Amatory Fiction is one among several fiction genres that emerged during the 18th Century. Reputed as the notorious emergence of those dangerous “novels” that serve to distribute non-biblical literature among the growing literacy of the public, Amatory Fiction did well at outlining the hushed current of sexual innuendo, much to the dismay of the church leaders. What is worth noting is that in conjunction with the other emerging “gothic” novel, both seem to capitalize on the idea of trapped girls encroached upon by their licentious masters. In taking a closer look at the material, however, one discovers just how matters are more complicated than simple damsels in distress.
Thus, I’ve been drawn by my most interesting, most very young and womanly PhD instructor into reading some of these commotion stirring publications, and I’m finding my pursuit of gaining knowledge in the realm of literary history to be a most curious, yet exceptionable payoff. What is odd about the controversy they stirred, I find, is that they sold very well during the era. Since the novel was prose writing that stood as similar yet contrasting to the habit of poetry, the language is choppy, and takes practice and habituation to get accustomed in the reading. Once I got past this obstacle, my mind was brought in tune with what must have been a semblance of 18th Century understanding.
For this woman of the 1720s, Roxana, the famous Daniel Defoe has done a fine job at conveying the option of omitting virtue for the sake of livelihood. Roxana, a name of which we learn is really a perversely attached sobriquet endowed by her masked suitors at a masquerade, has originally been abandoned by her husband. He left her with five kids. The guy has vanished out of a sheer inability to be respectable, and she’s stuck with a house and children with no way to pay the rent. This all seems to paint her as potentially virtuous, and she employs these elements of virtue when she clamors about the man’s relatives for a means to pay and care for her children. The husband’s relatives are just as sorry as he is, and so Roxana discerns no other option but to abandon her children to various, unwholesome institutions for homeless children, where two of them actually end up plain dead. Proceeding this unsavory solution, Roxana finds herself home alone, ready for eviction herself, accompanied by her faithful house servant, a woman who is as hopeless as she is. In these circumstances, the landlord eventually arrives to finalize the matter. And just what is a wealthy landlord to do with a large home occupied by two woman all for himself? Firstly, Roxana succumbs to the reality that she can only cling to so much of her virtue, but one has consider what Roxana is really all about a few pages later. Let’s read an excerpt:
“At night, when we came to go to-Bed, Amy came into the Chamber to undress me, and her Master slipt into Bed first; then I began, and told him all that Amy had said about my not being with-child, and of her being with-child twice in that time: Ay, Mrs. Amy, says he, I believe so too, come hither, and we’ll try; but Amy did not go: Go, you Fool, says I, can’t you, I freely give you both Leave; but Amy wou’d not go: Nay, you Whore, says I, you said, if I wou’d put you to-Bed, you wou’d with all your Heart: and with that, I sat her down, pull’d off her Stockings and Shooes, and all her Cloaths, Piece by Piece, and led her to the Bed to him: Here, says I, try what you can do with your Maid Amy: She pull’d back a little, would not let me pull off her Cloaths at first, but it was hot Weather, and she had not many Cloaths on, and particularly, no Stays on; and at last, when she see I was in earnest, she let me do what I wou’d ; so I fairly stript her, and then I threw open the Bed, and thrust her in.”
–from Roxana, by Daniel Defoe
Okay, so poor Roxana has acquired the use of bad language, but not only has she adapted to her circumstances, she seems apt to include her maid into the climes of her pressing situation as well: Satisfy the master, stay the eviction. But there’s more than Roxana satisfying the master: Roxana’s mind appears to withhold some innate, or influenced, corrupted inclinations as well. Maybe one can consider: Just why did she marry the original loser in the first place? Is Roxana the product of poverty that has made her accept whatever socioeconomic choice that she could? In light of her husband leaving, has the structure of life for a city-peasant in London, including that she was born in France, influenced her with a mix of socioeconomic struggle and the ways in which women in these situations employ themselves to fend off starvation? Maybe if Roxana was able to marry her new master, a note of respect could be laid before them. But he is already married, and so is she, so where does this situation stand? A woman giving her body to stay in a home is distantly and remotely understandable, but what could possibly drive her to force her maid into bed with the landlord as well? What event, or culmination of conditions, has made Roxana’s mind slip from one side of sanity to the other? This state of mind is completed when one of Roxana’s daughters finds her out years later, and y’all can leave a request if you really want to know what happens, and I’ll post the conclusion in the comment section.
During this same age of amorous wonder, Young Fantomina takes us on a different path, one more of folly than survival. Where Defoe has written with the purpose of relaying a story that gets darker and darker as one goes along, Eliza Haywood writes to entertain; but again, the implications are worth pondering. Fantomina, another name for cloaking, is born of wealth, and with her parents away from town, she finds herself observing women in a theater audience “entertaining” men for obvious purposes. Ideas abound in her impressionable mind, and she’s identified a target for her own, a certain Beauplaisir. Her plan is to disguise herself as one of these entertaining women to gain him; her problem is that she succeeds. She breaks downs in frightful emotions, yet she’s unable to resist when he takes her. Though he suspects she isn’t what she claimed to be, he does offer himself as a steady lover; and yet, as Haywood might imply as typical, after he’s had her awhile, he grows tired of her, thereby discarding her as a mere acquaintance. To confound, she is surprisingly resilient to the matter, and contrives to employ the tactic she suspects will work again, opting to disguise herself once more. The plan works, and Beauplaisir does not recognize her:
“He compelled her to sit in his Lap; and gazing on her blushing Beauties, which, if possible, receiv’d Addition from her plain and rural Dress, he soon lost the Power of containing himself.–His wild Desires burst out in all his Words and Actions; he call’d her little Angel, Cherubim, swore he must enjoy her, though Death were to be the Consequence…”
–from Fantomina, by Eliza Haywood
These types of famous scenes that Haywood points out of men and their lascivious ways stand curious in the face of Fantomina’s behavior. She appears to seek out Beauplaisir lecherousness for some unknown reason, as she is indifferent to the money he provides before he vacates. What is her problem? What is her motive? Is she bent on humiliating the man by proving he is a sucker for sleeping with a woman he’s infatuated with, the same woman he has just discarded as boring and uninteresting? Or is she just mental, as the fact that she plots another costume later on will suggest, where he falls for her yet again, unknowingly. The age old dilemma emerges when she finds she’s pregnant, and confessing to her mother the nature of what she’s done, Beauplasir is called on to confirm. The three of them confront in a spectacle of wonder before bloated Fantomina sprawled out on the bed days before delivery, where Beauplaisir and the mother stand confounded by the young girl’s behavior. Yes, the man should marry her as the duty of a gentleman should call, but the mother deems the entire situation as an event too perplexing to comprehend; she sends him away, and has Fantomina hauled off to a convent in France, the modern day equivalent of being committed.
What is to be gleaned from the readings? This is tricky territory, and where some of the facts are obvious, others are more in depth, and so will be reserved for another essay I will later have to compose on the glorious subject of Amatory Fiction.