“My Sylvia, thou art so dear to me, so wondrous precious to my soul, that in my extravagance of love, I fear I shall grow a troublesome and wearying coxcomb, shall dread every look thou givest away from me—a smile will make me rave, a sigh or touch make me commit a murder on the happy slave, or my own jealous heart, but all the world besides is Sylvia’s, all but another lover; but I rave and run too fast away; ages must pass a tedious term of years before I can be jealous, or conceive thou can’st be weary of Philander…”
And so, her passion overwhelming her judgement, Sylvia invites Philander to her room; and—
There are any number of ways in which we might interpret Philander’s embarrassing sexual failure, most simply that his mouth – or his pen – has been writing cheques that his body can’t cash. We should remember, in this respect, that Restoration writers often used impotence as a code for the presence of venereal disease. It is likely that Behn is covertly telling us here how far we should believe in Philander’s obsessive passion for Sylvia – i.e. not very.
More fittingly in the first true epistolary novel, there is also the sense here that Philander has “written” his passion for Sylvia into existence; that to an extent he has created an imaginary Sylvia with which the real one cannot compete. Repeatedly, Philander’s letters explode into extended fantasies of the joys to be experienced; again and again he speaks of “the irresistible Idea of Sylvia” and of “what I already so much adored in Idea”. Perhaps it is not surprising that Philander finds the reality inadequate to sustain his desire.
Impotence was a recurring motif in Aphra Behn’s writing – possibly her way of dealing with existence in a world where man’s power was essentially limitless, and woman’s essentially non-existent. You can imagine that she got a sour sort of satisfaction out of reminding people that in certain circumstances, the all-powerful male wasn’t quite so all-powerful. Behn’s most remarkable and sustained examination of the subject is her poem, The Disappointment, in which we find a situation very similar to the one implied in Love Letters: a young woman finally brought to the point of surrender, a man unable to perform. The difference is that in her poem, Behn is able to describe the event directly; very directly. Indeed, the subject matter and explicitness of her language resulted in The Disappointment being for some time misattributed to the Earl of Rochester. Behn quietly reappropriated her poem after her friend’s early death.
Philander’s abortive visit to Sylvia’s room presents Behn with her first major challenge as a prose writer. To that point, in the verbal sparring and manoeuvring of her lovers she has been quite at home; but now she must deal with events at which both were present. However, the nature of the contretemps makes it permissable for each of them subsequently to reflect upon it in a letter. Philander’s reaction is an even more than usually extravagant missive that, examined closely, amounts simply to a protracted wail of, This never happened to me before! – while Sylvia, in her shame and humiliation, responds by calling the affair off.
Perversely, the fact that the sexual act did not actually happen frees Behn here to describe the lead-up in deeply erotic terms – in Sylvia’s voice as well as in Philander’s. One of the things that drew so much contemporary criticism upon Aphra Behn was her stubborn insistence upon the reality and the strength of female sexual desire. She was a passionate woman herself, and looked upon women who denied, or refused to act upon, their sexual desires as hypocrites and liars. She says as much here, in Sylvia’s voice, railing against the social conventions that gave women only the choice of admitting their passions and being outcasts, or hiding them and living a life of practised deceit and concealment:
“Ah, what’s a woman’s honour when it is so poorly guarded! No wonder that you conquer with such ease, when we are only safe by the mean arts of dissimulation, an ill as shameful as that to which we fall. Oh silly refuge! What foolish nonsense fond custom can persuade: Yet so it is; and she that breaks her laws, loses her fame, her honour and esteem. Oh heavens! How quickly lost it is! Give me, ye powers, my fame, and let me be a fool; let me retain my virtue and my honour, and be a dull insensible.”
And for all the shocked reaction to it, feigned or otherwise, there is not much doubt that the eroticism of Behn’s language in describing the feelings of Philander and Sylvia here is one of the main reasons her novel remained in print throughout the entire 18th century, long after its political relevance had faded.
