Posts tagged ‘Aphra Behn’

29/12/2014

Vale, Aphra

epitaph1In her dedication of The Lucky Mistake to “George Greenveil” (George Granville, Baron Lansdowne), published the year of her death, Aphra Behn comments:

…the Obligations I have to you, deserves a greater testimony of my respect, then this little peice, too trivial to bear the honour of your Name, but my increasing Indisposition makes me fear I shall not have many opportunities of this Kind…

The last years of Aphra Behn’s life were a constant struggle against increasing ill-health. Most cruelly, it seems that she suffered from an arthritic complaint that made it painful, if not impossible, for her to write, and thus to earn an income. It is also easy to imagine that the overthrow of James II in 1688 took a simultaneous toll on Behn’s spirits. It is sad yet strangely fitting that her death almost coincided with the coronation of William and Mary in April of 1689.

Whatever her public reputation, Behn had friends and admirers who organised for her burial in Westminster Abbey; and while the epitaph on her gravestone is often taken as an expression of public disapproval, there are many who believe that Aphra wrote it herself—one last joke at her own expense.

Despite the increasingly punitive morality that would see Aphra Behn expunged from the English literary canon from the mid-18th century until her revival in the early 20th, in her lifetime and the decades that followed her writing was extremely popular – and profitable, for her publishers if not so much for herself. It has been pointed out that Behn was the first English writer of fiction to have her works collected and reissued, with William Canning publishing Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt and Agnes de Castro together in 1688 as “Three Histories“. Then, in 1696, Charles Gildon issued another collection under the title, The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn—following this two years later with, All The Histories And Novels Written By The Late Ingenious Mrs Behn, and two years after that with, Histories, Novels And Translations.

And this is where things get awkward. The last volume was sold under the assertion that its contents were, “The greatest part never before printed.” It certainly offered under Aphra Behn’s name various short works not published before…but where did they come from? Charles Gildon, who declared himself to be Behn’s “literary executor”, insisted that they had fallen to his lot after her death; but this hardly explains why he waited eleven years to publish them, particularly given Gildon’s perpetual hand-to-mouth existence and his frequent forays into debt.

Not surprisingly, debate about the origin of these works still continues. There seems to be strong scepticism about their authenticity amongst the experts on Aphra Behn, with most prepared to go no further than to suggest that Behn may have left certain writings unfinished at the time of her death, and that Gildon, or someone paid by him, completed them and published them under her name. Others reject altogether the assertion of her authorship.

And on this basis, I have finally decided not to include these posthumous publications in my consideration of the oeuvre of Aphra Behn…which means that with The Lucky Mistake, we have reached the end of our journey through her works of fiction.

Furthermore, we have also finished our examination of the fiction of 1689—a point I hoped to reach by the end of this year (though for once I had more sense than to jinx myself by saying so out loud). The beginning of 2015 will see us tackling the works of 1690: a year in which I would expect at least a measure of politics to re-emerge, given the events that culminated in the Battle of the Boyne; but which, at least on the basis of a superficial glance, seems to have been a period of consolidation for the English novel.

I’m likewise hoping (ever hopeful, me!) that 2015 will be a year of consolidation for this blog. I did try to get back on track recently with “Authors In Depth”, but ended up lengthening the list rather than making significant headway with our established writers; while “Reading Roulette” came to a halt when a certain book took some dogged tracking down. (It’s on its way now, though!)

Now, between those categories of reviewing, plus my examinations of the roots of the Gothic novel and early detective fiction, you might think I had quite enough to be going on with; yet as I sit here in the waning days of 2014, I find myself in anticipation of founding yet another category of reviews; even though I need more things to write about like I need…um…

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29/12/2014

The Lucky Mistake

LuckyMistake1Atlante was now arriv’d to her thirteenth Year, when her Beauty, which every day increas’d, became the discourse of the whole Town; which had already gain’d her as many Lovers as had beheld her, for none saw her without Languishing for her, or at least but what were in very great Admiration of her, every body talkt of the young and charming Atlante, and all the Noble Men who had Sons (knowing the smallness of her Fortune and the lustre of her Beauty) would send them for fear of their being Charm’d with her, or to some other part of the World, or exhorted them, by way of precaution, to keep out of her sight: Old Bellyuard was one of these Wise Parents, and by a timely prevention as he thought of Rinaldo’s falling in Love with Atlante, perhaps was the occasion of his being so; he had before heard of Atlante and of her Beauty; but it had made no impressions on his Heart, but his Father no sooner forbid him Loving, than he felt a new desire Tormenting him, of seeing this lovely and dangerous Young Person…

The Lucky Mistake was published in 1689, the year that Aphra Behn died at the age of only forty-nine. The tragedy of her early death is exacerbated when we consider that this short fiction seemed intended to mark a new phase in her extraordinary literary career. In her study on Behn, Aphra Behn’s Afterlife, Jane Spencer points out that the actual text of this work is sub-headed “The First Novel”, and suggests that Behn had entered into an agreement with the publisher Richard Bentley for a series of such fictions. If such a plan there was, it ended upon the 16th April that year.

Whatever may have been the larger plans for Behn’s fiction, in its own right The Lucky Mistake is clearly a transitional work. It is, for one thing, the first of Behn’s fictions that she announces as “a novel”. Up to this point, as we have seen, Behn tended to call her fictions “histories”, reflecting the fact that they were either based upon true stories, as was the case with Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt, or claimed to be so, as with The History Of The Nun. Neither the dedication nor the text of The Lucky Mistake makes any such claim; in the former Behn says simply:

…all I shall say for it, is, that ’tis not a Translation but an Original…

As I commented with respect to The Rival Princesses, 1689 was apparently a watershed year for the English novel, the point at which writers ceased to fret over the moral implications of “fiction” and began writing stories for the stories’ sake. (Of course, if Behn had been aware that 250 years later her “histories” would lead to her being publicly denounced as a shameless liar, she probably would have started writing “novels” a little earlier.) And in addition to categorising her work as “a novel”, Behn sets it in a country other than England, another common tendency amongst English writers of the time; although in fact, all of Behn’s fictions are set in other countries, possibly as a side-effect of her reading fiction in other languages in her quest to find suitable publications to translate.

Whether it was a conscious act on its author’s part or not, Behn’s “novel” separates itself from her earlier “histories” with respect to both its content and its tone. A fairly straightforward love story, The Lucky Mistake is by far the gentlest of Behn’s works, lacking the cynicism and black humour that mark the earlier short fictions; it even has a happy ending. The tension of the story lies in the conflict between the self-interested and mercenary views of the older generation, and the honest feelings of the younger. One of Behn’s enduring concerns, namely, young girls being forced into either a convent or a marriage against their wills, is a significant plot-point, but without editorialisation on her part and for once without a tragic outcome.

Set in France, evidently in contemporary times, The Lucky Mistake introduces two noble families of contrasting fortunes. Count Bellyuard has retired from court voluntarily, tired of the intrigue and the constant bustle; he gives himself over to the tranquillity of country life and focuses his energies upon his only son:

…call’d Rinaldo now grown to the Age of Fifteen, who having all the Excellent Qualities and Grace of Youth, by Nature; he would bring him up in all the Vertues and Noble Sciences, which he believed the Gayety and Lustre of the Court might divert: he therefore in this retirement spar’d no Cost, to those that could instruct and accomplish him, and he had the best Tutors and Masters that could be purchased at Court: Bellyuard making far less account of Riches than of Fine parts…

Which is easily said when you have riches. In the estate next door is the Count De Pais, of an old and distinguished family, but without the means of maintaining what he feels to be his proper place in the world. He has, therefore, also retired to the country, but not in the same spirit as Count Bellyuard:

And as it is most Natural for great Souls to be most proud, (if I may call a handsome Disdain by that Vulgar Name) when they are most deprest, so De Pais was more retir’d, more estrang’d from his Neighbours, and kept a greater distance, than if he had Enjoy’d all he had lost at Court, and took more Solemnity and State upon him, because he would not be subject to the reproaches of the World, by making himself familiar with it. So that he rarely visited, and was as rarely visited; and contrary to the Custom of those in France, who are easy of excess, and free of conversation, he kept his family retir’d so close, that ’twas rare to see any of ’em…

As with Count Bellyuard, most of Count De Pais’ attention is focused upon his children, although again, not exactly in the same spirit:

The old Count had two only Daughters, of exceeding Beauty, who gave the Generous Father ten thousand Torments, as often as he beheld them, when he consider’d their Extream Beauty, their fine Wit, their innocence, Modesty, and above all, their Birth; and that he had not the Fortune to marry them according to their Quality; and below it he had rather see ’em laid in their silent Graves, than consent to…

Behn’s use of the word “generous” to describe Count De Pais is a rare note of overt sarcasm in The Lucky Mistake, in which the representatives of the older generation progressively show themselves as monsters of selfishness, uninterested in their children’s happiness, and seeing them only as the means to their own aggrandisement.

