My thesis for ENGL 404 will explore the role of the masquerade in 18th century European society – a popular public assembly in which participants wore various masks and costumes to conceal their identity. Through the adoption of different personas, these masquerades represented a “world upside down,” in which high class fused with low class and gender distinctions became blurred and destabilized. In addition, costumes allowed for greater sexual expression and fluidity, especially for women of higher classes, who were often required to refrain from expressing sexual desire due to their high status. In literature, the masquerade was a common trope that featured prominently throughout works of the 18th century, and allowed authors a way to expose the flaws embedded within the tight fabric of 18th century society – by depicting characters that are able to transgress social boundaries solely by placing a mask on their face, such works speak to the superficiality of social categories as a whole in the 18th century. Ultimately, I would like to attempt to investigate beyond the mask, or an area of anxiety surrounding identity and social categorization as a whole that the mask sought to conceal.
The first text I want to focus on is the amatory novel Fantomina, or Love in a Maze by Eliza Haywood, which was published in 1725. The novel follows the story of a young noble woman who, while watching a group of prostitutes converse with men at a theater, is struck by the freedom with which they are able to interact with each other. The next day, she decides to dress up as a prostitute as well, and assumes the name “Fantomina” so no one recognizes her true identity. While dressed as a prostitute, she meets a man named Beauplaisir, whom she instantly falls in love with – and Beauplaisir, assuming she is an actual prostitute, requests to sleep with her. They begin a secret affair, which ultimately ends when Beauplaisir becomes tired of Fantomina. In an attempt to rekindle his passion for her, Fantomina puts on various disguises in order to conceal her true identity and attract him as she had previously done in the theater. Each time, she successfully tricks Beauplaisir into falling in love with her again, as Beauplaisir is repeatedly unaware of her true identity.
Fantomina’s various disguises speak to the theme of the masquerade overall, as her disguises allow her to transcend the strict boundaries placed on women in society and allow her to achieve sexual freedom and autonomy. However, at the same time that Fantomina’s costumes are liberating, they are also restricting, as each disguise that Fantomina adopts requires a lowering of her social class (prostitute, maid, and widow). Similarly, while the novel appears to depict a woman who holds a significant amount of agency, the ending – Fantomina’s pregnancy and exile to a convent – complicate such an interpretation, as her agency is effectively stripped away by the end of the novel. These two points raise questions about the efficacy of disguises and masks as a whole in granting release from social categories, as the ending suggests that disguises offer only a temporary release from the rigid framework of society.
The second text I plan on analyzing is the epistolary novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, which was published in 1740. This novel narrates the story of a young maid named Pamela whose master, Mr. B, repeatedly attempts to seduce her, despite her desire to remain virtuous. Miserable with her current situation, Pamela writes a letter to her parents begging to return home. Mr. B, furious about Pamela’s refusal, lies to Pamela by telling her he’ll send her back home, but instead brings her to his estate in Lincolnshire, where he keeps her as prisoner. While at the estate, Mr. B disguises himself as a housemaid in order to sneak into Pamela’s bedroom and attempts to rape her. After the incident, Mr. B changes his behavior toward Pamela, and instead claims that he loves her and wants to marry her. Towards the end of the novel, Pamela realizes that she, too, has feelings for Mr. B, and they get ultimately get married.
In contrast to Haywood’s novel, Pamela does not feature a woman, but rather a man who uses a disguise in order to gain sexual freedom – by disguising himself as a woman, Mr. B is able to enter Pamela’s bedchamber and attempt to rape her. Richardson’s novel thus represents a reversal of Haywood’s novel, in which disguises allow greater female autonomy, and instead depicts a case in which a man’s disguises result in the depletion of female agency. These two opposing interpretations of the masquerade speak to the differing opinions surrounding the masquerade as a whole – some, like Haywood, seemed to praise the masquerade for its liberating effect for women, while others, such as Richardson, saw more in its ability to aid in achieving male desire.
Ultimately, these two texts will be useful in my analysis of masks, as they offer two different approaches to the masquerade, thus revealing the complicated and contradictory nature of the masquerade as a whole. Specifically, disguises allowed for both a greater sense of freedom from social norms, while also, paradoxically, a strong dependence on them – disguises, such as those featured in these two novels, essentially relied on stereotypes in order to convey certain assumptions about their identity. In addition, as is the case with Fantomina, disguises were oftentimes modeled after lower classes, thus creating a contradiction between sexual freedom and lowering of social status. At this stage in my thesis work, I feel like I need to organize these questions in order to give me more focus and direction, as I don’t think I’m currently able to form these observations into one solid argument yet. I do, however, think that this gray area surrounding the masquerade will prove a significant site for further exploration and insight into 18th century society as a whole.
Haywood, Eliza. “Fantomina, or Love in a Maze.” Masquerade Novels of Eliza Haywood, edited by Mary Anne Schofield, Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1986, pp. 257-291.
Richardson, Samuel. Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. Edited by Peter Sabor, Penguin Classics, 1981.