Here is Sylvia, reflecting upon her emotions upon Philander entering her room:
“What though I lay extended on my bed, undressed, unapprehensive of my fate, my bosom loose and easy of access, my garments ready, thin and wantonly put on, as if they would with little force submit to the fond straying hand: what then, Philander, must you take advantage?…So faintly and so feebly I upbraided you, as did but more advance your perjuries. Your strength increas’d, but mine alas declin’d; ’till I quite fainted in your arms, left you triumphant lord of all: no more my faint denials do persuade, no more my trembling hands resist your force, unregarded lay the treasure which you toil’d for, betrayed and yielded to the lovely conqueror…”
Philander’s own version of the same moment warrants close inspection. This was, remember, Aphra Behn’s first published prose work. She was still a neophyte at the form; yet consider here the brilliant building tempo of the writing, the physicality of the detail…and the comically abrupt conclusion:
“I saw the ravishing maid as much inflamed as I; she burnt with equal fire, with equal languishment: not all her care could keep the sparks concealed, but it broke out in every word and look; her trembling tongue, her feeble fainting voice betrayed it all; signs interrupting every syllable; a languishment I never saw till then dwelt in her charming eyes, that conradicted all her little vows; her short and double breathings heaved her breast, her swelling snowy breast, her hands that grasped me trembling as they closed, while she permitted mine unknown, unheeded to traverse all her beauties, till quite forgetting all I had faintly promised, and wholly abandoning my soul to joy, I rushed upon her, who, all fainting, lay beneath my useless weight, for on a sudden all my power was fled, swifter than lightning hurried through my enfeebled veins, and vanished all…”
It is, I think, the opening phrase of that quote that cuts to the heart of the matter. I spoke in my previous post about the tendency of this novel to equate love with warfare. This was not an idea unique to Aphra Behn; on the contrary. It was a commonplace at the time that women were to be “conquered”; that a man could not feel desire unless he felt also his own “triumph”, the woman’s “surrender”; and that the end of every affair was inevitable in its beginning, because where there was nothing left to be conquered, there was nothing to desire. The literature of this time, and indeed for several decades afterwards, is full of disturbing “seduction” scenes that are half an inch off being rape – and sometimes not that far.
Philander’s language in his letters reflects this convention. He dwells with pleasure upon his own capacity for violence, the idea that one day he will no longer treat Sylvia with “respect or Awe”, but sweep aside her hesitations and fears and, “…force my self with all the violence of raging Love…and Ravish my delight.” Even the inexperienced Sylvia uses the same sort of language, referring to Philander, as we have seen, as “triumphant lord” and “the lovely conqueror”. In her letter after the event, the mortified Sylvia assumes that Philander’s failure was her fault, while the real problem was not that she was insufficiently desirable, but too openly desiring. Met with a passion equal to his own, Philander retreats.
But Aphra Behn is not yet done humiliating her anti-hero. Worried that he has been spotted on his way to Sylvia’s room, upon making his escape Philander takes the precaution of disguising himself as Sylvia’s maid, Melinda. What he doesn’t remember, however, is that Sylvia’s father has designs upon the girl; and on his way through the grove of trees leading to the back gate of the property, “Melinda” is cornered by Count Bertoli and made a proposition of the most unmistakable nature:
“I replied as before—‘I am no whore, sir’—‘No,’ cries he, ‘but I can quickly make thee one, I have my tools about me, sweet-heart; therefore let us lose no time, but fall to work… Come, come, Melinda, why all this foolish argument at this hour and in this place, and after so much serious courtship; believe me, I’ll be kind to thee for ever;’ with that he clapped fifty guineas in a purse into one hand, and something else that shall be nameless into the other, presents that had been both worth Melinda’s acceptance…”
And Sylvia, too, suffers a further humiliation, but of a very different nature. To this point the story has been told essentially in two voices, but now a third intrudes, as Sylvia receives a letter from her sister, Myrtilla – Philander’s wife. We learn that Myrtilla is only too aware of the situation, but hoping for the best has held her tongue, keeping the secret from her parents. Seeing, however, that Sylvia is teetering on the brink of ruin, Myrtilla tries to pull her back from the edge, speaking, as she assures Sylvia, out of pity, not anger.
