutes themselves. For example, Alexander Pope, William Hogarth, and Henry Fielding viewed the masquerades as dangerous, as quintessential scenes of license and corruption that emblematized the decline of English morals.
Given the predominance of the masquerade as the popular entertainment in the early part of eighteenth-century England, it is no surprise that the masquerade appears as a commonplace topos in contemporary fiction. Both written in 1724, Eliza Haywood’s
This paper seeks to examine the fictional representations of masquerade in both
In order to approach the theme of the female masquerade in
For Laura Mulvey and other feminist film theories, the gaze is always male, and it is this male gaze with which the spectator, whether female or male, is made to identify. Other feminist film theorists, such as Mary Ann Doane, have tried to challenge this masculine structure of the look, which objectifies the female by making it no more than the locus of scopophilic pleasure. In “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Doane argues:
Doane contends that the masquerade can subvert predominantly masculine voyeurism by intentionally setting up a distance between the self and the deliberately constructed image. By knowingly feigning a female role and refocusing the male gaze upon a manufactured identity, the female masquerade can destabilize the male gaze. The woman is, thus, able to exploit and manipulate, for her own pleasure and purposes, the gap between what she appears to be and what she really is.
In Fantomina, the female protagonist employs the masquerade in such an empowering way. Fantomina puts on the masquerade of femininity, carefully staging herself as objects of desire for the pleasure of the male gaze. She puts on different masks of womanliness, ranging from a submissive, yielding prostitute, an innocent servant girl, and a widow in distress to the elusive incognita. Appearing as a succession of beautiful women, Fantomina ensures the constancy of a fickle lover “inclin’d to rove” (Haywood,
From the very beginning, Fantomina has full mastery over her transformations and is in control of her men. Fascinated by the erotic freedom of the prostitutes at the theater, Lady Fantomina decides “to dress herself as near as she could in the Fashion of those Women who make sale of their Favour” (258). She is so successful in her disguise that “A Crowd of Purchasers of all Degrees and Capacities were in a Moment gather’d about her, each endeavouring to out-bid the other, in offering her a Price for her Embraces” (258). Although she turns herself into an object of desire that can be exchanged and circulated among men for a “Price,” she carefully sets herself apart from the feigned image, “not a little diverted in her Mind at the Disappointment she should give to so many, each of which thought himself secure of gaining her” (258), and actively seeks out the man of her choice, Beauplaisir.
Clearly Fantomina’s initiative in choosing Beauplaisir shows her willingness to act upon her desires, the “Strange and unaccountable . . . Whimsies she was possess’d of, ― wild and incoherent . . . Desires” (261). After all, the name Beauplaisir is synonymous with good pleasure itself. Just as the public masquerades provided women with sexual freedom and license, the anonymity of the disguise proves to be liberating for Fantomina, who finds a “vast deal of Pleasure in conversing with him in this free and unrestraine’d Manner” (259). So complete is her disguise that Beauplaisir is unaware that she is anything but what she appears. Beauplaisir “look’d in her Face, and fancy’d, as many others had done, that she very much resembled that Lady whom she really was” but her masquerade “prevented [him] from entertaining even the most distant Thought that they cou’d be the same” (259). This separation that Fantomina consciously creates between her image and her real self protects her from all reprisals for her actions.
Even when Fantomina is raped by Beauplaisir, despite her protestation that she is a virgin, she doesn’t remain a victim for long. She quickly casts herself in the role of “the Daughter of a Country Gentleman who was come to Town to buy Cloaths” (264) and proceeds to gratify her own desire: “the Prospect of that continued Bliss she expected to share with him, took from her all Remorse for having engaged in an Affair which promised her so much Satisfaction” (236). Here, Haywood inverts the conventional idea of the passive female victim raped by the rake by presenting a picture of a heroine who takes matters into her own hands in pursuit of her desire. By concealing from Beauplaisir the knowledge of “her true Name and Quality” (264), and thus exploiting the gap between the “the Thing she so artfully had counterfeited” and “the virtuous and the reserv’d lady” (266), Fantomina is able to satisfy her Pleasure” (268) and even challenge existing gender relations: “It will not be even in the Power of my Undoer himself to triumph over me” (266).
