Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 1)

    I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet’s pleasure; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents, but such as arrived in earnest to him: and it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues, there being enough of reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention.
    I was myself an eye-witness to a great part of what you will find here set down, and what I could not be witness of I received from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself…





During the second half of 1688, when Aphra Behn was seriously ill, in debt, and desperately needing her work to find favour with the reading public, she published a short piece of prose – a novella, in today’s language; only 67 pages in my Oxford University Press edition – that would suffer the unhappy fate of becoming ultimately one of the most misunderstood works in the history of English literature. The debate that has raged for literally centuries over the origins of Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave has sometimes almost managed to obscure both the historical importance and the literary virtues of this unprecedented piece of writing.

Of all the forms of literature, including the varieties of light literature, “fiction” was always the one that was most looked at askance. Many cultures had profound objections to what they viewed as simply another form of lying; while others found something disreputable in this particular form that was mysteriously absent from other kinds of story-telling: no-one worried over whether a play was “a true story”, but when it came to prose, somehow it was different. Perhaps the immediacy of the text, the sense that the author was speaking directly to the reader, seemed to create a bond between them that demanded honest communication.

In any event, it is not surprising that many early exponents of this new form of professional writing quickly learned the advantages of asserting that their stories were true, or at least “based upon a true story”. What is surprising, even bewildering, is that hundreds of years after the publication of Aphra Behn’s last major work – inevitably, in 1688, subtitled “A True History” – we should find serious literary critics up in arms over the fact that a work of fiction was a work of fiction.

There is, and always has been, something about Aphra Behn that seems to cloud the judgement of ordinarily sensible people. Perhaps it’s simply because she was, in so many ways, the first: the first fully professional female writer, the first to show herself equally proficient as a poet, a playwright, a novelist and a translator; or perhaps it was the way that she effectively managed to reinvent herself in the 1670s, suddenly appearing in Restoration London with the freedoms of widowhood upon her and her murky origins firmly behind her, a new persona to go with her new profession, and only the most tantalising details – a spy in Antwerp, a traveller to the Americas – allowed to emerge from the carefully guarded mists of her real past.

So was Aphra in life; after her death she became something else again when, as we have seen, the literary reputation she fought so hard to earn and maintain was superseded by another reinvention of her character, this one perpetrated by the notorious Charles Gildon, who tore down Aphra Behn the writer and replaced her with “the passionate Astrea”, a construct as fictional as any by Behn herself. Through a series of increasingly lengthy “biographies”, Gildon implied that all of Behn’s prose writing was based upon passages in her life; he repeatedly rewrote his “memories” of her to increase the parallel between the female characters in her writing and her own “adventures”. Through Gildon’s intervention, Behn ceased to be an author, and became merely the recorder of her own life, a diarist at best, who committed her own love affairs to paper and sold them to the public. Most scandalously of all, at least according to Gildon, Behn had been romantically involved with the subject of her last major work of prose – Oroonoko, “the royal slave”.

In spite of Gildon’s misappropriation of her character, Aphra Behn’s writings maintained much of their popularity throughout the 18th century; but in time, as tastes changed and morals tightened, her work became increasingly unacceptable, until at length she was considered persona non grata in both the literary and the personal sense, and essentially dismissed from the literary canon. It was not until the early 20th century that any serious attempt was made to rehabilitate her – as an important historical figure, by Virginia Woolf, and as an important writer, by Montague Summers – and these efforts ran up against a critical brick wall of the most bizarre and inexplicable nature.

In short—it wasn’t Aphra Behn’s immorality, personal or literary, that was bothering people any more; it was, rather, that she had claimed that some of her stories were true when they were not.

It seems incredible to contemplate, but the fact that Aphra Behn’s fiction was fiction was offered up in all seriousness as a reason why she should be dismissed as an artist and refused any place at all in the literary timeline – let alone any position so exalted as “the Mother of the Novel”, which a few brave souls were demanding for her. And much as it pains me to have to admit this, this bewildingly ludicrous assault upon Aphra Behn’s credentials was headed by no less a person than Ernest Bernbaum, then Instructor in English at Harvard University, who in 1913 published an essay entitled Mrs. Behn’s Biography A Fiction, in which he argues that many of the details in Oroonoko that are supposed to support Behn’s contention that she was an eye-witness of the events she describes could have been taken from contemporary accounts of Surinam published in England from the mid-1660s onward, before concluding, “Mrs Behn in Oroonoko deliberately and circumstantially lied.”

Or to put it another way—she wrote fiction.

I suppose if this was an isolated piece of idiocy we could content ourselves with rolling our eyes and uttering a hearty, “Well, duh” before moving on, but there’s more to this than immediately meets the eye. The year after writing his essay in condemnation of Aphra Behn, Ernest Bernbaum published The Mary Carleton Narratives 1663 – 1673: A Missing Chapter In The History Of The English Novelan entire book devoted to praising Francis Kirkman for doing exactly what he condemns Aphra Behn for doing – which is to say:

  1. Writing fiction based upon, but not an accurate account of, real events.
  2. Adapting the writings of other people into his own narrative.
  3. Inserting himself as first-person narrator into his own fictional text.
  4. Repeatedly (and falsely) swearing to the truth of his version of events.

So there you have it, folks: men write fiction; women tell lies. If anyone ever asks you to define “gender bias”, you can point them in this direction.