Myrtilla’s arguments are three-fold: the threat to Sylvia’s, and thus her family’s, honour; the unusual horror, as she phrases it, of it being Sylvia’s brother who pursues her; and finally, that Sylvia cannot trust Philander. It is the first two arguments that work upon Sylvia; the third that speaks to the reader, above all Myrtilla’s sad reflection that everything Philander is now saying and promising Sylvia, he once said and promised to her; that this desperate love-pursuit is nothing more to him than an elaborate game:
“He once thought me as lovely, lay at my feet, and sighed away his soul, and told such piteous stories of his sufferings, such sad, such mournful tales of his departed rest, his broken heart and everlasting love, that sure I thought it had been a sin not to have credited his charming perjuries; in such a way he swore, with such a grace he sighed, so artfully he moved, so tenderly he looked. Alas, dear child, then all he said was new, never told before, now it is a beaten road…love at second hand, worn out, and all its gaudy lustre tarnished…”
So accurate is this that it strikes the reader as equally comic and sickening: “piteous stories of his sufferings” are indeed Philander’s stock-in-trade, always dying for love yet always in perfect health. Significantly, too, there is no hint, no consciousness, in this letter of Myrtilla’s own supposed infidelities; and in spite of the insistence in the preface of Myrtilla’s affair with Cesario, we remember the contention by some that the rumoured affair between Lady Mary Grey and the Duke of Monmouth was merely a story invented by Lord Grey to give himself an excuse and an opportunity.
Shamed by this letter, yet not taking its truth to heart, Sylvia once again tells Philander, and far more definitely, that all is over; although she does not reveal to him the reason. Sylvia has a suitor, Foscario, who is approved by her parents; and seeing him leave the house in good spirits in the wake of his own receipt of Sylvia’s letter of renunciation, Philander chooses to believe that Sylvia has bestowed her hand upon his rival. He later sends Sylvia an account of his subsequent agonies, his contemplation of suicide—and his substitution of murder for suicide, confronting Foscario with his sword drawn; his need to dramatise himself, we note, infinitely outweighing his obligation to keep Sylvia’s secret.
Sylvia, however, does not see Philander’s essential selfishness, but only his danger, and his jealousy. Her need to reassure him of her love supersedes all else – including her loyalty to her sister. On the second attempt, there is no failure. We can readily believe that after the previous embarrassment, Philander found himself confronting a Sylvia who was far more shy, more shrinking, more uncertain; more desirable; more conquerable.
The concluding section of this tale gives us an oddly compressed version of reality. For one thing, Behn makes little use in her story of the arrest and trial of Lord Grey for his “debauching” of his sister-in-law; but as full transcripts of the trial were printed and devoured by the public, she may have felt that there was no point in re-working it too extensively. Moreover, as we may remember, the affair between Grey and Henrietta Berkeley was carried on for a year before discovery; here, the lovers are discovered almost immediately – and I mean, immediately: we can only cringe as Count Bertoli forces his way into his daughter’s room before she’s even had a chance to rearrange the bedclothes. (Which is to say, she stopped to write a letter first.) We learn that, ironically, it is the realisation that Melinda doesn’t understand his reproaches that alerts Bertoli to the fact that an outsider has been on the premises; an intercepted letter does the rest. Sylvia is jointly confronted by her father, her mother, and her sister, and her doom pronounced: she must marry Foscario at once, to cover her guilt.