The Count De Pais has one friend in the country:

…Count Vernole; A man of about forty Years of Age, of low Stature, Complexion very black and swarthy, lean, lame, extream proud and haughty; extracting of a Descent from the Blood Royal, not extremely brave, but very glorious; he had no very great Estate, but was in Election of a greater, and of an Addition of Honour from the King, his Father having done most worthy Services against the Hugonots, and by the high Favour of Cardinal Mazarine was represented to his Majesty, as a man related to the Crown, of great Name but small Estate; so that there was now nothing but great Expectations and Preparations in the Family of Count Vernole to go to Court, to which he dayly hop’d an invitation or Command.

In the meantime, Count De Pais and Count Vernole discover that they have things in common:

…whenever they went abroad, they club’d their Train, to make one great Show, and were always together, bemoaning each others Fortune; that from so high a Descent, as one from Monarchs, by the Mothers side, and the other from Dukes of his side, they were reduc’d by Fate, to the degree of Private Gentlemen.

Count Vernole spends much of his time with Count De Pais’ family, and finds himself drawn to Atlante…even though she is at that time only eight years old.

The extreme youth of the heroine of The Lucky Mistake is likely to cause modern readers some squirms, although it reflects the reality of Behn’s world, in which girls were considered marriageable as soon as they began to menstruate. It is not Atlante’s age per se that bothers Behn, but the age gap between herself and Count Vernole, who begins to think of the girl as his future wife when he is forty and she is barely out of the nursery.

Atlante herself very naturally has no such thought. Her feelings towards Vernole are mixed. She does not like him personally, but learns to appreciate some of his qualities. Vernole has no idea how to talk to children, and so addresses Atlante as a young woman; likewise conversing with her as if she were much older, and on the only subjects he knows: Vernole is no mean scholar. This odd approach actually does Vernole more good than any other could have. It appeals to Atlante’s precocious intellectualism, and wins him her respect and gratitude. In his vanity, Vernole takes her interest in his conversation as a sign of a budding affection—this evidence of her good taste giving him an even higher opinion of her:

Sir, I find the Seeds of great and profound Matter in the Soul of this Young Maid, which ought to be nourish, now while she was Young, and they will grow up to very great Perfection; I find Atlante capable of all the Noble Vertues of the Mind, , and am infinitely mistaken in my Observations, and Art of Physiognomy, if Atlante be not born for greater things than her Fortune does now promise…

By which he means, of course, she will become his wife. Considering Count Vernole’s “descent” and his expectation of being recalled to Court any day, Count De Pais looks upon him as infinitely superior to anything the family’s ruined fortunes entitles him to expect for his daughters; his age and his lack of physical attractions are, or course, irrelevant, as are Atlante’s feelings. Still, Count De Pais is uncomfortable at being unable to provide Atlante with a suitable dowry. He therefore decides to force his younger daughter, Charlot, into a convent, so that he may strip her of the moiety she is entitled to and concentrate what fortune he has in Atlante.

The two men are not so lost in their plans for the future, however, that they do not realise some time will first have to pass. Atlante is allowed to live unmolested until she is thirteen, at which time her fortunes take a dramatic turn…

In spite of the retirement in which she lives, Atlante’s transcendent beauty becomes the talk of her neighbourhood, and either because they have caught a glimpse of her at church or have heard the ravings of someone who has, the young men of the district become obsessed with the thought of her, spending their time scheming to gain access to the reclusive beauty. But while the young men think only of Atlante’s physical attractions, their alarmed elders see no further than her lack of fortune. Appalled at the mere thought of a daughter-in-law without a dowry, however splendid her other qualities—which in this case are mental and moral as well as physical—the fathers of the neighbourhood begin despatching their sons to other parts of the globe on a variety of pretexts.

And among the panicky parents is Count Bellyuard who, although Rinaldo is the apple of his eye, has no intention of allowing the boy any free will in the matter of his marriage, but is already calculating various suitable alliances for him according to the birth and fortune of the respective parties. As it happens, Rinaldo is perhaps the only young man in the neighbourhood who has not fallen under the distant spell of Atlante; but of course, as soon as his father tells him he is forbidden to approach her, approaching her becomes the only thing in the world he wants to do…

Which is easier said than done. One of the few reasons for which Atlante and Charlot are permitted to leave the house is to attend services. Rinaldo begins to haunt the local church, keeping watch on all the young women who come their to worship, certain that he will know the transcendent Atlante when he sees her. And he is right:

…one day he saw a young Beauty, who at first glimps made his Heart leap into his Mouth, and fell trembling again into its wonted place, for it immediately told him that the young Maid was Atlante, she was with her Sister Charlot, who was very handsom, but not comparable to Atlante. He fixt his Eyes upon her, as she kneel’d at the Altar, which he never remov’d from that charming face as long as she remain’d there, he forgot all Devotion, but what he paid to her, he Ador’d her, he Burnt and Languish’d already for her, and found he must possess Atlante or Dye…

Certainly later on, but perhaps even by the time of The Lucky Mistake, one the most useful conventions of English fiction and drama was the pair of contrasting sisters—usually an older, more beautiful, more saintly one, and a younger, less beautiful, less rigidly moral one, the latter often blessed or cursed with that most awkward of female acquirements, a sense of humour. Very often the younger will, in effect, act as her sister’s proxy, saying and doing things that the “good” girl cannot, and encouraging her to listen to her heart rather than her conscience.

So it is here. Atlante notices Rinaldo, but immediately avoids his eye and tries to focus on her religious duties. Charlot, meanwhile, takes a long, appreciative look at the handsome young man, observes his fixation upon Atlante, and immediately begins scheming to bring the two together. Rinaldo starts following the sisters home, but is shy and tongue-tied and unable to take advantage of the situation until Charlot intervenes. It is she who makes most of the conversation, and who, upon recognising the livery of Rinaldo’s servants, declares them to be neighbours and asks the young man to see them home. Along the way, Rinaldo works up the nerve to make a passionate declaration of his feelings. Atlante is simultaneously moved, embarrassed, and angry with herself for giving him encouragement, but feels that he is sincere.

From here, with Charlot acting as their go-between, the two begin a secret correspondence. They do not meet again in person for some time, until at length Rinaldo contrives to carry the sisters away from a supposed visit to church, and takes them out upon the river in his private boat. Rinaldo begs Atlante to marry him secretly, so that whatever happens they cannot in the future be wholly separated. She is sorely tempted but cannot bring herself to agree to marry without her father’s consent. She also fears, should the marriage result in Rinaldo being disinherited, that he will come to blame and resent her. In the end the two settle for exchanging solemn vows never to marry anyone else.

The sisters cover their extended absence with a story about being invited on a short pleasure trip by a lady of their acquaintance, met at church, but Count Verlone’s jealousy is awakened and he decides it is time to secure Atlante as his bride. Suspicious of Charlot’s influence, he first presses De Pais to go ahead with his plan to place her in a convent, which he does. It is a measure of how Atlante’s priorities have shifted that, while she misses her sister, her thoughts are focused on how she will now correspond with Rinaldo. In the end the two resort to the time-honoured tactics of Romeo and Juliet: not only are their parents’ estates contiguous, but Atlante’s rooms have a balcony opposite the balcony of an attic room in Rinaldo’s house. The two begin to meet, spending the nights talking or, when talk isn’t safe, passing letters back and forth across the gap by means of a pole with a split in the end.

The Lucky Mistake here offers something very rare indeed in fiction of this era, in that, after being drawn together initially purely on the strength of their personal attractions, Rinaldo and Atlante are then kept physically separated, their relationship subsequently developing emotionally and intellectually over a period of time.

Unfortunately for our young lovers, it eventually occurs to Count Bellyuard to wonder what Rinaldo finds to occupy him in the upper rooms of their house. When he discovers the truth he is absolutely furious but, learning from the outcome of his last attempt to forbid Rinaldo anything, he pretends ignorance and makes arrangements to send the boy away to finish his education in Paris. This request is too reasonable for Rinaldo to disobey, though he is struck with dismay at being separated from Atlante. In their mutual desperation, Atlante agrees to allow Rinaldo to climb up into her room:

…he throws himself at her Feet, as unable to speak as she, who nothing but blusht and bent down her Eyes, hardly daring to glance ’em towards the dear Object of her desires, the Lord of all her vows, she was asham’d to see a Man in her Chamber, where yet none had ever been alone, and by Night too; he saw her fear, and felt her trembling, and after a thousand sighs of Love had made way for Speech, he besought her to fear nothing from him, for his Flame was too sacred, and his passion too Holy to offer any thing, but what Honour with Love might afford him…

And the night is passed chastely in declarations of love and promises of fidelity. Come the dawn the two can still hardly bear to part, and are so tardy that Vernole – on the alert since the boat incident – convinces himself that he hears a man’s voice in Atlante’s room, and charges to the scene. Fortunately, what he has heard is Rinaldo leaving:

…the Count turning the Latch, entered halting into her Chamber, in his Night Gown clapt close about him, which betray’d an ill favour’d shape, his Night-cap on, without a Periwig, which discovered all his lean wither’d Jaws, his Face pale, and his Eyes staring, and making altogether so dreadful a Figure, that Atlante who no more dreams of him, then of a Devil, had possibly rather have seen the last, she gave a great shreek…

