“Let us, oh let us, my brother, sit down here, and pursue the crime of loving on no farther. Call me sister—swear I am so, and nothing but your sister: and forbear, oh forbear, my charming brother, to pursue me farther with your soft bewitching passion; let me alone, let me be ruin’d with honour, if I must be ruin’d.—For oh! ’twere much happier I were no more, than that I should be more than Philander’s sister; or he than Sylvia’s brother: oh let me ever call you by that cold name, ’till that of lover be forgotten.”
On top of publishing anonymously and resorting to the roman à clef format, the opening of Love-Letters Between A Noble-Man And His Sister finds Aphra Behn providing for herself a third layer of protection against the possible consequences of her tale of sex and politics: the age-old pretence of the “found manuscript”. The volume’s preface asserts that the letters were discovered, “…in their cabinets, at their house at St Denis, where they both lived together, for the space of a year; and they are as exactly as possible placed in the order they were sent.”
The preface also spells out for us the nature of the roman à clef. The story is set during the Fronde, the French civil war that took place in the middle of the Franco-Spanish War of 1635 – 1659. The Fronde had two phases, and it is the second, the Fronde des nobles, with which we are concerned: “The time of the rebellion of the true Protestant Huguenot in Paris, under the conduct of the Prince of Condé (whom we will call Cesario)…”
The preface then goes on to give us a sketch of one of Cesario’s followers, a young man given the sobriquet Philander, who achieved notoriety by eloping with Sylvia, the sister of his wife, Myrtilla. In this version of events, Myrtilla is not only Cesario’s mistress, but was in love with him at the time she married Philander, which she did purely for interest’s sake. We hear of Philander’s pursuit of Sylvia, their affair, its discovery and their flight. We hear also that, as a consequence of his involvement with Cesario, Philander was one of the rebels defeated by the king’s forces; that he was imprisoned, but escaped; and that he then fled the country in Sylvia’s company.
It is unlikely that anyone in England reading this far could fail to guess the true identities of the major players of this tale. Whether they believed that the letters were actually real is debatable, but either way, they could be certain that a scandalous story was to follow.
A word about the names here. All of the characters are given pastoral pseudonyms in place of their “real” (that is, fictional) names, which was a common practice at the time in both literature and literary circles, a hangover from the days of the classical romance. These days we might be inclined to snicker at our anti-hero’s name – what, we’re supposed to be surprised that someone called “Philander” behaves like this? – but in fact, it is because of the success of this tale that the word “philander” took on its modern meaning, “to behave like Philander” eventually becoming simply “to philander”. And there is a second word in this book that Aphra Behn, not invented, but helped to entrench in common parlance; but we’ll deal with that later on.
When the story opens, Philander and Sylvia have admitted their feelings for one another, and immediately, we see how skilfully Aphra Behn builds upon her model, the Lettres Portugueses. In place of the single voice, here we have two; and the reader is invited to decode the language of each to get at the motives beyond. Sylvia is understandably torn, her passionate desire for Philander at odds with her fear of discovery, the thought of her lost honour, the shame that she would bring upon her parents should the affair be discovered, and above all her consciousness that she would be betraying her own sister. Meanwhile, despite the increasing extravagence of Philander’s language, the reader is able to see what the inexperienced Sylvia cannot, the selfish single-mindedness of his passion. She vacillates, thinking of others; he relentlessly pursues his aim.
To contemporary readers, the language of Love Letters is frequently overripe and hard to swallow; but it is important to realise that it is an accurate reflection of its time, when verbal flamboyance was commonly used to disguise brutal reality, like putting a clean dress on a dirty body. So it is throughout this book, as it becomes dismayingly apparent that for all the pleading and the protestation, all the agonies and desperation, all the languishing and dying, there is nothing in this story that we might in modern usage call “love”; not a moment when it is ever about anything other than sex. And the more apparent that becomes, the less willing are the characters to admit it – and the more excessive becomes the language.
