ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                                               

Spring 2009                                                                                              


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.


Moral centers:  Based on twentieth-century standards of verisimilitude and narrative integrity (a la James, Woolf), Behn’s fiction offers a dizzying vortex of amoral and sometimes unmotivated behaviors.  What other critical paradigms might we employ to evaluate or appreciate the morality of Behn’s characters and the substance of her narratives?  For instance, does entertainment serve as an adequate category to explain the narratives?  If characters such as Miranda and Isabella or even Oroonoko fail our standards of verisimilitude, how might we understand the construction of character in other terms?  What might be the terms upon which Behn herself constructed them?


Behn’s bad women raise similar problems for feminist criticism.  How can we understand the stories of Miranda, Isabella or even Celesia in The Unfortunate Bride?  Salzman writes of the last: “There is a savage fairy-tale quality about this narrative of the innocent Celesia’s acquisition of happiness” (xv).

Examine Behn’s representation of crime and criminality.  In what ways are these shaded by gendered knowledge/assumptions?  For example, compare the criminality of Miranda versus Tarquin in The Fair Jilt.


Much can be said about the genre of novels/fiction/news/prose narratives in the late seventeenth century.  In fact, I teach an entire course on this (see http://chuma.cas.usf.edu/~runge/18Cnovel.html ).  We might be better served if we shelf the question of “what is a novel?” and hence the question of whether or not Behn is writing novels and focus instead on the narrative strategies, tropes, themes, sources, problems and structures we encounter in Behn’s fiction.


One particular area of interest lies in the conclusions of her stories. How do you evaluate the conclusions of the various pieces.  Contrast that of Oroonoko with that of the Fair Jilt and that of the History of the Nun for instance.  Clearly these differ from Memoirs of the Court of the King of Bantam, Adventure of the Black Lady and The Unfortunate Bride, but how?  What generic influences can you detect?  What literary qualities or categories will you use to evaluate them?


Felicity Nussbaum’s chapter “Women and Race: ‘a difference of complexion,” provides some historical information on the terminology of race, complexion, color and the categories of class and gender as they are used, particularly by women writers throughout the period.  It should provide some context for discussions of race in Behn’s work, most obviously in Oroonoko, but also in The Unfortunate Bride.


“’Complexion’ in this period serves to isolate and exclude the human from the subhuman, the beautiful from the ugly, and the metropole from the periphery, as the concept of difference fluctuates between being an indelible indicator of intrinsic character or something random and accidental.  Complexion is a site where categories are negotiated, not simply as racialised skin on which gender is imposed, as a sexualized bodily feature on which race is played out, or as a class indicator that erases race and gender.  Crucial to formulating a national aesthetic, complexion in its myriad and unpredictable manifestations is also a somatic sign of the national character and makes of whiteness an inalienable right as Britain claims an imperial identity” (Nussbaum 84).





POETRY notes and discussion


Carol Barash writes: “Women’s poetry of this period has suffered a great deal from what I would call under-reading:  the assumptions, first, that these women were merely writing about their own experience; and, secondly, that their poetic speakers, literally and simplistically, reproduce that experience” (English Women’s Poetry, 1649-1714: Politics, Community, and Linguistic Authority, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, page 20).  How can you avoid under-reading Behn’s poetry?


Judith Kegan Gardner writes: “In her own time [Behn] was praised primarily as a poet, and she hoped that posterity would place her with ‘Sappho and Orinda’ in a female lineage of poetry and in the ageless pantheon of fame….  Her later reputation is almost entirely as a playwright and pioneer novelist, however….  Today’s feminists prefer her vigorous polemics [in her prefaces to the plays] in behalf of herself and other women to her lyrics on more traditional subjects” (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Utopian Longings in Behn’s Lyric Poetry” in Hutner’s Rereading Aphra Behn, p.273).


Behn’s poetry circulated in manuscript, was sung on stage, and published in books, a fate that “calls into question the categories of public and private often used to organize seventeenth-century literary history and also many conventional literary judgments, for example, those exalting the verisimilar over the artificial and the passionate over the playful” (Gardiner 274).


