Dr. Laura L. Runge
ENL 6236 18th Century Women Authors in the Digital Archive
Class 3: 17th Century Prose
Todd Introduction, Behn’s Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt,
Margaret Fell Fox, “Women’s Speaking Justified,” EEBO.
DUE: Post #2
Introduce Aphra Behn as a leading figure
Discuss Wikipedia training and initial assignments
Sign up for article presentations
Notes and Discussion QuestionsThe readings for today focus on prose narrative in part because it is an easier point of access than poetry and drama. Aphra Behn is our first major authorial figure for the class, and her reputation, biography and significance are well canvassed in scholarship. Using Stave's history as a guide, however, we quickly put her narrative writing in context. It is the last produced in her lifetime, and it is the last mentioned. While we will return to Staves' assessment of Behn's drama and poetry in the next couple of classes, it is important to realize that Behn considered herself first and foremost a poet. I also include the brief writing of Quaker leader Margaret Fell Fox to support the claims by Ezell and Staves on the importance of Quaker women writers to the history of women's writing. I also want you to experience the look of the text, and to practice using the digital archive.
Staves, chapter one
“Public Women: the Restoration to the death of Aphra Behn, 1660-1689
The literary era known as the Restoration clearly alludes to the major political upheaval caused by the seventeenth-century civil war, regicide, interregnum and ultimate restoration of the Stuart king. Please make some effort to understand the general outline of events through the chronologies listed in Staves and Todd's introduction. Why are politics so important for understanding women's literary history? What surprises you about this?
Staves begins her chapter detailing the work of Puritan female writers, such as Fox. How does Behn differ? How does Staves’ history help create a context for better understanding Behn’s writing?
"Much of the writing of late seventeenth-century women was prompted, not by aesthetic ambition, but by this impulse to write what they believed to be truths, most urgently, to record the truths of their own experiences and what they believed to be truths that men in positions of authority would not put in their records of the times" (31). How does this observation connect our two VERY different female authors this week?
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?
What does Staves mean by claiming that “Behn becomes the first nightmare foremother” forging a relationship between public writing and prostitution (66)?
Where does Staves stand on evaluating Behn’s fictional prose narratives?
"When Behn died in 1688/89, her literary accomplishment was publicly recognized by her burial in Westminster Abbey. At the same time, the intensity of the criticism and misogynist satire directed at her, as well as her own complaints about misogynist prejudice against her work and the rather bleak picture of women's lot in contemporary society that emerges from her work, make it clear that neither women writers nor women generally had, by 1688/89 secured accepted places in the public world. Unlike most Quaker women writers who published only one title each, Margaret Fox continued to publish until her death in 1702, but she did not aim at literary excellence or fame and radical dissenting prose like hers was beneath the notice of the literary world" (82). At this point in the course, what do our representative women authors tell you about the history of women's writing in England?
Margaret Fell Fox: Women's Speaking Justified
Fell Fox is one of the most prolific female authors of the seventeenth century. For her biography, please see the ODNB article in google docs.
This fifteen page pamphlet was first published in 1666 while Fell Fox was imprisoned for not taking the oath of allegiance to the Church of England. In it she follows her standard tri-partite structure "in which different voices are employed for different goals" (Ezell, 145). Evaluate the style and rhetorical force of the writing.
Although not considered her best writing, Women's Speaking Justified is by far her best known and has been reproduced widely over time. What about the text might lead to its continued reference and publication?
I have written elsewhere that "as the first female-authored Quaker defence of women's speaking, the tract is significant both for Quakerism and for the study of women's writing" (Introductory Note, Early Modern Englishwoman: Series III Texts from the Querelle, 1641-1701, page xvi). What role might this pamphlet play in a course of women's literary history? Why is it signficant? Can we divorce women's religious beliefs from their writing?
Evaluate the seventeenth-century text as an object. What surprises you about the representation of the text?
Aphra Behn's fiction
Our text, edited by Behn's most recent biographer Janet Todd, provides a detailed biographical introduction that will get you up-to-speed on the compelling details of Behn's life and works. Please read carefully. What about her life story strikes you as particularly important?
We are reading two works by Behn, but one is by far the more popular: Oroonoko. As witnessed by the recent publication of an MLA Approaches to Teaching Behn's Oroonoko (2014), this hybrid fiction has reached canonical, even hyper-canonical, status. Editors Cynthia Richards and Mary Ann O'Donnell note the trajectory of this status in their preface: "Once merely a footnote in Restoration and eighteenth-century studies and rarely taught, Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (1688) by Aphra Behn, has now become essential reading for scholars and a classroom favorite -- and our survey respondents confirm its popularity. This work can be found in all the expected venues: general surveys, Restoration and eighteenth-century literature courses, early British literature courses, women writers' courses, and courses on the rise of the novel. But it also appears in somewhat less expected places -- in courses on Renaissance writers, postcolonial literature, American literature, drama, the slave narrative and autobiography. Many instructors use it as an exercise in the ethos of reading itself; it can introduce the discipline of reading to the newly declared English major or to the undergraduate just curious about how the discipline works. In seminars on race and empire, where it is frequently placed, it is employed as a cautionary tale, used not only to give the specifics of slavery in the West Indies in the late seventeenth century but also to unsettle students' certainty about the meaning and practice of slavery in general and to challenge associated concepts such as race and freedom" (xi). What makes this text so adaptable and appealing?
Richards and O'Donnell caution us about the myriad ways of entering the text: "the novel contains not just one story but many, and instructors in the classroom need to address this multiplicity in the novel and avoid privileging any one critical approach to the novel's various themes and issues" (xv). For our purposes, I'd like to propose that we focus on the theme of connections among women, in keeping with the course theme of women's friendship. In this way we might consider the narrator's relationship to other women in the narrative, and in particular to Imoinda. We also might analyze Imoinda's experience in (and Behn's representation of) the Otan.
Significantly, Todd argues that "for Aphra Behn neither race nor gender creates the category of the Other, as both would come to do in the next age, and neither is as important as class, breeding and inherent nobility, which alone oppose the shoddy commercialization and commodification of values and feelings she saw around her in London" (19).
Some other considerations: 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?)
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.
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 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 story of Miranda?
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.
Another 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. What generic influences can you detect? What literary qualities or categories will you use to evaluate them?
Felicity Nussbaum’s chapter in Women and Literature in Britain 1700-1800 (ed. Vivien Jones 2000) “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.
“’Complexion’" she writes, "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).
When assessing the place of these writers in our class on literary history, also consider Todd's point: "In the next century women would come to write almost entirely in the sentimental mode, presenting themselves as feeling and morally impeccable ladies; the apparent amorality of Behn as well as her physicality, whether displayed in erotic verse or in descriptions of bodily mutilation, would become deeeply shocking to readers and impossible for women writers to imitate" (20).