Atlante is able to take the high ground here, violently berating Vernole for daring to intrude upon her, and for the insult offered to her honour by the suggestion there was a man in her room. He is so cowed by her that for a time he withdraws into himself, changing his mind about formally proposing for her to Count De Pais; but only for a time:

‘Twas now that Atlante, arriv’d to her Fifteenth Year, shon out with a lustre of Beauty greater than ever, and in this Year of the absence of Rinaldo, had carry’d her self with that severity of Life, without the youthful desire of going abroad, or desiring any Diversion, but what she found in her own retir’d thoughts, that Vernole wholly unable, longer to conceal his Passion, resolv’d to make a publication of it, first to the Father and then to the lovely Daughter, of whom he had some hope, because she had carried her self very well towards him for this year past, which she would never have done, if she had imagin’d he would ever have been her Lover…

Atlante is overcome with horror and disgust when the marriage is proposed to her. Her father, surprised by the violence of her reaction, is at first dismayed and then infuriated by her refusal, threatening her with various reprisals if she will not obey. Atlante is forced to play for time, asking for some days to consider the matter, which her father allows. He then has to report to Vernole, who he knows is not expecting a refusal:

De Pais after some consideration resolv’d to tell him, she receiv’d the offer, very well; but that he must expect a little Maiden Nicety in the case…

In the meantime, word of the “engagement” is broadcast through the neighbourhood, Count De Pais hoping that the pressure of public expectation will help bring Atlante into a compliant state of mind.

Here the narrative of The Lucky Mistake pulls back a bit, showing us that there is no real reason in the world why Rinaldo and Atlante should not be married. Her birth is excellent, even if she has no fortune; while he certainly has sufficient fortune to make her lack unimportant. But both fathers refuse to budge, Count De Pais because he has sworn that Vernole will marry Atlante, Count Bellyuard because he has sworn that Rinaldo will not:

…and thereupon he told his Father all his passion, for that lovely Maid: and assur’d him if he would not see him laid in his Grave, he must consent to this Match: Bellyuard rose in a fury, and told him he had rather see him in the Grave then in the arms of Atlante, not continued he, so much for any dislike  I have to the Young Lady, or the smallness of her Fortune, but because I have so long warn’d you from such a passion…

Meanwhile, next door, Atlante is also revealing her secret; though in desperation she tells her father she is Rinaldo’s wife, rather than merely promised to him:

…if her Father storm’d before, he grew like a Man distracted at this Confession, and Vernole hearing them lowd, ran to the Chamber to learn the Cause, where just as he entered, he found Count De Pais Sword drawn and ready to kill his Daughter…

Vernole’s fury distracts De Pais from his own. Too much of a coward to do his own dirty work, Vernole hires a band of bravos to murder Rinaldo, who holds his own in the running battles, but is finally badly wounded. Ironically, the person who intervenes to save his life, and has him carried into his house, is Count De Pais, who from this incident learns to admire Rinaldo’s courage and honesty, while acquiring a feeling of contempt towards Vernole. Nevertheless, he still can’t bring himself to go back on his promise, considering that a worse breach of honour than forcing his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love and who he doesn’t respect. After some awkward conversation, De Pais reiterates that Rinaldo cannot marry Atlante, but (with his eye on Rinaldo’s fortune) adds that, well, there is another sister…

De Pais decides to place Atlante in the convent, partly to keep her safe until things cool down and partly to (as he perceives it) bring her to her senses. He does not do this openly, but sends her to “visit her sister”, sending also a secret message to have her confined. Count Bellyuard, for one, is thrilled with this development, while Rinaldo, confident that Atlante will never consent to becoming a nun, begins to plot ways to carry her off. It occurs to him that he has a conspirator already in place in the form of Charlot, and that he might be able to use Count De Pais’ proposal of his marrying the younger sister to gain access to Atlante.

There’s just one problem…

Actually, there’s two. Her probationary year has been more than sufficient to teach Charlot that she was not, repeat NOT, cut out to be a nun; and during her time acting as go-between for Rinaldo and Atlante, she developed her own passion for the young man. When she learns that her father has suggested a match between them she is delighted, and sees no reason why she should sacrifice herself for her sister’s benefit.

Not that she tells Rinaldo and Atlante that…

On the basis of Aphra Behn’s other fictions, we tend to expect an unhappy outcome here, if not a full-on tragedy; but for whatever reason – quite possibly her own situation at the time of writing – this final “novel” finds Behn in a more generous and forgiving mood; and she takes pity on her young lovers. Her story concludes with flurry of plots and counterplots and people acting at cross-purposes, all of which creates a smokescreen of confusion that leads two of the characters into making a mistake that not only determines their own futures, but those of the other parties involved.

All things considered, I think we might call it a “lucky mistake”…

It must only be guest by Lovers, the perfect joy these two received in the sight of each other, Bellyuard received her as his Daughter, and the next day made her so with very great solemnity, at which were Vernole and Charlot; between Rinaldo and him was concluded a perfect Peace, and all thought themselves happy in this double Union…

27/04/2014

The History Of The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker

nun1

    But, as there are degrees of Vows, so there are degrees of Punishments for Vows, there are solemn Matrimonial Vows, such as contract and are the most effectual Marriage, and have the most reason to be so; there are a thousand Vows and Friendships, that pass between Man and Man, on a thousand Occasions; but there is another Vow, call’d a Sacred Vow, made to God only; and, by which, we oblige our selves eternally to serve him with all Chastity and Devotion: This Vow is only taken, and made, by those that enter into Holy Orders, and, of all broken Vows, these are those, that receive the most severe and notorious Revenges of God; and I am almost certain, there is not one Example to be produc’d in the World, where Perjuries of this nature have past unpunish’d, nay, that have not been persu’d with the greatest and most rigorous of Punishments. I could my self, of my own knowledge, give an hundred Examples of the fatal Consequences of the Violation of Sacred Vows; and who ever make it their business, and are curious in the search of such Misfortunes, shall find, as I say, that they never go unregarded.
    The young Beauty therefore, who dedicates her self to Heaven, and weds her self for ever to the service of God, ought, first, very well to consider the Self-denial she is going to put upon her youth, her fickle faithless deceiving Youth, of one Opinion to day, and of another to morrow; like Flowers, which never remain in one state or fashion, but bud to day, and blow by insensible degrees, and decay as imperceptibly. The Resolution, we promise, and believe we shall maintain, is not in our power, and nothing is so deceitful as human Hearts.

Written late in 1688 but not published until the early part of 1689, Aphra Behn’s The History Of The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker is an unexpected piece of short fiction in several ways. Most immediately, the text carries another of Aphra’s rather curious dedications, this one to Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarin, whose history had long been intertwined with that of the Stuarts. Charles had actually proposed to her (or rather, for her) during his exile, but was rejected, the lady’s family seeing then no prospect of his restoration. Hortense was eventually married off to Armand de la Meilleraye, one of the wealthiest men in Europe, who was then created Duc Marazin. The marriage was bitterly unhappy due to the Duc’s numerous peculiarities and Hortense’s reckless disregard of convention.

Eventually Hortense fled both her husband and her country, finding a protector first in Louis XIV before being given a place at the English court while officially visiting her cousin, Mary of Modena. Ironically, she ended up as Charles’s mistress, effectively supplanting the much-despised Duchess of Portsmouth, but herself fell out of favour when she refused to curb her reckless behaviour. Hortense was bisexual, often cross-dressed, and had numerous affairs with people of both sexes—including the Duchess of Sussex, one of Charles’s illegitimate daughters. It was not this, however, but her affair with Louis I of Monaco that caused Charles to end their relationship. The two nevertheless remained friends, and first Charles and then James continued to support her. Remarkably, Hortense held onto her place at court even after the arrival of William and Mary, albeit on a reduced pension. During this time she established a salon which attracted many intellectuals, artists and writers, and gained a reputation as a patron of the arts.

The dedication to Hortense that precedes The History Of The Nun is fulsome enough to have caused some academics to ponder a possible relationship between the two women; Aphra herself being often been read as bisexual:

I assure you, Madam, there is neither Compliment nor Poetry, in this humble Declaration, but a Truth, which has cost me a great deal of Inquietude, for that Fortune has not set me in such a Station, as might justifie my Pretence to the honour and satisfaction of being ever near Your Grace, to view eternally that lovely Person, and hear that surprizing Wit; what can be more grateful to a Heart, than so great, and so agreeable, an Entertainment? And how few Objects are there, that can render it so entire a Pleasure, as at once to hear you speak, and to look upon your Beauty? A Beauty that is heighten’d, if possible, with an air of Negligence, in Dress, wholly Charming, as if your Beauty disdain’d those little Arts of your Sex, whose Nicety alone is their greatest Charm, while yours, Madam, even without the Assistance of your exalted Birth, begets an Awe and Reverence in all that do approach you, and every one is proud, and pleas’d, in paying you Homage their several ways, according to their Capacities and Talents; mine, Madam, can only be exprest by my Pen, which would be infinitely honour’d, in being permitted to celebrate your great Name for ever…

However, I see in this dedication something more significant, if not quite so titillating: Aphra Behn’s belated abandonment of the Stuarts—or at least, her abandonment of the hope clung to for so many years, that she would be recognised by them for her talent and her loyalty. William of Orange did not arrive in England until November 1688, and James did not abdicate (if we can agree to call it that) until December, yet here in a work licensed in October we find Aphra striving to attract the attention of a potential new patron. Of course, we can never know if she might have succeeded at long last in winning the financial support she so desperately needed, since by the time The History Of The Nun was published, Aphra was dying.