To what extent does Behn’s poetry invoke traditions of cavalier poetry, libertine poetry and pastoral?  How does she employ the conventions of such traditions?  Provide examples.


“Seventeenth-century pastoral is often reviled as artificial and ‘effeminate,’ because we moderns prefer forms that seem closer to a direct transcription of social life, the novel aesthetic and aesthetic of the novel form that Behn helped shape in the 1680s” (Gardiner 278).


“One advantage of the pastoral is that it reformulates social class.  Supposedly set in the lowest class of rural society and often in a purportedly primitive stage of social evolution, the pastoral masks the real class imbalances of the contemporary urban scene” (Gardiner 282).  How does Behn employ such masks?  To what extent do gender politics supplant class politics in her pastorals?  To what extent do gender politics supplant party politics in her pastorals?


“Behn writes in one tradition of Donne, the tradition of witty erotic verse.  This tradition is firmly androcentric, making women its objects, and hence it is difficult for women to take it seriously. Behn does not. Instead, she uses the pastoral setting to create alternatives to the world around her” (Gardiner 286).  To what extent is this true?  Cite examples.


Behn’s poems on other poets or the writing of poetry express the desire for fraternal community: “She does not elaborate on the stresses the solitary poet faces while toiling to find rhymes at her lonely writing table.  Instead, she describes the poetic craft as a collective one.  By making explicit the favors poets do one another to give all of them more work and more pleasure, Behn produces a community of egalitarian insiders, a mutual admiration society” (Gardiner 291).


Evaluate Behn’s poems on writing poetry and other poets (on Creech, Rochester, Wharton, etc.).  What role does gender play in these poems?  How do these poems represent her coteries?  What literary values do they express?  How might these offer clues regarding how we might be instructed to read her verse?


Heidi Hutner agrees with Catherine Gallagher that Behn’s female libertinism ensures desire of woman after sexual conquest by linking sexuality with wit and the ability to prolong or resuscitate desire through writing and linguistic manipulation (Hutner 28).  Examine such extended metaphors and parallels in Behn’s poetry.  How does linguistic desire match or modify sexual desire?


If you are not familiar with the poetic terminology or forms, please consult a good handbook and bring any questions to class.  You should be able to discuss the following: elegies, pastorals, satire, lyrics, occasional poetry, landscape poetry.



Also, it may be helpful to learn something of the personalities represented in her poems, in particular: John Wilmot, Lord Rochester, John Hoyle, Thomas Creech, Gilbert Burnet, Elizabeth Barry, John Dryden and Ann Wharton.  There are good online biographical resources available the digital databases of our library; see in particular the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.




Staves, Chapter 1, “Public Women: the Restoration to the death of Aphra Behn, 1660-1689


How does Staves’ history help create a context for better understanding Behn’s writing?


Regarding friendship poems, Staves argues (via Elizabeth Susan Wahl) that Philips’ poems on female friendship entered a philosophical dialogue on women’s capacity for the virtues required of friendship.  How might

Behn’s female friendship poems enter into such a dialogue?


Given how central the concepts of libertinism are to Behn’s writing, define the ideas to the best of your abilities.  How are these at play in the works you have read for today?


Staves assesses Behn’s successful plays as skillful in plotting and having “original explorations of the position of women” in conventional marriage as well as libertine codes (62).  Evaluate this in light of our discussion of Staves’ plan to evaluate the quality of women’s writing.


What does Staves mean by claiming that “Behn becomes the first nightmare foremother” forging a relationship between public writing and prostitution (66)?


According to Staves, how does Behn’s publication of her volume of Poems (1684) separate her from gentleman poets of the court and female poets like Bradstreet or Philips?  Take a moment and look at the original publication of Poems in EEBO.  What observations can you make?


What adaptations to conventional pastoral does Staves identify in poems such as “The Willing Mistress”? (72)


Where does Staves stand on evaluating Behn’s fictional prose narratives?