When Fantomina becomes aware that Beauplaisir is fickle like all men, “who still prefer the last Conquest, only because it is the last” (277), she vows not to be undone by it. Instead, she artfully changes her dress, hair color, accent, and manner and transforms herself into a series of erotic objects to engage Beauplaisir’s fascination: Celia, the innocent country girl who serves as a chambermaid in his guest house in Bath; Mrs. Bloomer, the charming widow in distress who begs his assistance on his trip back to London; and finally the fair Incognita, who has erotic encounters with him in London, while staying masked and anonymous. As Haywood insists, Fantomina is an excellent masquerader, capable of selecting and producing whatever guise of femininity she wishes to display: “she was so admirably skilled in the Art of feigning, that she had the power of putting on almost what face she pleas’d, and knew so exactly how to form her behavior to the character she represented” (274). Although Fantomina’s masquerade seems to cater to Beauplaisir’s desires, she powerfully manages to undermine his male authority by stimulating and controlling his male desire: “But I have outwitted even the most Subtle of the deceiving Kind, and while he thinks to fool me is himself the only beguiled Person” (277).
Ros Ballaster correctly points out that Fantomina’s last disguise as Incognita, embodies the “utterly blank and hence infinite significatory possibilities” equivalent to “the empty sign into which both male and female readers can project their own fantasy and desire” (191). Beauplaisir only sees the Fair Incognita in terms of his own desire ― a “perfectly agreeable” spectacle that stimulates male desire (284). Without any name or face, the domino resists Beauplaisir’s attempt to pin her down ― she remains elusive and out of his grasp. In contrast to Craft-Fairchild, who views the domino as the “least successful” of her masquerades, I would argue that this disguise functions as the most effective in destabilizing traditional gender relations. As a mere cipher, the domino becomes threatening because of its nature ― indeterminacy. The domino, as Castle points out, represents the drastic and unsettling forms of “conceptual transgression” (77). Whereas Fantomina had earlier begged for Beauplaisir not to abandon her, it is now Beauplaisir who occupies the position of helpless, weakened femininity: “he once more entreated, he said all that Man could do . . . but all his Adjurations were fruitless” (286).
Even when a pregnant Fantomina is forced by her mother to reveal her true identity to Beauplaisir, the act of unmasking continues to function as an agent of chaos. Beauplaisir is left “full of Cogitations, more confus’d than ever he had known in his whole Life” (290). Even the true identity of Fantomina neither bears any meaning nor uncovers any truth for him. In short, she keeps her “mask” on and does not allow Beauplaisir to ultimately penetrate her disguise. In doing so, she successfully eludes the male gaze while retaining her own “Power of seeing” (260). In this regard, Fantomina’s mimicry of femininity ― her choreographed deception or conscious self-display ― subverts and disrupts the hierarchical patriarchal system. Instead of having the male gaze control her, Fantomina demonstrates that through the deliberate staging of a spectacle that redirects the male gaze, she has him where she wants him ― “always raving, wild, impatient, longing and dying” for her own pleasure (283).
If the masquerade is a “World Turned Upside Down” (Castle 89) that dramatizes the authority and the sovereignty of the female over the male by disrupting conventional gender roles, I would contend that the ending of
Published in the same year as Haywood’s
Unlike Fantomina who takes on the masquerade as a “frolick” (258), Roxana’s masquerade starts out of necessity. As a “young Lady of distinguished Birth” (258), Fantomina has the means of her aristocratic class, wealth, and servants to assist her impersonation solely to gratify her sexual desire. While Fantomina’s masquerade begins from her conscious choice in pursuit of her own pleasure, Roxana’s use of the masquerade is linked with her survival, as she seeks material gain and wealth in the bourgeois world of capitalism. Abandoned by her first husband with debts and five children to feed, Roxana attempts to fashion and invent herself in order to escape from this precarious condition and attain both financial and emotional independence.