Another interesting thing about The History Of The Nun is Aphra’s use of the word “history”, which to this point has been employed deliberately to indicate, if not a true story, at least a story founded on truth: we have seen it used so in the omnibus Three Histories, which collects Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt and Agnes de Castro, short fictions which all contain a demonstrable measure of historical fact. The History Of The Nun conforms to this convention inasmuch as the dedication concludes with the assertion, The Story is true, as it is on the Records of the Town, where it was transacted; but as far as I am aware, no equivalent “true story” has been identified. Nor does The History Of The Nun contain any professions of being an eyewitness account, or even of having been told to Aphra. While the short opening section in which Aphra ruminates on the consequences of broken vows is written in the first person, when the story proper begins, the narrative voice switches to the third person. The only “personal” detail in The History Of The Nun comes near the beginning—a remark which may or may not be true, but which doubtless has added fuel to the fire of the long-running academic argument over whether or not Aphra was Catholic:

I once was design’d an humble Votary in the House of Devotion, but fancying my self not endu’d with an obstinacy of Mind, great enough to secure me from the Efforts and Vanities of the World, I rather chose to deny my self that Content I could not certainly promise my self, than to languish (as I have seen some do) in a certain Affliction; tho’ possibly, since, I have sufficiently bewailed that mistaken and inconsiderate Approbation and Preference of the false ungrateful World, (full of nothing but Nonsense, Noise, false Notions, and Contradiction) before the Innocence and Quiet of a Cloyster; nevertheless, I could wish, for the prevention of abundance of Mischiefs and Miseries, that Nunneries and Marriages were not to be enter’d into, ’till the Maid, so destin’d, were of a mature Age to make her own Choice; and that Parents would not make use of their justly assum’d Authority to compel their Children, neither to the one or the other; but since I cannot alter Custom, nor shall ever be allow’d to make new Laws, or rectify the old ones, I must leave the Young Nuns inclos’d to their best Endeavours, of making a Virtue of Necessity; and the young Wives, to make the best of a bad Market.

Amongst a certain school of literary scholars, Aphra Behn has a quite unfounded reputation as an author of “amatory fiction”: a categorisation often used to legitimise her dismissal from the timeline of the English novel. It gives me a certain evil pleasure to envisage the profound disappointment of those individuals when, upon perusing The History Of The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker – which, I grant you, is a title that seems to indicate salacious goings-on – they discovered it to be, not an account of wickedness behind convent walls, but an ironic tale of a woman so desperate to maintain her reputation for respectability, she eventually resorts to murder. Furthermore, as this previous quote indicates, The History Of The Nun is also a rather wry rumination upon the distance between the image of the ideal woman as envisaged by society, and the flawed reality stemming from a very human nature.

The anti-heroine of The History Of The Nun is Isabella, daughter of a Spanish nobleman. When his wife dies, the Count de Vallary is so grief-stricken that he decides to retire from the world by entering a monastery; resolving too that when she is old enough, Isabella will take the veil. The count’s sister is abbess of a convent: he bequeaths half his fortune to her in trust for Isabella, making clear his preference that his daughter should become a nun, but instructing that should she show a preference for the world, she should be permitted to marry and properly dowered.

At the age of only two, therefore, Isabella is taken into the convent to be raised amongst the nuns, proving as she grows to be as virtuous and accomplished as she is beautiful. She is, in fact, regarded as something of a prodigy:

…so that at the Age of eight or nine Years, she was thought fit to receive and entertain all the great Men and Ladies, and the Strangers of any Nation, at the Grate; and that with so admirable a Grace, so quick and piercing a Wit, and so delightful and sweet a Conversation, that she became the whole Discourse of the Town, and Strangers spread her Fame, as prodigious, throughout the Christian World; for Strangers came daily to hear her talk, and sing, and play, and to admire her Beauty; and Ladies brought their Children, to shame ’em into good Fashion and Manners, with looking on the lovely young Isabella.

Isabella’s aunt, meanwhile, is caught between her own desire to see Isabella become a nun, both for the fame and credit of the convent and for the sake of her fortune, and her promise to her brother. She fulfils the latter by speaking to her niece of the pleasures of the world and what her fortune can bring her, and by allowing her occasionally to go out in public with fashionable relatives. Isabella’s emergence from the convent, her reputation preceding her, sets the town of Iper in an uproar:

Isabella arriving at her Thirteenth Year of Age, and being pretty tall of Stature, with the finest Shape that Fancy can create, with all the Adornment of a perfect brown-hair’d Beauty, Eyes black and lovely, Complexion fair; to a Miracle, all her Features of the rarest proportion, the Mouth red, the Teeth white, and a thousand Graces in her Meen and Air; she came no sooner abroad, but she had a thousand Persons fighting for love of her; the Reputation her Wit had acquir’d, got her Adorers without seeing her, but when they saw her, they found themselves conquer’d and undone; all were glad she was come into the World, of whom they had heard so much, and all the Youth of the Town dress’d only for Isabella de Vallary, that rose like a new Star that Eclips’d all the rest, and which set the World a-gazing. Some hop’d, and some despair’d, but all lov’d… And now it was, that, young as she was, her Conduct and Discretion appear’d equal to her Wit and Beauty, and she encreas’d daily in Reputation, insomuch, that the Parents of abundance of young Noble Men, made it their business to endeavour to marry their Sons to so admirable and noble a Maid, and one, whose Virtues were the Discourse of all the World…

In spite of all this adulation, however, Isabella sees nothing in the world that draws her to choose it over a life of religious retreat, and nor do the conscientious counterarguments of her father and aunt, who urge the advantages of one and the disadvantages of the other upon her, have any effect upon her resolution. Seeing her determined, they withdraw all opposition; the Count de Vallary, indeed, then admits that he would have been very unhappy had she done anything else.

To one person above all others, Isabella’s resolution is a shattering disappointment: a young nobleman called Villenoys has fallen desperately in love with her, and done everything he can think of to persuade her to change her mind. His persistence lures Isabella into a correspondence, but although she pities the young man, her letters only reiterate her decision and urge him to seek his reward in the world. As the time for Isabella to take the veil draws near, Villenoys collapses in a dangerous fever. His despairing relatives plead with Isabella to relent and save his life. Her response is not quite what they hoped:

She believ’d, it was for her Sins of Curiosity, and going beyond the Walls of the Monastery, to wander after the Vanities of the foolish World, that had occasion’d this Misfortune to the young Count of Villenoys, and she would put a severe Penance on her Body, for the Mischiefs her Eyes had done him; she fears she might, by something in her looks, have intic’d his Heart, for she own’d she saw him, with wonder at his Beauty, and much more she admir’d him, when she found the Beauties of his Mind; she confess’d, she had given him hope, by answering his Letters; and that when she found her Heart grow a little more than usually tender, when she thought on him, she believ’d it a Crime, that ought to be check’d by a Virtue, such as she pretended to profess, and hop’d she should ever carry to her Grave; and she desired his Relations to implore him, in her Name, to rest contented, in knowing he was the first, and should be the last, that should ever make an impression on her Heart…

Small beer as this is, it serves to check Villenoys’ decline; though his family keep Isabella’s assumption of the veil from him until he is strong enough to hear the news. He then rejoins the military career from which he was diverted.

Isabella, meanwhile, gives no-one reason to suppose she repents her choice of a religious life. For two years she devotes herself to the demands of her order:

…there was never seen any one, who led so Austere and Pious a Life, as this young Votress; she was a Saint in the Chapel, and an Angel at the Grate: She there laid by all her severe Looks, and mortify’d Discourse, and being at perfect peace and tranquility within, she was outwardly all gay, sprightly, and entertaining, being satisfy’d, no Sights, no Freedoms, could give any temptations to worldly desires… But however Diverting she was at the Grate, she was most exemplary Devout in the Cloister, doing more Penance, and imposing a more rigid Severity and Task on her self, than was requir’d, giving such rare Examples to all the Nuns that were less Devout, that her Life was a Proverb, and a President, and when they would express a very Holy Woman indeed, they would say, “She was a very ISABELLA.”

