Eighteenth Century Masquerade

Georgian Masquerade
Georgian Masquerade

‘I love a masquerade […] because a female can never enjoy the same liberty any where else’; Exploring the Relationship between Gender and Disguise in Eighteenth-century fiction  

Public masquerades were a popular, and controversial, form of urban entertainment in England during most of the eighteenth century. Some of the controversy, and subsequent criticism, that surrounded the culture of the masquerades relate to the belief that they would encourage female sexual freedom, and possibly even female emancipation.[1]

The following essay will explore the relationship between gender and disguise in Haywood’s Fantomina[2] and Defoe’s Roxana[3] and demonstrate how masquerades and disguises provided a level of freedom that was seldom permitted to women in 18th century English society.

Eighteenth-century society confined bourgeois women mainly into the home or around ‘polite assembly’. As opposed to their male counterparts, who could move freely in public,[4] ‘only masquerade provided… women’s social mobility.’ [5] Whilst in disguise as a prostitute, Fantomina is able to escape many of the social restrictions she must conform to whilst she is ‘the Haughty Awe-Inspiring Lady.’ However, as the prostitute, when Beauplaisir approaches her and they begin to converse in a ‘free and unrestrain’d manner’ she derives a ‘vast deal of Pleasure’ from this social liberation. She is no longer restrained beneath the social expectations of her ‘distinguished Birth’, or in other words, her true identity as a woman of the upper-classes:

Slippers, and a Nightgown loosely flowing, has been the Garb in

which he has left the languishing Fantomina; – Lac’d, and adorn’d

with all the Blaze of Jewels, has he, in less than an Hour after,

beheld… the Haughty Awe- Inspring Lady’[6]

Henry Robert Morland, The Fair Nun Unmasked, c. 1769
Henry Robert Morland, The Fair Nun Unmasked, c. 1769

Just as she sheds one costume for another (and one identity for another), she escapes from her socially-defined identity and the associated customs of conventionality. As a prostitute, she is able to expose herself, whilst her reputation, and her identity, remain completely protected. In fact, the disparity between her behavior as her true self and her disguise as the prostitute are so great, that although Beauplaisir ‘look’d in her Face, and fancy’d … that she very much resembled that Lady whom she really was’, her manners as Fantomina prevented him from thinking ‘that they coul’d be the same.’ There is a sense of freedom in hiding her true identity; and although she initially confesses to indulge in an ‘innocent curiosity’, it becomes a way of life for the heroine as she goes on to hide behind three more disguises. Castle points out that ‘masks and disguises protected the reputations of middle- and upper- class women’[8] and the heroine in Fantomina realizes this as an opportunity for her own social and sexual liberation early in the novel.

The anonymity of disguise enable the female to play the seduction game knowingly and deliberately and it could be argued that the heroine’s clever disguises in Fantomina enable her to tie him to one love object, and thus, attain what she desires. She is no longer the hysterical ingénue; she is a conscious competitor in the seduction game. The heroine herself is not only self-conscious of, but promotes the use of ‘this method’, of disguise in courtship, to all ‘neglected wives’ in order to catch ‘Men… in their own snare.’ These feminist comments may suggest that Haywood makes a critique against male ‘rakish’ behavior, which ‘still prefer the last Conquest, only because it is the last.’ In order to retain power and control, ‘Fantomina wishes to re-enact the scene of seduction, to return to the momentary power that the woman experiences in courtship.’[9] In other words, each disguise is an attempt at regaining the power that she looses once her body has been ‘possessed’ by Beauplaisir. As Fantomina rightly recognizes, Beauplaisir varies ‘not so much from his sex as to be able to prolong desire to any great length after possession.’ It is through disguise that Fantomina obtains power over her lover; disguise does not only excite his sexual desire for her (by appearing as a new conquest each time), but also enables her to remain desired by him, even after he has already possessed her. Fantomina congratulates herself on successfully transforming her traditional gender role from the deceived, to the deceiver; ‘I have outwitted even the most Subtle of the deceiving Kind, and while he thinks to fool me, is himself the only beguiled person.’

The transformative nature of the masquerade is recaptured in the masquerade scene in Roxana. However, unlike Fantomina who consciously constructs each of her disguised identities, Roxana has an identity imposed upon her;

Gentlemen cry’d out Roxana ! Roxana ! … upon which

foolish Accident I had the Name of Roxana presently

fix’d upon me… as effectually as if I had been Christene’d

Roxana [10]

‘Roxana’ is the name used in the ‘drama of the late seventeenth-century as a generic name for an oriental queen’[11] but she later complains that ‘it began to be publick, that Roxana was, in short, a meer Roxana’. Used in this way, the name means courtesan or mistress and the woman who has been labeled ‘Roxana’ often prefers to remain ‘Incognito’.[12] Her anonymity allows her to move freely between countries and men; but as the narrator reminds us, namelessness can be dangerous just as it is advantageous.[13] She becomes increasingly frightened of being recognized ‘for fear some impertinent Person of Quality shou’d chop upon me again, and cry out, Roxana, Roxana’.  Unfortunately, that impertinent person happens to be her own daughter, who creates further turmoil by admitting that she not only knew that she was ‘the same Lady Roxana that danc’d in the Turkish Vest’ but later exclaims, ‘I know my Lady’s name and family very well; Roxana was not her name, that’s true indeed.’ This frightening realization – that someone has seen past her disguise – is much more problematic for Roxana, just as it is for Fantomina. The protection that the disguise provides affords them the opportunity to abuse their sexual licence, and it is the withdrawal of this luxury that leads to their downfalls.