Unlike Fantomina, whose full mastery of her masquerade prevents her from being an object of desire that can be circulated among men, Roxana consciously reduces herself to a commodity and puts herself into the larger economy of exchange in the capitalist society. Despite her insistence that “without question, a Woman ought rather to die, than to prostitute her Virtue and Honour, let the Temptation be what it will” (63), it is through her self-commodification into a “whore” (62) that Roxana seeks to control the patriarchal society that left her powerless. If Roxana quickly discovers the power and value of her beauty, she also learns to “feign compliance and submission” in order to present herself as an object of male desire (Flynn 76).
Just as Fantomina enchants and holds her lover in the disguises of four different women, so too Roxana quickly learns to assume different masks that consciously draw on the traditional feminine role prescribed by the culture. She weeps, she strikes pathetic poses, and she pleads helplessness. From the very start, Roxana dramatizes the extent of her “Distress” by turning herself into an emblem of a helpless, victimized woman in order to survive, as “one of the pitiful Women of Jerusalem, I should eat up my very Children themselves” (51). Similarly, in her relationship with men ― starting from a mistress to the landlord, then mistress to the Prince, and eventually a wife to the Merchant ― Roxana masquerades as a subservient female in order to get what she wants. She learns that if she complies and pleases, she can manipulate the system that depends upon women submitting to men in power. Responding to the landlord’s new “face of compassion and kindness” and his bounty, Roxana acquiesces to his power by feigning the submission of a “Woman of Virtue and Modesty” (67). After the death of the landlord, Roxana assumes the role of the “pretty Widow of Poictou” even though she had scruples against calling herself wife before his death. This guise of a virtuous widow helps her into the arms of the Prince, where masquerading becomes her main objective. Again, Roxana feigns a submissive, compliant femininity for the benefit of the Prince. Just as Roxana had dressed up for the landlord, she dresses up in clothes he likes best to please the Prince. She makes it a policy to ask for nothing directly, but consistently manipulates the Prince’s “Munificence” so that he gives her what she wants without her having to ask for it (111).
Roxana’s practice of feminine mimicry can be illuminating in the context of Joan Riviere’s article “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” Riviere theorizes that the female masquerade occurs when a woman adopts exaggeratedly feminine gestures ― such as helplessness, deference, coquettishness ― to compensate for the need to act out the prerogatives of masculinity. She argues that “women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men” (35). In this regard, Roxana’s performance of submissive femininity can be seen as an effective means of disguising active female desire that challenges the dominant patriarchy. Roxana’s masquerade conceals her need to assume the prerogatives of masculinity for the purpose of achieving both financial independence and emotional freedom.
Throughout the narrative, Roxana realizes that an independent woman is no woman at all according to society’s rigid conception of gender roles. Speaking “Amazonian Language,” Roxana declares that “seeing Liberty seem’d to be the Men’s Property, I wou’d be a Man-Woman” (212). Being a “Man-Woman” involves a transgression of gender limits, since it assumes the rights of a man and the rejection of conventional female roles. Refusing a marriage proposal from the Merchant, as “a State of Inferiority, if not of Bondage,” Roxana declares that she would rather choose to be a mistress than a wife, for where a “Wife is look’d upon, as but an Upper-Servant, a Mistress is a Sovereign” (170). Roxana also demonstrates her masculine assertiveness in the scene in which Roxana strips and thrusts her faithful servant Amy into bed to sleep with the landlord. Aware that she is an object used by men, Roxana attempts to make Amy an objectification of her own condition. By placing Amy in her own vulnerable position and watching her, Roxana is permitted to assume the position of the empowered subject with the gaze. Her power comes from standing apart but nevertheless watching: she “stood-by all the while” the landlord did “what he wou’d with Amy” (81). By instrumentalizing her body, her pleasure, and her experience, as Warner rightly observes, Roxana “masters herself and others through a cool act of voyeurism” (81).