Isabella’s close friend within the convent is Sister Katteriena, whose brother, Bernardo Henault, visits her regularly—and who as a matter of course sees much of Isabella. And suddenly, the serenely devoted Isabella finds herself confronted by a temptation of which previously she had no conception…

Katteriena is quick enough to discover what ails her friend, and confesses that her own presence in the convent is due to her enraged father discovering a secret passion between herself and a young man of lower social standing. Isabella begs her friend to tell her how she can regain mastery over herself, since for the first time in her life her thoughts and feelings are not under her control:

“Alas! (reply’d Katteriena) tho’ there’s but one Disease, there’s many Remedies: They say, possession’s one, but that to me seems a Riddle; Absence, they say, another, and that was mine; for Arnaldo having by chance lost one of my Billets, discover’d the Amour, and was sent to travel, and my self forc’d into this Monastery, where at last, Time convinc’d me, I had lov’d below my Quality, and that sham’d me into Holy Orders.” “And is it a Disease, (reply’d Isabella) that People often recover?” “Most frequently, (said Katteriena) and yet some dye of the Disease, but very rarely.” “Nay then, (said Isabella) I fear, you will find me one of these Martyrs; for I have already oppos’d it with the most severe Devotion in the World: But all my Prayers are vain, your lovely Brother persues me into the greatest Solitude; he meets me at my very Midnight Devotions, and interrupts my Prayers; he gives me a thousand Thoughts, that ought not to enter into a Soul dedicated to Heaven; he ruins all the Glory I have achiev’d, even above my Sex, for Piety of Life, and the Observation of all Virtues. Oh Katteriena! he has a Power in his Eyes, that transcends all the World besides: And, to shew the weakness of Human Nature, and how vain all our Boastings are, he has done that in one fatal Hour, that the persuasions of all my Relations and Friends, Glory, Honour, Pleasure, and all that can tempt, could not perform in Years…”

And here, of course, we find Aphra Behn’s underlying point that the dangers of forcing life-changing decisions upon girls too young and too inexperienced to understand themselves or what temptations the world might hold. Note, however, that Isabella’s trial has a double face. Most obviously she is frightened that her passion for Henault is coming between herself and God, tempting her to forsake her holy vows. Yet beyond that, even at these very earliest moments, is Isabella’s painful consciousness that what is at stake is not just her private dedication to God, but her public reputation: The Glory I have achiev’d, even above my Sex, for Piety of Life, and the Observation of all Virtues…

Isabella struggles against her passion for Henault; but not all the prayers and mortifications she puts herself through have the slightest effect. The death-blow to her hopes of conquering herself is delivered when she succumbs to temptation to the point of creeping near the grate to see Henault and listen to his conversation with Katteriena: she hears not only her friend’s angry scolding of her brother for daring to suppose that anyone as saintly and immaculate as Isabella could give a thought to earthly passion, but, fatally, Henault’s returning declaration of love and his plea that Katteriena do what she can to turn Isabella thoughts towards him. Knowing that she is loved gives Isabella power over herself—not to banish her forbidden passion, but to hide it from Katteriena; the saintly young woman teaches herself to dissemble and prevaricate, and succeeds in deceiving her friend. Believing she speaks for Isabella, Katteriena continues to scold and shame her brother for his wish to lure a nun from her vows; warning him that, even should he succeed, their father would consider it a blight upon the family honour and doubtless disinherit him.

Finding Katteriena opposed to him, Henault also begins to dissemble, convincing his sister that her arguments have swayed him. Both he and Isabella resume their previous behaviours—until one day, during Henault’s visit to the grate, he and Isabella find an opportunity for private conversation. Their mutual declaration leaves Isabella more bewildered and enflamed than ever, and she spends a sleepless night devoted to the age-old art of sophistry:

She had try’d Fasting long, Praying fervently, rigid Penances and Pains, severe Disciplines, all the Mortification, almost to the destruction of Life it self, to conquer the unruly Flame; but still it burnt and rag’d but the more; so, at last, she was forc’d to permit that to conquer her, she could not conquer, and submitted to her Fate, as a thing destin’d her by Heaven it self; and after all this opposition, she fancy’d it was resisting even Divine Providence, to struggle any longer with her Heart; and this being her real Belief, she the more patiently gave way to all the Thoughts that pleas’d her… She…was resolv’d to conclude the Matter, between her Heart, and her Vow of Devotion, that Night, and she, having no more to determine, might end the Affair accordingly, the first opportunity she should have to speak to Henault, which was, to fly, and marry him; or, to remain for ever fix’d to her Vow of Chastity. This was the Debate; she brings Reason on both sides: Against the first, she sets the Shame of a Violated Vow, and considers, where she shall shew her Face after such an Action; to the Vow, she argues, that she was born in Sin, and could not live without it; that she was Human, and no Angel, and that, possibly, that Sin might be as soon forgiven, as another… Some times, she thought, it would be more Brave and Pious to dye, than to break her Vow; but she soon answer’d that, as false Arguing, for Self-Murder was the worst of Sins, and in the Deadly Number. She could, after such an Action, live to repent, and, of two Evils, she ought to chuse the least; she dreads to think, since she had so great a Reputation for Virtue and Piety, both in the Monastery, and in the World, what they both would say, when she should commit an Action so contrary to both these, she posest; but, after a whole Night’s Debate, Love was strongest, and gain’d the Victory…

But matters having come to a head, it is Henault who perceives the enormity of the step, and who hesitates – not least because he knows that he will indeed be disinherited. Isabella manages to convince him, however, although in terms that remind us that she is both young and inexperienced:

I thought of living in some loanly Cottage, far from the noise of crowded busie Cities, to walk with thee in Groves, and silent Shades, where I might hear no Voice but thine; and when we had been tir’d, to sit us done by some cool murmuring Rivulet, and be to each a World, my Monarch thou, and I thy Sovereign Queen, while Wreaths of Flowers shall crown our happy Heads, some fragrant Bank our Throne, and Heaven our Canopy: Thus we might laugh at Fortune…

Isabella’s reputation makes the elopement almost comically easy. For one thing, she is trusted with the keys to the convent; for another—

Isabella’s dead Mother had left Jewels, of the value of 2000l. to her Daughter, at her Decease, which Jewels were in the possession, now, of the Lady Abbess, and were upon Sale, to be added to the Revenue of the Monastery; and as Isabella was the most Prudent of her Sex, at least, had hitherto been so esteem’d, she was intrusted with all that was in possession of the Lady Abbess, and ’twas not difficult to make her self Mistress of all her own Jewels; as also, some 3 or 400l. in Gold, that was hoarded up in her Ladyship’s Cabinet, against any Accidents that might arrive to the Monastery; these Isabella also made her own…

Making their escape, the two flee the country. They are married, and take a farm near a small village under the assumed name of Beroone. They do not neglect to attempt to obtain a variety of pardons, but without much success: Henault is indeed disinherited; and although he adores Isabella, he has been raised in luxury, and the thought of future poverty begins to fret him. His worries are exacerbated by the continuous difficulties that beset him as he tries to make the farm a going concern—until he, like Isabella before him, becomes proverbial:

…so that it became a Proverb all over the all over the Country, if any ill Luck had arriv’d to any body, they would say, “They had Monsieur BEROONE’S Luck.”

However, Isabella manages to win pardon from her aunt and, in time, from the church authorities, which allows the two of them to return home. The Abbess gives them what financial assistance she can, but Henault’s father goes no further than promising to equip him if he will leave Isabella and enter the army; while various interested parties likewise argue that he should enter the service of his country as a step towards expiating his sin of inducing a nun to break her vows. Henault is finally won over, but the first consequence of his decision is tragedy: when she hears that he will be leaving her, Isabella collapses and miscarries. Henault remains with her another month, while she recovers, but then forces himself to go.

Once in the army, Henault finds himself stationed with a certain Villenoys, whose name he knows… In spite of, or because of, their mutual passion for Isabella, the two become fast friends. The two serve together—and it is Villenoys who must break to Isabella the news of her husband’s death…

Isabella’s tragedy has the effect of restoring her public reputation, forsaken upon her elopement:

She continu’d thus Mourning, and thus inclos’d, the space of a whole Year, never suffering the Visit of any Man, but of a near Relation; so that she acquir’d a Reputation, such as never any young Beauty had, for she was now but Nineteen, and her Face and Shape more excellent than ever; she daily increas’d in Beauty, which, joyn’d to her Exemplary Piety, Charity, and all other excellent Qualities, gain’d her a wonderous Fame, and begat an Awe and Reverence in all that heard of her, and there was no Man of any Quality, that did not Adore her. After her Year was up, she went to the Churches, but would never be seen any where else abroad, but that was enough to procure her a thousand Lovers; and some, who had the boldness to send her Letters, which, if she receiv’d, she gave no Answer to, and many she sent back unread and unseal’d: So that she would encourage none, tho’ their Quality was far beyond what she could hope; but she was resolv’d to marry no more, however her Fortune might require it.

Villenoys continues to visit Isabella, and his love for her reawakens. Though she admits his friendship, she resists his courtship for two years, until her aunt dies and with her Isabella’s slender financial support. Confronted by grim reality, Isabella contemplates re-entering a convent, but finally shies away from the idea: not only did she promise Henault she would not, but, Her Heart deceiv’d her once, and she durst not trust it again, whatever it promis’d. Realistically, her only option is to marry; and so she brings herself to listen to Villenoys—after the usual delusionary arguments, of course:

…’twas for Interest she married again, tho’ she lik’d the Person very well; and since she was forc’d to submit her self to be a second time a Wife, she thought, she could live better with Villenoys, than any other, since for him she ever had a great Esteem; and fancy’d the Hand of Heaven had pointed out her Destiny, which she could not avoid, without a Crime.