Furthermore, increasingly over the length of the story, there is a tendency to parallel the relations between man and woman with warfare: by the end, the phrase “the battle of the sexes” is barely even a metaphor. This is, undoubtedly, Aphra Behn’s own view of her world; and to a large extent the subsequent volumes of Love Letters are questioning whether in such a world it is ever possible that the woman might be victorious, or whether she must inevitably be conquered…and then ransacked and abandoned. Anything other than defeat for one party or the other is, however, quite out the question: it is destroy or be destroyed.
Language, then, is not so much a means of communication as on one hand a weapon, on the other a form of disguise. Philander, clearly, has already learned the power of the word before he turns his batteries upon Sylvia. In their exchange of letters, her language grows more and more like his, more heated, more exaggerated: words become a substitute for sex. Increasingly, Sylvia uses in her letters the words “brother” and “sister”, ostensibly to kill their mutual passion, in fact because the forbidden nature of the relationship adds to its fire. Consciously or unconsciously, Sylvia has absorbed Philander’s lesson: how to use language to conceal an ugly truth.
Having established the nature of her characters’ passion, it is then time for Aphra Behn to move onto politics. We must remember that the story’s “rebellion of the Hugenots” is a cover for the events leading up to the Rye House Plot. As in reality, Philander and Sylvia are on opposite sides of the political divide. Sylvia’s family is loyal to the throne, while Philander has thrown in his lot with Cesario in his intended revolt against his father, the king. It is Sylvia who broaches the subject in their letters, first uttering the standard female grievance that while she thinks of nothing but him, she knows that for all his protestations, Philander often has things other than love on his mind. From an early warning about the danger to his life if he persists in following Cesario, she initiates a frank political debate, demanding to know on what grounds the rebels are taking action?—
“What is it, oh my charming brother then, that you set up for? Is it glory? Oh mistaken, lovely youth, that glory is but a glittering light, that flashes for a moment, and then disappears; it is a false bravery, that will bring an eternal blemish upon your honest fame and house; render your honourable name hated, detested and abominable in story to after ages; a traitor!”
Like Aphra Behn, Sylvia is a royalist; and like Behn again, there is an oddly sexual aspect to her devotion to her monarch: “I swear to you, Philander, I never approach his sacred person, but my heart beats, my blood runs cold about me, and my eyes overflow with tears of joy, while an awful confusion seizes me all over.”
However, Behn’s insistence upon the physical glamour of the Stuarts is far easier to take than her subsequent attempt forcibly to remodel Charles to fit the royalist vision of what a divinely-annointed monarch should be. In the literature of the time, we’ve seen any number of hilariously inaccurate descriptions of Charles by Tory writers, and Aphra Behn’s is among the most extreme; and when you consider that she probably had James as much as Charles in her mind when she wrote it, it becomes even more ludicrous:
“What has the King, our good, our gracious monarch, done to Philander?… But all his life has been one continued miracle; all good, all gracious, calm and merciful: and this good, this god-like King… His eyes have something so fierce, so majestic, commanding, and yet so good and merciful, as would soften rebellion itself into repenting loyalty… Oh! what pity it is, unhappy young man, thy education was not near the King!”
Sylvia here launches into a lengthy reproof of Philander’s intentions, and indeed his political principles – or the lack thereof. She should have heeded her own words: from the Tory perspective, as a man was in his politics, so he was in his personal life. Philander’s willingness to betray his king should have been a clear warning to Sylvia that he was not otherwise to be trusted. Sylvia’s speech here hits all the major heads of Tory attacks upon the Whigs: that their protests against “absolutism” and their claim to be acting “for the good of the people” were nothing more than a shoddy excuse for their own selfish actions; that their motives were pure self-interest and the hope of self-aggrandisement; that to oppose the will of the king was to be guilty of treason.
In all this, Philander is the very model of a Whig, particularly in his willingness to align himself with Cesario in spite of being cuckolded by him: to a Whig, we understand, lost honour is a minor consideration beside the opportunity for personal advancement. Philander admits openly that he has no respect for Cesario, and indeed, nothing but scorn for “the rabble”, in whose name he is supposed to be acting; and that it is entirely of himself that he is thinking. In doing so, he highlights one of the major debating points of the day: if it were possible to interfere with the natural line of succession (as the Whigs tried to do during the Exclusion Crisis); if it was acceptable to substitute one king for another, to, in effect, elect a king; if being king was not a matter of Divine Will, but of the strongest arm— When no man had a right to be king, then any man had the right to be king. It was the Tories’ worst nightmare.
