ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers
Jan. 26 Aphra Behn, Oroonoko and Other Writings
Recommended: Jones, chapter 3, “Women and Race: ‘a difference of complexion’” by Felicity Nussbaum and Staves, chapter 1 (27-90)
Aphra Behn (1640?-1689) There is no simple way to summarize the biography, works, legacy and critical heritage of this important figure; in fact, a whole course might be justly devoted to her. The introduction to the edition we are using, by Paul Salzman, gives you a sense of the criticism and reception of Behn. In the notes that follow I draw on scholarship and pose questions for discussion. As you read, keep in mind the ways in which Woolf valued Behn – as the first professional writer – and the lessons from Ezell’s polemical charge to revision women’s literary history by being open to values other than those of commercial, narrative and angry feminist writing. Consider also the ways in which more recent scholarship (see for example essays in Hughes and Todd’s Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn (2004) or Jennifer Frangos’s article for this week, also Staves and Backscheider) complicate our views of Behn as a political writer and a savvy, cosmopolitan literary professional.
Notes and Discussion
Heidi Hutner writes about the complexity of Behn: “she is a Tory apologist and a proponent of women’s freedom as well as an early abolitionist…. Her work challenges traditional literary values and destabilizes traditional aesthetic and historical assumptions about the literary culture of the English Restoration” (Rereading Aphra Behn: An Introduction” in Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism, ed. Heidi Hutner (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1993) p. 1).
She cautions, appropriately, “Yet while Aphra Behn is finally gaining recognition from literary critics, they still tend to read her work – as earlier critics did – as an embellishment of her sensationalized biography. Until very recently, the vast majority of critical studies on Behn have been dominated by the premise that understanding her biography is a surefire means to understanding her work…. This biographical emphasis seems particularly ironic to me because Behn appears deliberately to have left us so little information about her personal life” (3-4).
For those students new to Behn, it takes some effort NOT to focus on her life story – she was an astonishing figure who traveled widely, served as a spy for Charles II, wrote successful dramas for over 20 years, hobnobbed with the great and famous of several countries, embraced a female libertine philosophy in her writings, served as an important political propagandist, and thrived in the emerging publishing world of the late seventeenth century.
And yet resist we must.
“As Laurie Finke argues …, if we are to treat women writers seriously, and not just as political stalking horses, we must find new methods of reading, new grounds for what constitutes valuable literature” (Hutner, 5).
As Salzman makes clear in his introduction, of all of Behn’s works, Oroonoko, receives the most critical attention. It is undoubtedly an important work, but it is only one of many. By naming the third volume of the critical edition of Aphra Behn’s works The Fair Jilt and Other Stories, which contains Oroonoko, Janet Todd suggests that Oroonoko’s fame has obscured the important and perhaps more interesting achievements in Behn’s shorter fiction. In what ways is Oroonoko representative of Behn’s works? In what ways might Todd’s focus be more fruitful?
Critics from Jaqueline Pearson to Catherine Gallagher have focused on the connection between the dramatic personae Behn creates in her plays and the writing woman she herself was – the main commonality lies in theatricality and role playing. The woman writer – Behn playfully suggests – dons a mask and plays a role, many roles in fact. What evidence of role playing can you find in Behn’s narrative prose? (For instance, contrast the narrator’s voice in Oroonoko, the Fair Jilt and The History of a Nun with that in the Memoirs of the King of Bantam and the Adventures of the Black Lady.) How much moreso is role playing evident in the poetic voices Behn constructs?
In Behn’s works, truth-telling always contrasts with the artificiality and theatricality of narrative roles. In what ways does Behn insist on truth-telling as a narrative device? As a plot device? What happens to the conspicuous manipulators of truth in her tales in light of the creative function of “lying” and “manipulating”? (I.e. Miranda, Byam, Isabella?)
Behn’s prose has been celebrated at least since 1698 when Charles Gildon praised the lyrical qualities of her conversational style. How would you describe the narrative style of Oroonoko? Compare this with that of the Fair Jilt, History of the Nun, and the other short works.