Eliza Haywood unmasks female sexuality in masquerade novels
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The essence of the masquerade ball is one of secrecy and fantasy. As a uniquely 18th century phenomenon, the masquerade was an environment where one can transform into anything imaginable. One of the most prolific female authors during this period, Eliza Fowler Haywood, sought to capture the luxury and imagination of the masquerade within her novels published from 1724 to 1725: The Masqueraders and Fantomina. For Haywood’s female protagonists, the setting of the masquerade ball, along with its associated elements such as masks and disguises, grants them sexual power in addition to the power of the gaze, a privilege previously held by men. As Karin Kukkonen notes in her essay, “The Minds Behind the Mask: Reading for Character in the Masquerade” the “masquerade is a place where Eliza Haywood’s heroines don masks in an endeavor to satisfy their (sexual) curiosity and, at the same time, to escape social censure” (163). In this essay, I will explore how the masquerade promoted this sort of sexual freedom within the 1700s, and I will analyze how the female protagonists within both of the aforementioned novellas interpret the theme of masquerade as sexual license. Furthermore, I will examine how the tragic and paradoxical endings operate within the narratives – as a moral warning to those participating in licentious acts, a means against the male-dominated romance genre and empowers the female voices in the works, or a realistic outcome based on the patriarchal structures reigning in 18th century society.