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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 195-214

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Plotting Materialism: W. Charleton's The Ephesian Matron, E. Haywood's Fantomina, and Feminine Consistency

Helen Thompson

In this essay I draw connections between the seventeenth-century natural philosopher Walter Charleton's materialism and the romance writer Eliza Haywood's novella Fantomina: or, Love in a Maze. Such an alignment of theory and genre is richly sanctioned by Richard Kroll's account of the contingent epistemology governing Restoration and early eighteenth-century knowledge claims. 1 Most suggestive for the present essay is Kroll's claim that "the Restoration habitually treats literary genre less as a question of some fixed ontological or epistemological hierarchy than as a heuristic device, an experimental space within [which]to test wider discursive issues." 2 However, Kroll's remarkable study of materialism and literate culture from the Restoration to the early eighteenth century does not, as Kroll states, "fully discuss the role and place of women in the neo-Epicurean revival." 3 By taking as one instance of that "role and place" the imagined activation of materialist bodies in Charleton and Haywood's narratives, my essay attempts to consider the stakes of this confluence of materialism and romance for a feminist history of the novel and of sexual difference.

Reading the Romance, Janice Radway's study of present-day romance readers, shows the feminist resonance of Fredric Jameson's claim that "the production of aesthetic or narrative form is to be seen as an ideological act in its own right, with the function of inventing imaginary or formal 'solutions' to unresolvable social contradictions." 4 For Radway, the contemporary romance constitutes an "imaginary and formal 'solution'" to unresolvable patriarchal contradiction, a solution available not as the literal emplotment of women's liberation but, on [End Page 195] the contrary, as the opportunity for its female readers to more happily occupy their affectively impoverished place in the Oedipal family. 5 Although it is impossible to survey readers of the early eighteenth-century romance, Radway nonetheless offers invaluable insight into the nature of the romance's "solution" to patriarchal contradiction: rather than being disbursed in exhortatory or liberatory text, this solution transpires in a scene of readerly investment that to some degree renovates women's experience of conformity. 6

The present essay likewise attempts to recover the formal and thematic resources with which Haywood's romance resolves patriarchal contradiction. In this attempt, I also follow the formidable lead of Margaret Anne Doody, who in The True Story of the Novel suggests that the romance might signify for feminism as something other than "a kind of conspiracy against women." 7 By reading for the romance's corrective imaginary, I aim to avoid defining that genre either as conspiracy or, inversely, as utopic fantasy. The latter definition is advanced by William Warner, who suggests that the early romance cultivates the "central illusion . . . of the self's essential autonomy, of life as a free ride." 8 For Warner, the romance projects a carefree, egocentric self, whose capacity to "fashion the social into a space of pleasure" 9 circumvents a "tension between law and desire" that squarely opposes social law and romantic autonomy. 10 Yet, in another discussion of fantasy and the law, Judith Butler cites the alternative, Foucauldian insight that the law can itselfbecome "an inadvertent site of eroticisation." 11 Her suggestion amplifies Radway's claim for the implication of romance fantasy and patriarchal order, urging the possibility that one need not define the relation of the romance to that order solely as "potentially utopian" impulse. 12 I suggest below that Haywood's Fantomina envisions a heroine who resolves patriarchal contradiction not because she has been freed from patriarchy's laws, but because she repeatedly manifests her observance of them.

One contradiction engaged by the narratives of Charleton and Haywood is poignantly summed by Mary Astell in Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700): "a Woman, indeed, can't properly be said to Choose; all that is allow'd her, is to Refuse or Accept what is offer'd." 13...


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