This is another “what happened in class this week” post, but it’s less disheartened than the previous, “my students don’t care about anything” post. Maybe. It’s also a bit longer than usual. I’m sorry for that.
In British Lit this week, we read the first part of Fantomina by Eliza Haywood. For a tad of background, Haywood was writing during the long 18th century. Her contemporaries–people like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift–considered her a “hack” because she was a woman and “what do they know about anything anyway?”
Fantomina is my favorite text of the semester. Aside from it being one of the only pieces we read that is all prose, it tells a story that really engages students. The story is about a young girl who is “high-born” or wealthy. Scholars say she is probably around 15-years-old (this is important). One night at the theater, from her seat in a private box (wealthy, remember), she sees the interactions between prostitutes and men down in the pit. The pit, in case you didn’t know, was where the party popped off back in the day.
Also, remember this was during a time when the culture dictated that women couldn’t work real jobs. Their only options were 1) be married, 2) be a governess, or 3) be a prostitute. Women who lost their virginity before marriage–especially those with evidence of that loss due to pregnancy–were publicly shamed and considered unfit for marriage. Preserving their public image was super important to these ladies because their ability to wed and avoid unfavorable working conditions (i.e. turning tricks) was directly tied to that image.
But the young protagonist of this story, young and naive (and virginal) as she is, does not necessarily know exactly what she is witnessing in the pit. She knows that those women are getting a ton of attention from the dudes down there, and she decides she wants to know what it’s like.
The next night, she dolls herself up and goes down into the pit to spit game at the fellas. There is one guy, though, that gets horned up and wants a piece of the action. His name is Beauplaisir, which is, according to the footnote in the textbook, French for “lovely pleasure.” He pushes her to give up the goods, and she denies him on this first night. There is a lot of talk from the narrator about how Fantomina (the alias she has taken) did not foresee the men wanting to have sex with her–a result of her innocence. She wanted only the attention. She didn’t intend on losing her virginity.
But she also decides that she really likes Beauplaisir (or she at least likes the attention he shows her), so she decides to see him again. She rents an apartment so she can entertain him without worry that the locals will discover her true identity, thus ruining her public image.
So this is where the conversation took off for my students. During the scene when Beauplaisir finally has his way with Fantomina, some students thought it bordered on rape, and others thought that she willingly yielded to him. Here is the passage:
SUPPER being over, which was intermixed with a vast deal of amorous Conversation, he began to explain himself more than he had done; and both by his Words and Behaviour let her know, he would not be denied that Happiness the Freedoms she allow’d had made him hope. – It was in vain; she would have retracted the Encouragement she had given: – In vain she endeavoured to delay, till the next Meeting, the fulfilling of his Wishes: – She had now gone too far to retreat: – He was bold; – he was resolute: She fearful, – confus’d, altogether unprepar’d to resist in such Encounters, and rendered more so, by the extreme Liking she had to him. – Shock’d, however, at the Apprehension of really losing her Honour, she struggled all she could, and was just going to reveal the whole Secret of her Name and Quality, when the Thoughts of the Liberty he had taken with her, and those he still continued to prosecute, prevented her, with representing the Danger of being expos’d, and the whole Affair made a Theme for publick Ridicule. – Thus much, indeed, she told him, that she was a Virgin, and had assumed this Manner of Behaviour only to engage him. But that he little regarded…In fine, she was undone; and he gain’d a Victory, so highly rapturous, that had he known over whom, scarce could he have triumphed more. Her Tears, however, and the Destraction she appeared in, after the ruinous Extasy was past, as it heighten’d his Wonder, so it abated his Satisfaction… (emphasis mine; read the rest here).
Herein lies the question: is this rape? I personally feel like there are so many parallels between this story and the “blame the victim” culture that we still see play out today. We too often hear the violator use language like “Did you see how she was dressed? She wanted it” or “She was asking for it.” Fantomina definitely dressed the part. Beauplaisir thought he was sleeping with a prostitute (in the rest of the scene above he tries to pay her). But she very obviously struggles against his advances, doesn’t she? The narrative voice is a third person, limited perspective, so there is no real reason for us to distrust it.
Her struggle is this: at this juncture in the story, she comes clean and risks Beauplaisir getting bitter and telling everyone she’s a whore, ruining her public image; or she stays quiet and loses her virginity silently, hoping no one will ever find out. So when she makes the decision that public image trumps private shame, has she surrendered to the moment, making the accusation of rape invalid?
I think that this story speaks to our contemporary culture in a very real way. That culture was a “blame the victim” culture. Our culture likes to think that we are better than that, but too often we see it go the other way (here is a good survey of this kind of thing happening in the media, including CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville rape case.)
Have we, like the ruling class of the British long 18th century, created a culture in which victims would rather stay silent than risk public shame?