Although Roxana remains effectively disguised in her Turkish dress, Wahrman points out that the masquerade was not merely a game of dress-up, it was about a transformation into a disguise that would render you unrecognizable to anybody that was not in on the secret.[14] Unfortunately for Roxana, she is discovered and ends the novel, ‘brought so low again, that my Repentance seem’d to be the only Consequence of my Misery’. It seems that through Roxana, Defoe makes a statement about the morality of the culture of masquerades, and the masquerade itself acts as ‘a moral trope – as the emblem of a world where all will appear to be what they are not’.[15] But one of the major differences between Defoe’s Roxana and Haywood’s Fantomina is in their reaction to their deceitful actions. For Fantomina, it is never a question of morality. In fact, the moral consequences of her actions are rarely discussed in the novel, and Haywood, unlike Defoe, strips her heroine of any moral consciousness. Fantomina seems to place more importance on her apparent virtue than her actual virtue; ‘’while he laughs at, and perhaps despises the fond, the yielding Fantomina, he will revere and esteem the virtuous, the reserv’d Lady.’ For Fantomina, the only thing she fears loosing is her reputation, and rightly so, because although she becomes ‘Shock’d… at the Apprehensions of really loosing my honour’ the only thing worse in eighteenth-century society is ‘the Danger of being expos’d, and the whole Affair made a theme for publick Ridicule.’ On the other hand, Defoe’s Roxana spends the last quarter of the novel plagued with guilt about her duplicitous past. Defoe employs a didactic tone for his narrator towards the end of the novel, and she muses;

Another Reflection was, How just it is, that Sin and Shame follow one

another so constantly at the Heels, that they are not like Attendants

only, but like Cause and Consequence, necessarily connected one with

another; that the Crime going before, the Scandal is certain to follow;

and that ’tis not in the Power of humane Nature to conceal the first, or

avoid the last.[16]

Although, Fantomina is punished at the end when she is sent to a convent in France, she shows no sign of repentance. Fantomina suffers none of the psychological torment seen in Roxana, but the novel offers a challenge to the conventional plot structure and gender positions of the traditional amatory fiction.[17] Ultimately, the masquerade and disguise were popular themes for novels during the eighteenth-century; not only because they featured heavily in popular culture, but also because novelists were able to explore the dynamics of desire through their characters. Fantomina, opens by introducing us to ‘a Young Lady of distinguished Birth, Beauty, Wit and Spirit’, but she is never named, and never characterized. Haywood does not create an individual identity for her heroine; instead, she gives her a stereotypical female role; ensuring that from the very beginning, the masquerade has already begun. Roxana also remains anonymous, we are never told: ‘what was Roxana’s real name’. Whilst Roxana adopts a new identity at the masquerade, Fantomina employs disguise, but it is Roxana who undergoes a complete reinvention of her identity. Her experience at the masquerade, ‘I not only did not know any-body else, but indeed, was far from knowing myself’, results in a loss of identity. This is followed by a complete reinvention of her identity, resulting in her being renamed ‘Roxana’; Wahrman describes this as the potential for ‘identity metamorphosis that was perceived to inhere in the eighteenth-century masquerade’.[18] However, whilst masquerade and disguise can also be a form of protection against male voyeurism by providing a distance between the self and the reinvented identity[19] it may be said that it could just as well be a painful submission of female desire. Although both Fantomina and Roxana successfully employ these tactics to access a greater freedom of social mobility, they do end the novel disgraced, unhappy and strictly ostracized from society.

Hogarth - Masquerade Ticket (1727)
Hogarth – Masquerade Ticket (1727)

Further Resources:

This website offers an interactive and educational experience of the masquerade, plus it is super fun!



[1] Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century Fiction (London: Stanford University Press, 1986) p. 33

[2] Eliza Haywood, Fantomina (London: Dodo Press, 2008)

[3] Daniel Defoe and John Mullan, Roxana (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

[4] Ros Ballaster, Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 – 1740 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 188

[5] Ibid., p. 188

[6] Defoe, Mullan, op.cit., p. 12

[7] Castle, op.cit., p. 33

[8] Ballaster, op.cit., pg. 189

[9] Defoe, Mullan, op.cit., pg. 176

[10] Ibid., pg. xviii

[11] Ibid., pg. xviii

[12] Ibid., pg. xviii

[13] Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century En4land (New York: Yale University Press, 2006) p. 161

[14] Castle, op.cit., p. 194

[15] Defoe, Mullan, op.cit., p. 298

[16] Ballaster, op.cit., p. 192

[17] Wahrman, op.cit., p. 162

[18] Craft-Fairchild, op.cit., p. 65


Ballaster, Ros. Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 – 1740. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992

Blewett, David. ‘’’Roxana’’ and the Masquerades’, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 65, No. 3. (Jul., 1970), pp. 499 – 502

Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century Fiction. London: Stanford University Press, 1986

Craft-Fairchild, Catherine. Masquerade and Gender: Disguise and Female Identity in Eighteenth-Century Fictions by Women. London: The Penn State University Press, 1993

Defoe, Daniel and Mullan, John. Roxana. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008

Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina. London: Dodo Press, 2008

Kahn, Madeleine. Narrative Transvestism: Rhetoric and Gender in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel. New York: Cornell University Press, 1991

London, April. The Cambridge Introduction to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012

Potter, Tiffany. Honest Sins: Georgian Libertinism and the Plays and Novels of Henry Fielding. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1999

Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Yale University Press, 2006

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