Honestly… You can understand, can’t you? – why people like Dale Spender sometimes go so ballistic.

But it doesn’t stop there! No! – it gets even stupider. Because in response to Ernest Bernbaum’s criticisms of Aphra Behn, a small band rose up to defend the lady’s honour – but instead of doing so by retorting sensibly, “Yes, that’s right, Ernest, she was a very good writer of fiction”, they “defended” her by trying to prove that she hadn’t been lying at all – that Oroonoko was after all a true story – and in doing so, managed to undermine even more profoundly Aphra Behn’s claims to be taken seriously as an artist and an important literary figure.

Oh, my God.

Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God…

And while I know this is a big statement, I am prepared to go out on a limb here and declare this to be – the single stupidest passage in the history of literary criticism.

I’m sorry. You’re going to have to bear with me for a few moments here. I’m having trouble moving past this. I mean— You can imagine that, in 1688, most people would have accepted the assertion that Oroonoko was a true story, or at least been unsure whether it was or not; but in 1913 – !? After 250 years of writers claiming their works were “a true story” when they patently weren’t!?

But clearly, there was something else going on here. You don’t, after all, find scandalised essays from the same period excoriating Horace Walpole because The Castle Of Otranto was not, in fact, “translated from an ancient Italian manuscript”. So what was the problem with this one piece of writing? – that it was by a woman? – or that it was by Aphra Behn?

Anyway— In the end the anti-Behn-ites had their way, and Aphra was discarded from the timeline, dismissed as a curiosity rather than respected as a writer; which among many other injustices had the effect of disguising for many decades the qualities of Oroonoko, not as “A True History”, but as a remarkable and important work of fiction.

[To be continued]

14 Responses to “Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 1)”

  1. 250 years? More like a thousand – Old and Middle English works are similarly at pains to give an origin, any origin, other than “I made this up”. (And as you know this transition is one of my maggots.) And as for other writers…

    “My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire: I was the third of five sons.”

    “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.”

    As for the tightening of morality, I’m not at all convinced that this was the primary reason for Behn’s dismissal from Great Literature: I think it may have been more that not only was she female, so were many of her readers, and her subjects were also “women’s” (i.e. love and betrayal rather than adventure and politics – and yes, even writing that makes it clear how much of an oversimplification that is).

  2. I didn’t mean to suggest that people hadn’t been passing fiction off as fact for a lot longer than that – 250 years is just a rough timeframe between the date this blog arbitrarily assigns to “the rise of the novel” and the day an English professor at Harvard seemed to be struggling with the concept of “fiction”. 🙂

    I disagree about the banishing of Aphra – every mention of her through the 19th century and even into the early 20th uses the word “immoral” – beyond that they don’t deal with her writing at all. You can even see the tightening in the quotes I picked to head the first post on Love Letters: we go from Clara Reeve in 1785 able to separate what she wrote from how she wrote, and admitting her talent in spite of her subject matter, to Walter Hudson in 1865 declaring that she “wrote foully” and that’s all there is to be said.

    Aphra isn’t the only pre-19th century female writer to drop off the compass during the 19th century. Quite a few of them were deemed “unsuitable” at that time, and were expunged simply by never having their books reissued. Charlotte Smith is a good example. On the other hand, Tobias Smollett (now there’s someone who “wrote foully”) was never out of print.

    • You’ve certainly read more of the crits than I have. The impression I’ve got from my relatively light skims is that “immorality” was the excuse, rather than the reason, for simply denying all female writing history.

      Incidentally, has Sophia Lee’s The Recess arrived on your list? Foster seems to regard it as the ur-historical romance.

  3. My reading suggests that most female writing was dismissed on the grounds that “it is by a woman, therefore it is not important”. 😦

    At least Aphra got something a little different – and at least she got talked about. Mind you, I wouldn’t be prepared to swear that all of the people dismissing her for “immorality” had actually read her; they may have just been propagating the party line.

    An historical romance, as opposed to an historical novel, yes. The Recess is on my shortlist of “works I really need to consider before getting stuck into the Gothic novel proper”.

    Apropos – anyone have any ideas about why Mary Queen of Scots was so sympathetically treated by writers around this time, while Elizabeth is so often cast as the villain?

  4. Well, Elizabeth was her father’s daughter, and hard to like, I think. 🙂

    Slightly more seriously, my guess is that it’s because Mary is Tragic – two dead husbands (even if she probably connived at one of the deaths herself), one dead probable-lover, all those various plots against (and sometimes by) her, a dramatic end – and the mood of the times wanted a tragic heroine.

    As far as I can tell, while the initial praise and damning broke down basically on religious lines, there was still a lot of argument about her in the eighteenth century – Robertson and Hume anti, Tytler pro – and it may be that some of those people had associations with the authors of books involving her. I have no evidence.

  5. Hi I’m so glad I found your site! I’m currently studying for an English Lit degree and Oroonoko is one of the set texts – an interesting but difficult read I found, if I’m honest. Anyway, thanks so much for your views and thoughts on this book, they have certainly helped me think more widely about the context etc of the book! (I just wish I could write as well as you!).

  6. Hi, Sally – thanks so much for joining us! Sorry to be a bit slow responding, but I really wanted to get that fourth Oroonoko piece done with before I did anything else. 🙂 Please feel free to add your own thoughts and comments!


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