She manages to hold Villenoys off for another year, but finally the two are married; and as time passes, Isabella develops a genuine affection for her husband. In contrast to her struggles when married to Henault, Villenoys lavishes upon her all that money can buy, while Isabella dedicates herself to regaining the favour of heaven:

She had no Discontent, but because she was not bless’d with a Child; but she submits to the pleasure of Heaven, and endeavour’d, by her good Works, and her Charity, to make the Poor her Children, and was ever doing Acts of Virtue, to make the Proverb good, That more are the Children of the Barren, than the Fruitful Woman.

Villenoys is away from home on a hunting trip when Isabella receives a most unexpected visitor:

And pulling off a small Ring, with Isabella’s Name and Hair in it, he gave it Maria, who, shutting the Gate upon him, went in with the Ring; as soon as Isabella saw it, she was ready to swound on the Chair where she sate, and cry’d, Where had you this? Maria reply’d, An old rusty Fellow at the Gate gave it me, and desired, it might be his Pasport to you; I ask’d his Name, but he said, You knew him not, but he had great News to tell you. Isabella reply’d, (almost swounding again) Oh, Maria! I am ruin’d.

It is indeed Henault; a Henault with hair and beard long and wildly tangled, so worn down and prematurely aged, so ragged and thin, as to be almost unrecognisable. He tells Isabella that he was wounded almost to death, but saved by his captors, who recovered him for ransom. Writing several times to his father but getting no response, he was consequently sold into slavery, from which he finally managed to escape.

By this time Henault has had a chance to absorb the signs of wealth in Isabella’s home, and finds himself gripped by a terrible fear… Isabella, meanwhile, is gripped by some fears of her own:

Shame and Confusion fill’d her Soul, and she was not able to lift her Eyes up, to consider the Face of him, whose Voice she knew so perfectly well. In one moment, she run over a thousand Thoughts. She finds, by his Return, she is not only expos’d to all the Shame imaginable; to all the Upbraiding, on his part, when he shall know she is marry’d to another; but all the Fury and Rage of Villenoys, and the Scorn of the Town, who will look on her as an Adulteress: She sees Henault poor, and knew, she must fall from all the Glory and Tranquility she had for five happy Years triumph’d in…

However, she dissembles, speaking gently and welcomingly to Henault and leading him to a bedchamber—although she manages to put off being compelled to join him in bed, by pleading her usual evening prayers. This is so entirely in character that Henault’s suspicions are lulled; and, exhausted by his travails, he falls asleep before Isabella returns.

Prayers, indeed:

’Tis true, Isabella essay’d to Pray, but alas! it was in vain, she was distracted with a thousand Thoughts what to do, which the more she thought, the more it distracted her; she was a thousand times about to end her Life, and, at one stroke, rid her self of the Infamy, that, she saw, must inevitably fall upon her; but Nature was frail, and the Tempter strong: And after a thousand Convulsions, even worse than Death it self, she resolv’d upon the Murder of Henault, as the only means of removing all the obstacles to her future Happiness; she resolv’d on this, but after she had done so, she was seiz’d with so great Horror, that she imagin’d, if she perform’d it, she should run Mad; and yet, if she did not, she should be also Frantick, with the Shames and Miseries that would befal her; and believing the Murder the least Evil, since she could never live with him, she fix’d her Heart on that; and causing her self to be put immediately to Bed, in her own Bed, she made Maria go to hers, and when all was still, she softly rose, and taking a Candle with her, only in her Night-Gown and Slippers, she goes to the Bed of the Unfortunate Henault, with a Penknife in her hand; but considering, she knew not how to conceal the Blood, should she cut his Throat, she resolves to Strangle him, or Smother him with a Pillow; that last thought was no sooner borne, but put in Execution; and, as he soundly slept, she smother’d him without any Noise, or so much as his Struglin…

Barely has the deed been done, however, than Villenoys unexpectedly returns home. The distracted Isabella is almost overcome, but finally realises she has to tell him the truth—or at least some of it. She does tell him of Henault’s return, but convinces him that Henault died of the shock of hearing that she was married to Villenoys. Her hysterical pleading sways her adoring husband who, learning that only Maria knows of the visitor, and that she does not know his identity, makes a grim resolution: he will carry Henault’s body to a nearby bridge, and throw it into the river below, which will carry it to the sea. He is reassured by his own examination of the body that Henault has indeed changed so much that, even if discovered, he will not be identified. Villenoys redresses the body, ordering Isabella to fetch a sack and some needle and thread. She does so…

Isabella all this while said but little, but, fill’d with Thoughts all Black and Hellish, she ponder’d within, while the Fond and Passionate Villenoys was endeavouring to hide her Shame, and to make this an absolute Secret: She imagin’d, that could she live after a Deed so black, Villenoys would be eternal reproaching her, if not with his Tongue, at least with his Heart, and embolden’d by one Wickedness, she was the readier for another, and another of such a Nature, as has, in my Opinion, far less Excuse, than the first; but when Fate begins to afflict, she goes through stitch with her Black Work… When he had the Sack on his Back, and ready to go with it, she cry’d, Stay, my Dear, some of his Clothes hang out, which I will put in; and with that, taking the Pack-needle with the Thread, sew’d the Sack, with several strong Stitches, to the Collar of Villenoy’s Coat, without his perceiving it, and bid him go now; and when you come to the Bridge, (said she) and that you are throwing him over the Rail, (which is not above Breast high) be sure you give him a good swing…

Irony is the prevailing key-note of The History Of The Nun, in which, not actual piety, but the reputation for piety, becomes the motivation for murder. While it does operate as a commentary upon the sometimes unrealistic expectations placed upon “good” women, ultimately this short tale works best as an examination of a complicated psychology, with Isabella’s vision of herself as a model of purity and religious devotion driving her to unspeakable crimes. It is difficult to know what message, if any, Behn wanted the reader to take away from this perversely amusing horror story. Certainly it is difficult to believe that she intended it taken seriously as a warning against the perils of vow-breaking; although her early remarks upon the dangers of premature vow-taking, whether marital or religious, are evidently sincere.

In the end, it is hard to shake the feeling that Behn was so taken with the blackly comic aspects of her story, her message became obscured by its delivery. She even gives us what might be considered, at least from Isabella’s warped perspective, a happy ending: her crimes exposed, Isabella is tried, condemned and executed, and in the process wins a fame far beyond mere reputation—that of martyrdom:

…as soon as she was accus’d, she confess’d the whole Matter of Fact, and, without any Disorder, deliver’d her self in the Hands of Justice, as the Murderess of two Husbands (both belov’d) in one Night: The whole World stood amaz’d at this; who knew her Life a Holy and Charitable Life, and how dearly and well she had liv’d with her Husbands, and every one bewail’d her Misfortune, and she alone was the only Person, that was not afflicted for her self… While she was in Prison, she was always at Prayers, and very Chearful and Easie, distributing all she had amongst, and for the Use of, the Poor of the Town, especially to the Poor Widows; exhorting daily, the Young, and the Fair, that came perpetually to visit her, never to break a Vow: for that was first the Ruine of her, and she never since prosper’d, do whatever other good Deeds she could… She made a Speech of half an Hour long, so Eloquent, so admirable a warning to the Vow-Breakers, that it was as amazing to hear her, as it was to behold her… She was generally Lamented, and Honourably Bury’d.

20/10/2013

Great Cesar’s ghost

mary1One of the most uncomfortable periods in English history was surely the interval between the departure of James in December 1688 and the arrival in England of Mary a few weeks into the New Year – during which time, the convocation that had made use of William but didn’t really want him as their monarch and the bad-tempered, understandably resentful Dutchman were left to glare at one another across the negotiating table.

However, even when Mary did reach England, it wasn’t all beer and skittles. She certainly disappointed the faction who wanted her as sole monarch when she declined to be placed in authority over her husband – although this piece of wifely submission seems to have engendered in William a greater willingness to make concessions.

Mary’s relationship with her soon-to-be subjects likewise got off to a distinctly rocky start. Advised both by her husband and her future Parliament not to show any consciousness of her anomalous position or to display any guilt over her father’s removal, Mary succeeded so well in appearing indifferent that she was branded heartless in many quarters. She certainly convinced her father on that head, receiving from him a flood of angry letters in which she was accused of treachery and selfish disloyalty.

Nevertheless, on the whole Mary’s presence in England was an enormous relief. While there were of course those who held to a hard line with regard to James, the majority either welcomed his deposing or were pragmatic enough to make the best of it. In this respect, Mary was the best possible compromise candidate. She was a Stuart and a Protestant, and had been heir to the English throne for twenty-six years. She was also James’ daughter, so that the proper “line” was maintained, albeit not in the usual way. In short, a case could be made for her.