It is this that provokes the elopement of the lovers – and while Aphra Behn didn’t feel compelled to exploit Lord Grey’s trial, the gossip about Henrietta making her escape in only her nightclothes is another matter. The elopement goes wrong, and Philander is not at the appointed place. Sylvia must trust herself to his manservant, Brilliard – the story’s substitute for William Turner, who Sylvia will shortly marry under Philander’s persuasion. Reaching Paris (remember, this is supposed to be taking place in France), Sylvia writes a letter of mingled panic and reproach to Philander, describing herself as, “…undressed…even to my under-petticoat and night-gown” and “…almost naked” – and which she signs off with the declaration, Paris, Thursday, from my bed, for want of clothes…
And where is Philander? In all sorts of trouble. He arrives at the rendezvous late, to find the carriage containing Sylvia and Brilliard gone. In fact, frightened at the delay and the likelihood of being caught, Sylvia has insisted that the carriage start for Paris, but Philander concludes that she has been found out and carried back to her home. Spying out the land there, he sees Foscario – on what he believes to be the eve of his wedding – and forces on him a second duel, in which both men are wounded. Unable to be moved from the inn to which he is carried, Philander falls prey to Count Bertoli. His next letter to Sylvia is written from the Bastille:
“I am, my Sylvia, arrested at the suit of Monsieur the Count, your father, for a rape on my lovely maid: I desire, my soul, you will immediately take coach and go to see the Prince Cesario, and he will bail me out…”
This is the first serious mention of Cesario for some time, and signals the novel’s belated return to politics. First, however, there is a flurry of action. Cesario does as Sylvia asks, warning both parties that a desperate search for the girl is under way. It is this that prompts Philander to insist upon Sylvia and Brilliard’s marriage. We get a sudden outburst here from Aphra Behn, speaking through Sylvia, against the ugly realities of “interested” marriage in the late 17th century; in particular the common situation of a young girl being sold to a rich old man: an arrangement repeatedly excoriated in Behn’s writing, along with the idea that such a union could be considered “holy”—
“Were I in height of youth, as now I am, forced by my parents, obliged by interest and honour, to marry the old, deformed, diseased, decrepit Count Anthonio…and rather than suffer him to consummate his nuptials, suppose I should (as sure I should) kill myself, it were blasphemy to lay this fatal marriage to heaven’s charge—curse on your nonsense, ye imposing gownmen, curse on your holy cant; you may as well call rapes and murders, treason and robbery, the acts of heaven; because heaven suffers them to be committed.”
But even as Philander and Sylvia discuss how they may meet again, another disaster strikes: “Riding full-speed for Paris, I was met, stopped, and seized for high-treason by the King’s messengers, and possibly may fall a sacrifice to the anger of an incensed monarch…”
However, as Lord Grey escaped the Tower of London via the power of his money, so too does Philander escape on his way back to the Bastille: “I resolved to kill, if I could no other way oblige him to favour my escape; I tried with gold before I shewed him my dagger, and that prevailed…” There is a brief reflection on the possible fate of Cesario (Monmouth, we know, was allowed to escape after the exposure of the Rye House Plot, while his co-conspirators died for the same guilt), and then plans for a reunion. Again, as Lord Grey after his escape risked recapture to meet and flee the country with Henrietta Berkeley, so too Philander:
“I wait for Sylvia; and though my life depend upon my flight, nay, more, the life of Sylvia, I cannot go without her; dress yourself then, my dearest, in your boy’s clothes, and haste with Brilliard, whither this seaman will conduct thee, whom I have hired to set us on some shore of safety…”
So closes what Aphra Behn originally intended as her whole story, that of the affair, the arrest, the treason and the flight. It was as much as anyone knew of Lord Grey and Henrietta Berkeley, who hid themselves for two years after their escape from England. But as we now know, it wasn’t the end. Behn’s story, published anonymously, was a great success; and indeed, would be reissued at least a dozen times before the end of the century. Meanwhile, the literary climate of 1684 hadn’t changed: plays were still unwanted, and Aphra Behn still had to eat.
And, after all, I suppose it’s only fair that, having invented the modern novel, Aphra Behn should also invent the modern novel’s most frequent consequence: the cash-in sequel.
[To be continued…]