It was just under a year ago that I declared my ambition for 2012 to be, “To get the hell out of 1688”, and much to my surprise I’ve almost managed it. And if I don’t manage it, it will only be because I’ve chosen to make the final step in this journey far more complicated than there is any real need for it to be.
I’m sure you’re all astonished to hear that.
In the meantime, I’m working up to what will be — I SWEAR — a single-post examination of Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt. This was, along with Oroonoko and my current bone of contention (of which, far too much anon), one of the three short prose pieces that Behn published during the second half of 1688, which first appeared as individual works and then later the same year were bundled together and re-released under the title, Three Histories.
The Fair Jilt, it turns out, is a peculiar thing indeed; as close as anything I’ve yet seen to the “amatory fiction” that Behn tends to be accused of writing by people who like to downplay her accomplishments, yet constantly taking the kind of odd turns that Oroonoko might now lead us to expect from her.
However, what is occupying me at the moment is the fact that, without attracting anything like the attention that Oroonoko has over the years, The Fair Jilt too passes itself off as a true history that took place under the eyes of the teller of the tale—this time, when she was in Antwerp, spying for the Stuarts. Given that the proofs of the time in Antwerp were and are much stronger than those for the time in Surinam, it seems odd that this further example of “a true history” should have passed almost without comment, particularly when we consider the centuries of hysteria over Oroonoko.
Perhaps it is the fact that Behn confines her assertions of truth-telling to her short story’s dedication, while her narrative proper in in the third person, which is responsible for this lack of reaction from the critics:
Nor can this little history lay a better claim to that honour than those that have not pretended to it; which has but this merit to recommend it, that it is truth: truth, which you so much admire. But ’tis a truth that entertains you with so many accidents diverting and moving that they will need both a patron and an asserter in this incredulous world. For however it may be imagined that poetry (my talent) has so greatly the ascendant over me, that all I write must pass for fiction, I now desire to have it understood that this is reality, and matter of fact, and acted in this our later age, and that, in the person of Tarquin, I bring a prince to kiss your hands who owned himself, and was received, as the last of the race of the Roman kings, whom I have often seen, and you have heard of, and whose story is so well known to yourself, and many hundreds more, part of which I had from the mouth of this unhappy great man, and was an eye-witness to the rest…
(That’s quite a run-on sentence!)
To my mind, there are two significant aspects to Behn’s claim for her story’s truth. The first is that this “prince”, this “unhappy great man”, was eventually exposed as an imposter, which by 1688 Behn must have known full well. The other is her mock-tragic head-shaking over the incredulity of the public and the fact that she is so well known for her poetry, even when she tells the truth it “pass[es] for fiction”. That last remark suggests to me that contemporary readers were not in least fooled by the protestations and assertions in which Behn’s prose was frequently framed, but rather knew very well that what they were reading was just a story.
Apparently in the 17th century, people were much smarter than they were in the 20th.