And a case was made for her. As we have seen, very little fiction was published in England during 1689, with heavily politicised writing full of justification and retconning dominating the marketplace. Enormous efforts went into “selling” and William and Mary to England, often by twisting the usual monarchist stance and positioning them as defenders of the true faith, with the removal of James being, consequently, God’s will.

Meanwhile, though the fiction writers were quiescent, the poets were not; and the political arguments were bolstered by laudatory works celebrating the new monarchy. It is noticeable, however, the William rarely appears in these poems as anything other than a symbol, or a generalised “power”; whereas a whole body of literature eventually built up around Mary.

An entirely representative effort is A Congratulatory Poem To Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary, Upon Her Arrival In England – by none other than Aphra Behn. To an extent, we find Aphra amongst the pragmatists—but only to an extent. While refusing utterly to so much as acknowledge William’s existence, Aphra shows herself prepared to welcome Mary—not in her own right, but as her father’s daughter.

Although we have seen how far over the top Aphra could go in her royalist poetry, her depression and disappointment over James’ fate makes this a much more muted piece of work, closer in tone to the wry resignation that marked A Pindaric Poem To The Reverend Doctor Burnet, On The Honour He Did Me Of Enquiring After Me And My Muse than to the over-insistence of A Congratulatory Poem To The Kings Most Sacred Majesty On The Happy Birth Of The Prince Of Wales and similar efforts.

It is worth noting in this context that this poem was composed after Aphra rejected the monetary overtures made to her by the Reverend Gilbert Burnet on behalf of the William-ites, who wanted her to join the faction being paid to sell the new monarchy. Aphra’s “Muse”, which she somewhat mockingly accuses Dr Burnet of “enquiring after” in the earlier poem, plays an appropriately prominent role in this one.

Fittingly, the opening of the poem finds Aphra openly mourning the fate of James:

    While my sad Muse the darkest Covert Sought
    To give a loose to Melancholy Thought;
    Opprest, and sighing with the Heavy Weight
    Of an Unhappy dear lov’d Monarch’s Fate…

But even as Aphra (and her Muse) give way to despair, new cause for hope appears:

    While thus She lay resolv’d to tune no more
    Her fruitless Songs on Brittains Faithless Shore,
    All on a suddain thro’ the Woods there Rung,
    Loud Sounds of Joy that Jo Peans Sung.
    Maria! Blest Maria! was the Theam,
    Great Brittains happy Genius, and her Queen…

However, Aphra’s Muse is not to be won over so easily, and resists the lure of this newcomer, this replacement for James:

    The Muses all upon this Theam Divine,
    Tun’d their best Lays, the Muses all, but mine,
    Sullen with Stubborn Loyalty she lay…

But then, Mary is James’s daughter and therefore a “deity” like her father before her – to whom, before bowing down to Mary, the Muse pays homage:

    But Oh! What Human Fortitude can be
    Sufficient to Resist a Deity?
    Even our Allegiance here, too feebly pleads,
    The Change in so Divine a Form perswades;
    Maria with the Sun has equal Force…

    From every thought a New-born Reason came
    Which fortifyed by bright Maria’s Fame,
    Inspir’d My Genious with new Life and Flame,
    And thou, Great Lord, of all my Vows, permit
    My Muse who never fail’d Obedience yet,
    To pay her Tribute at Marias Feet,
    Maria so Divine a part of You,
    Let me be Just — but Just with Honour too…

That done, the floodgates open:

    Maria all Inchanting, Gay, and Young,
    All Hail Illustrious Daughter of a King,
    Shining without, and Glorious all within,
    Whose Eyes beyond your scantier Power give Laws,
    Command the Word, and justifie the Cause;
    Nor to secure your Empire needs more Arms
    Than your resistless, and all Conquering Charms…

    All Natures Charms are open’d in your Face,
    You Look, you Talk, with more than Human Grace;

    All that is Wit, all that is Eloquence.
    Easie and Natural from your Language break,

    And ’tis Eternal Musick when you speak;
    Thro’ all no formal Nicety is seen,
    But Free and Generous your Majestick Meen,
    In every Motion, every Part a Queen…

However, we are not left long without a stern reminder of where Mary derives all these wondrous gifts, nor of the events that have placed her on the throne:

    Yet if with Sighs we View that Lovely Face,
    And all the Lines of your great Father’s Trace,

    Your Vertues should forgive, while we adore
    That Face that Awes, and Charms our Hearts the more;
    But if the Monarch in your Looks we find,
    Behold him yet more glorious in your Mind;
    ‘Tis there His God-like Attributes we see.
    A Gratious Sweetness, Affability,
    A Tender Mercy and True Piety;
    And Vertues even sufficient to Attone
    For all the Ills the Ungrateful World has done…

And as the poem moves towards its climax, the biblical imagery that always marked Aphra’s royalist works comes roaring back:

    The Murmering World till now divided lay,
    Vainly debating whom they shou’d Obey,
    Till You Great Cesar’s Off-spring blest our Isle,
    The differing Multitudes to Reconcile;
    Thus Stiff-neckt Israel in defiance stood,
    Till they beheld the Prophet of their God;

    Who from the Mount with dazling brightness came,
    And Eyes all shining with Celestial Flame;
    Whose Awful Looks, dispel’d each Rebel Thought,
    And to a Just Compliance, the wilde Nations brought…

31/12/2012

James is kicked out of this blog!

…and with those posts about Inés de Castro (albeit that they ended up being nothing like what I originally envisioned), I have achieved my 2012 ambition of “getting the hell out of 1688” – YES!!

{holds for applause}

Honestly, I’ve been so long in reaching this point that it’s almost a physical shock. I feel slightly disorientated and panicky, but in a good way, if that makes sense. It’s one of those “time is relative” situations, I suppose, but I seem to have spent infinitely longer trapped in the three-year reign of James than I devoted to the twenty-five preceding years during which his brother was on the throne. What’s more, in contrast to the mixture of contempt and vague amusement which seems to be my prevailing attitude towards Charles, I find myself harbouring towards James a smouldering resentment that has little if anything to do with his methods of governance.

This being the case, I’ve decided that the most fitting way for me to see out 2012 is with a repeat viewing of Captain Blood, the film that marked Errol Flynn’s spectacular Hollywood debut.

For the benefit of those of you unfamiliar with the novel by Rafael Sabatini and its 1935 translation to the screen, Captain Blood opens during the Monmouth Rebellion. Peter Blood, a young Irish physician practising in England, unknowingly treats some of the wounded rebels and is arrested with them; he finds himself one of many tried during the Bloody Assizes of Judge George Jeffreys, and is condemned to death. However, his sentence is commuted to transportation and penal servitude for life when James is persuaded that simply hanging all these rebels is a waste of manpower that could be put to better use on the royal plantations in the West Indies. Peter’s fortunes improve when the Governor of Jamaica, a martyr to gout, learns that he is a doctor and engages him as his personal physician. Peter is granted certain privileges as a reward for his services, and uses his new opportunities to arrange the purchase of a ship and a mass breakout by his fellow slaves, who then embark upon a career of piracy.

The specific significance of this film in my present state of mind is not just its historical background, however, but that fact that it is bookended by two extremely rude references to James Stuart.

The first comes when Peter is originally condemned, and retorts upon Judge Jeffreys: “What a creature must sit upon the throne, that let’s a man like you deal out his justice!”

The second comes towards the end when, just as all seems lost, word of the Glorious Revolution reaches the West Indies, along with the welcome news that as a consequence, Peter and his men have been pardoned. Peter’s reaction is to leap up onto the railing of his ship and announce joyously, “James is kicked out of England!”

I know exactly how he feels.

So what lies ahead? I honestly don’t know. I’ve been so focused on getting to this point that I haven’t looked any further. I’m pretty sure that we’re in for some more political writing and romans à clef, though, since many of the people who had bitten their tongue during the three years of the dangerously thin-skinned James put pen to paper during 1689 in celebration of their new freedoms. And of course, sadly, we have the last few works of Aphra Behn, who died in April of that year at the age of only forty-nine. Beyond that, it’s all a mystery.

I’ve neglected the other aspects of this blog during my push to the finish-line, but from here I’ll be trying to get back to Reading Roulette and Authors In Depth, so we can mix it up a bit more. However, I’ve decided not to do anything so foolish again as making a definite statement of intent about where I’d like to get to next year: too much like hard work! Let’s just say that I hope to post more regularly, and leave it at that.

Finally—profound thanks as always to everyone who has visited this blog in 2012, and in particular to those of you who took the time to comment. See you in 2013!

29/12/2012

Three faces of Inés

Ines2bAn attempt will be made to distinguish between the facts and myths of the Inés tradition, tracing its development over two centuries or so of Portuguese history. The tragic story has been a favourite in Portuguese as well as in later English and Continental literature, and it is not hard to see why. As will be shown, the characters of Inés and of the King, and the interplay between State demands and personal love and loyalty, with alternating bursts of joy and of foreboding, ending with a brutal murder and Pedro’s oath of revenge, provide all the requirements of a powerful drama. Ferreira was the first to put it on the stage, and more successful than any contemporary or later imitators. In fact, the intellectual courage and inventiveness of Ferreira need to be stressed, in staging a play not only based on Portuguese history, rather than on the Bible or a Classical theme, but also written in Portuguese, a language as yet untried for high drama.