Nevertheless, as much as she tries to escape from the “Slave” (187) status of women through her masquerade of femininity, Roxana finds it harder to extricate herself from the roles she feigns. Whereas Fantomina’s use of the masquerade allows her to construct different images of femininity to fulfill her own sexual desires, Roxana ends up locking herself into a system where she is bound by the conventional cultural imperatives into assuming a role of acquiescent, submissive female in order to achieve her ends. As such, Roxana’s masquerade calls attention to the ways women cannot but become reduced to the status object and symbol of masculine desire for security and autonomy in the larger system of capitalist patriarchy.
Roxana’s metamorphosis into an object of desire becomes apparent in her relationship with the Prince. By staging her demonstration that her beauty is the “meer Work of Nature” (198), Roxana presents herself as an icon of beauty that strikes the Prince with speechless admiration and “astonishment” (107). When the Prince clasps about her neck a necklace of diamonds, Roxana completes her transformation into “the Object perfect” (109). Not only does her self-display of beauty dazzle the Prince, but Roxana herself becomes enamoured with herself as an object of beauty: “I was now become the vainest Creature upon Earth, and particularly, of my Beauty” (97).
Roxana’s performance as a spectacular display culminates in her masquerade as a “Roxana” dressed in the “habit of a Turkish Princess” (214). Claire Hughes notes that “[w]ith the various guises that she puts on, Roxana recognizes and mimics the values they represent, believing they can be discarded like collars, cuffs, and shifts” (17). In contrast, I would argue that, unlike Fantomina, who successfully creates a gap between her real self and the construction of other selves, Roxana fails to achieve the necessary distance between her real self and her fabricated image to the extent she literally becomes “Roxana.” Again she takes pride in herself as a spectacle; she made such an extraordinary sight by the magnificent dress that “the very Musick stopp’d a-while to gaze” (216). What really delights her is her power to parade as a “very good Show” (219), as the person who holds the whole attention of the crowd. Clearly, this is an image she would wish to own. Even after her marriage to the Dutch Merchant, Roxana cannot help displaying her Turkish costume to her husband and to the Quaker. She still retains pride in her image as the great “Roxana” towards the end of the novel even during her extreme fear that her secret daughter, Susan, will discover the truth of her past: “Tho’ I dreaded the Sequel of the Story, yet when she talk’d how handsome and how fine a Lady this Roxana was, I cou’d not help being pleas’d and tickl’d with it” (334). Ironically, this guise is what eventually gives her away to Susan, the unknowing servant in Roxana’s household, who can never forget the seductive power of her Turkish costume.
If Roxana’s sordid past is a “threat which must always be countered by disguise,” as David Durant puts it, Roxana’s masquerade can be an attempt to replace and disown her past self with successive fabricated images (163). Unlike Fantomina, whose masquerade enables her to move from one disguise to another at will, Roxana’s masquerade ultimately fails to give her that freedom. The more money she has, the more she becomes restricted and imprisoned. Even as a respectable, wealthy, titled wife of the Dutch merchant, she must assume a disguise as a Quaker and remain hidden in it to avoid being recognized as the infamous “Roxana.” She is in dire need of creating a new identity as she consistently confesses to her readers her identity as a “Protestant whore,” which she desperately wants to evade and abandon. However, the presence of Roxana’s daughter threatens to make impossible her shifting of identities. Indeed, it is Susan’s search for her mother’s recognition that confines Roxana both physically and emotionally.