And this is exactly Philander’s intention. He is merely using Cesario to jockey himself into a position of power. However dangerous the rebellion, however slim the chances of victory, if the rebels do prevail, why should not Philander be king?—“When three kingdoms shall lie unpossess’d…who knows but the chance may be mine… If the strongest sword must do it, (as that must do it) why not mine still? Why may not mine be that fortunate one? Cesario has no more right to it than Philander…”
Aphra Behn’s presentation of the Duke of Monmouth in this story, in the guise of Cesario, is marked by a venomous contempt for his ambition, his ingratitude to his father (and uncle) and above all his stupidity. At the same time, there is a certain disingenuity about Behn’s telling of the story, inasmuch as the religious division at the root of the crisis goes unacknowledged: the rebellion here is unmotivated by anything but greed. However, she is right in her assertion that while Monmouth supposedly had “followers” in his attempt to dislodge the Duke of York from the succession, what he really had were users: that he was never anything more to the Exclusionists than a means to an end.
Piling on the abuse, Behn first lets Sylvia loose upon the character of Cesario: here is Monmouth as seen by the Tories, his attraction for the Exclusionists laid bare—
“What is it bewitches you so? Is it his beauty? Then Philander has a greater title than Cesario; and not one other merit has he, since in piety, chastity, sobriety, charity and honour, he as little excels, as in gratitude, obedience and loyalty. What then, my dear Philander? Is it his weakness? Ah, there’s the argument you all propose, and think to govern so soft a king: but believe me, oh unhappy Philander! Nothing is more ungovernable than a fool; nothing more obstinate, wilful, conceited, and cunning…”
Not only does Philander not dispute this summation, he has a worse opinion of Cesario than Sylvia; and if this is how his “followers” feel, how must the rest of the country despise him?—
“They use him for a tool to work with, he being the only great man that wants sense enough to find out the cheat which they dare impose upon. Can any body of reason believe, if they had design’d him good, they would let him bare-fac’d have own’d a party so opposite to all laws of nature, religion, humanity, and common gratitude?… The world knows Cesario renders himself the worst of criminals by it, and has abandon’d an interest more glorious and easy than empire, to side with and aid people that never did, or ever can oblige him; and he is so dull as to imagine that for his sake, who never did us service or good, (unless cuckolding us be good) we should venture life and fame to pull down a true monarch, to set up his bastard over us.”
This political debate is merely an interlude, however, and soon Philander is ramping up his attempt to manoeuvre himself into Sylvia’s bed, using the fact that he has confided his secret, and therefore his life, to her as a measure of his love. At this point, Sylvia’s own desire is almost beyond restraint, except that she is haunted by the thought of her sister: “Myrtilla, my sister, and Philander’s wife? Oh God! that cruel thought will put me into ravings…”
These exclamations form part of one of the story’s most remarkable letters, in which Sylvia’s attempt to wean herself from her passion by harping on the marriage evolves into a tirade against the sister who is unable to appreciate what she has, which in turn becomes an erotic fantasy in which Sylvia dwells upon Philander’s physical perfections – only to conclude abruptly with the bitter realisation that Philander did not marry Myrtilla under compulsion, or for money or position, but for love.
Sylvia then tears up the letter…but Philander receives it anyway, delivered in pieces by Sylvia’s maid and confidante, Melinda, who brings also a warning that Syvia’s mother has begun to entertain suspicions, on account of her daughter’s behaviour. Nevertheless, another letter arrives for Philander: a letter of surrender—
“My heart beats still, and heaves with the sensible remains of the late dangerous tempest of my mind, and nothing can absolutely calm me but the approach of the all-powerful Philander… Bring me then that kind cessation, bring me my Philander, and set me above the thoughts of cares, frights, or any other thoughts but those of tender love; haste then, thou charming object of my eternal wishes, and of my new desires; haste to my arms, my eyes, my soul,—but oh, be wondrous careful there, do not betray the easy maid that trusts thee amidst all her sacred store…”
[To be continued…]