Despite Roxana’s skillful masquerade as a Quaker, Susan’s gaze penetrates her. It is Susan’s image of her that traps and destroys Roxana, for it is the fear of being revealed as “meer Roxana” (223) that keeps her from acknowledging her daughter. Roxana confides that she would willingly have given “ten Thousands of my Money to have been rid of the Burthen I had in my Belly” (203). Yet, as Susan’s return demonstrates, that “Burthen” cannot be so easily dismissed or set aside. Roxana experiences strong motherly emotion in seeing Susan: “it was secret inconceivable Pleasure to me when I kiss’d her, to know that I kiss’d my own Child: my own Flesh and Blood, born of my Body” (323). As John Richetti remarks, Susan’s return that “marks the re-establishment of a biological and psychological necessity” traps Roxana in the patriarchal system in the role of a mother (33). Throughout the narrative, Roxana had sacrificed her maternal side for her relentless pursuit for freedom to be a “Man-Woman.” Nonetheless, Susan represents the inevitable reassertion of natural order that dramatizes the inescapable, overwhelming biological reality of Roxana’s primary identity as a mother.
The conclusions of both
However, the major difference between the two narratives is illustrated in the contrast between Fantomina’s embrace of her daughter and Roxana’s fantasies about murdering her daughter. Even Susan’s death, apparently by Amy, which destroys the evidence of motherhood, does not make Roxana feel safe. The thought of Susan’s murder brings death-like symptoms on Roxana: “that Expression fill’d me with Horror,” she says, “I cou’d not speak” (316). In short, Susan’s destruction destroys Roxana. She loses her ability to narrate: “I can say no more now” (378). “Brought so low” by the “Blast of Heaven” (379), Roxana’s voice ceases and lapses into final silence. Indeed, the novel’s abrupt ending suggests that Roxana’s final defeat stems from her failure as a mother.
Just as Roxana’s speech fails, so does her creator’s, at least in his role as a novelist. Defoe’s power of impersonation is well-known. Roxana is certainly foremost among Defoe’s characters in expressing a kind of freedom for women ― a freedom that argues for radical sexual egalitarianism and espousal of female liberty from the rigid conventional roles offered to women. Through his often sympathetic and compelling presentation of female awareness and identity, Defoe engages in masquerade, just as Roxana creates fictional selves to manipulate others. Madeleine Kahn stresses Defoe’s self-conscious position as an author who assumes the mask of a female persona: “this is a transvestite narrative: there is no Lady. There is only a male Relator, dressing himself in a lady’s clothes and telling his story as if it were hers” (65). While Kahn focuses on
Haywood, on the other hand, explores the use of disguise as a positive force in
In summing up, both Fantomina and Roxana deploy disguises to challenge the constraints of patriarchal society and succeed in gratifying their sexual desire or autonomy. They both masquerade as submissive females in their relationships with men out of free choice or out of life’s necessity. While they display themselves as spectacles for the pleasure of the male gaze, Fantomina deliberately sets up a distance between the self and its representations in order to confound the male gaze and thereby successfully destabilizes the dominant hierarchies of gender relations. It can be argued that Fantomina’s pregnancy and the ambiguity of the ending undermine the success of her masquerade. Nevertheless, it seems that
Defoe, on the other hand, rejects such a notion of masquerade as a female-dominated sphere and remains qualified in his attitude toward masquerade. It would, of course, be reductive to argue that Defoe’s treatment of the female masquerade differs from Haywood’s by virtue of his gender alone. By problematizing the female masquerade as seen in his depiction of Roxana, Defoe disapproves of the masquerade and its association with female liberation and gender transgression. In this regard, Defoe’s treatment of the masquerade aligns him with anti-masquerade writers like Henry Fielding, whose poem “The Masquerade” (1728) expresses the fear that the masquerade encouraged the development of an “Amazonian race” by allowing too much power and freedom to women. At the same time, Defoe’s representation of the female masquerade is more complex in that he underscores how women cannot but “counterfeit” their identities for survival in a capitalist society to the extent women become reduced to commodities and alienated from their own selves and family. In this context, Haywood’s and Defoe’s conflicting responses to the masquerade demonstrate the complex nature of masquerade as represented in the discourses of eighteenth-century England. While they both portray how the female masquerade can be disruptive and resistant to male control, they also dramatize how the theme of the female masquerade is inextricable from complex questions such as sexual desire, independence and freedom, and the female body bound to biological or familial ties in a patriarchal society.