I was tempted to head this blog post “Much ado about nothing”, since I’ve ended up doing an enormous amount of reading and researching to, in the end, very little purpose. However, since reading and researching are two of my favourite things, and since I always like accumulating strange factoids, I’m not sorry I undertook this particular project, even if the final pay-off was something in the nature of a damp squib.

The third piece of fiction published in 1688 by Aphra Behn was Agnes de Castro; or, The Force Of Generous Love. As it turns out, this was not an original work, but a translation of a piece of French fiction, Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise. Although this publication was presented on its title page as being by “Mlle. ******” (which Aphra evidently believed, asserting it to be “By a Lady of Quality” in her translation), it was the work of one Jean-Baptiste de Brilhac.

Curiously, Aphra’s was only one of two simultaneous translations into English: May of 1688 also saw Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise released as The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro; Taken Out Of The History Of Portugal, one of two renderings of French works into English comprising a short book titled simply Two Novels. This particular translation was by a Frenchman, Peter Belon.

It took me a while to sort all this out. After some initial confusion, I realised that there were in fact two different versions of this work in English, rather than Aphra having translated a work in French by Peter Belon, which is what I thought at first. Furthermore, it appeared that the original work was based upon a true story, which meant that it fitted thematically with Aphra Behn’s other prose works of 1688. Finally, in a completely unexpected touch, it turned out that the original text of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise was available on Google Books. All this being the case, I decided to look first into the story on which these works were based, and then to compare the two translations, to see which if either was “better”.

The first part of this plan led me to the remarkable history of Inés de Castro, a real figure from 14th century Portuguese history. (And before you ask, no, I don’t know why Inés was called Agnes in the later works; although the two names are essentially variants of one another, both meaning “lamb of God”.) It also led me into an experience both fascinating and frustrating as hell, the pursuit of yet another work on the subject called The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro, which turned out to be something entirely different from what I anticipated. It was while I was waiting for this particular interlibrary loan that I remarked, in an earlier post, that if I didn’t achieve my year’s ambition of escaping from 1688, “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 was expecting The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro to be a non-fiction work, which would provide me with the background knowledge I needed. It turned out to be a 16th century Portuguese play on the subject by the poet and dramatist António Ferreira, who (I now know) was the first important literary figure both to write in Portuguese rather than Latin, and to use local stories as the basis for much of his work, rather than classical themes.

I was surprised in the first place that the Australian National University held a copy of The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro. I was even more surprised when the item arrived: apparently a published thesis by one John R. C. Martyn, issued by the University of Coimbra in Portugal (where António Ferreira studied law) in 1987; one, moreover, which was not only printed on low-quality paper, but still had its pages uncut. I was, evidently, the first person in twenty-five years to access this particular item, and in order to read it I had to use a small knife to carefully slice open the top and/or side of most of the leaves in it. You can just imagine the looks that got me on the train. And having done so, I discovered inside the Portuguese text of the play, The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro, an English translation (the first, evidently, since an extremely poor one in 1825), and a lengthy biography of António Ferreira that told me a great deal more than I wanted to know about his life, writings, and influences, as well as the the history and politics of Portugal in the 14th and 16th centuries. What it did NOT tell me was what I wanted to know about Inés, offering instead oblique allusions that nearly drove me to screaming point.

But to begin at the beginning—

In 1340, Prince Pedro, the heir to King Afonso IV of Portugal, married Constança of Castile. When Constança came to Lisbon, she was accompanied by a train of ladies-in-waiting, including the beautiful, golden-haired Inés de Castro. Much to the outrage of all concerned, Pedro and Inés quickly became lovers, defying all attempts to separate them. Constança, cunningly, had Inés named godmother to her first child, which technically made the relationship between her and Pedro incestuous.  When that didn’t work, Afonso sent Inés back to Castile. Pedro journeyed repeatedly to visit her until 1345, when Constança died shortly after the birth of her son, Fernando, after which he brought her back. Pedro and Inés continued to live together more or less openly, with Inés bearing four children, of which three survived. Meanwhile, Pedro ignored his father’s attempts to arrange another political marriage for him, raising the spectre of his marriage to Inés.

Both in religious and secular terms, Inés de Castro represented a threat to the Portuguese throne. She was illegitimate, albeit of noble origin; she was a blood relation of Pedro to an extent that would have made a papal dispensation necessary for their marriage; and, as godmother to the deceased infant prince, she was persona non grata. Furthermore, upon her return from Castile, Pedro installed her in a minor royal palace bequeathed to a convent by Queen Isabel (aka Elizabeth of Aragon), Pedro’s grandmother, who was regarded in her lifetime as a saintly peacemaker and who was in fact canonised after her death as Saint Elizabeth. (She was the one who turned bread into roses.) In many people’s eyes, the relationship between Pedro and Inés was not just immoral, but sacriligious.

More pragmatically, Inés was Castilian. Her brothers had befriended Pedro, and he responded by gifting them positions at court. Many people near the throne feared the Castilian influence, and what would happen when Pedro succeeded his father. Particularly they feared that Portugal would end up embroiled in the endless politic turmoil of Castile. What triggered the belated final crisis we do not know, but in 1355 King Afonso and his counsellors tried Inés in absentia and found her guilty of treason. She was sentenced to summary execution, and decapitated in her own home – in front of her children.

Inés was not the only one “in absentia”: Afonso and his court waited until Pedro was away on a hunting-trip to make their move against Inés. When Pedro heard of her death, he responded with nothing less than an open rebellion, raising an army (many of his troops Castilian) and waging war against his father’s forces for some eighteen months, until a peace was finally brokered. In 1357, Afonso died, and Pedro took the throne.

And then things got weird…although how weird depends on who you listen to.

When Pedro became king, the three men responsible for Inés’ execution understandably fled the country. One got away; the other two were captured in Castile (which seems a stupid place for them to go). Pedro staged a hostage exchange with his counterpart, Peter of Castile, and then, in a tableau worthy of Vlad Tepes, had his prisoners executed by having their hearts cut out of their bodies while they were still alive, as he ate breakfast and enjoyed the show. These men, Pedro explained, had torn out his heart by killing Inés, so their fate was only fair.

Then, in 1361, Pedro announced that he and Inés had in fact been secretly married in 1354, and she was therefore his queen. (No solid evidence one way or the other has ever been uncovered.) He followed this declaration by having her body exhumed from its grave near her home and placed in an elaborately sculpted tomb, on which she was depicted wearing a crown. Pedro had a matching tomb carved for himself, and placed it nearby; both now lie within the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça. On the evidence of at least one more illegitimate child, Pedro did have other relationships after Inés’ death, but he never remarried. He died and was succeeded in 1367 by Fernando, his son by Constança.

So that’s Version #1, and as much as we know for certain – which naturally doesn’t stop people telling Version #2, an even better story. The outline is the same, but instead of merely declaring Inés his queen, after exhuming her body Pedro holds a coronation ceremony for her – in which he crowns her, and then makes all the members of his court kiss the corpse’s hand and swear fealty to her.

There seems (she said, regretfully) no evidence that this actually happened, although many people clearly believe that it did and tell the story as fact, which of course propagates it even further. It’s also an obvious case of “print the legend”. Personally, I reject the tale on the basis of its logistics: Inés was, after all, decapitated…

The story of Inés de Castro has never lost its appeal for the artistic community, and an extraordinary number of people, Portuguese and otherwise, have told or depicted her life and death in plays, novels, films, poems, paintings and operas; particularly operas, of which there are at least twenty devoted to her story. Inevitably, the vast majority of these works include the macabre coronation; artists tend to depict a shrivelled corpse with its head mysteriously back on its shoulders. I suppose what I was hoping for in the background text provided by John Martyn as a preface to his translation of The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro was an indication of when this twist to the story first appeared, and who might have been responsible for it. Instead, most exasperatingly, Martyn contents himself with pointing out a few people who did not tell it that way. This omission was all the more annoying considering his declared intention (quoted above) of, Distinguish[ing] between the facts and myths of the Inés tradition.

Anyway, among this high-minded group who stuck to Version #1 we find António Ferreira. Granted, his dramatic approach to the story would hardly allow for Version #2. Ferreira walks a finely judged line in his play about Inés, writing in Portuguese and telling a story from Portuguese history, but otherwise following the rules of classical drama by offering a five-act tragedy in which all violence is kept strictly off-stage. A chorus offers an ongoing commentary on the actions and contradictions of the characters.

The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro opens with Inés happy to the point of being fey, since Pedro has finally promised to marry her. This joyful opening is balanced by Inés suffering a foreboding dream in which she finds herself threatened by lions, but is then torn apart by wolves. This dream comes true when King Afonso is persuaded by his counsellors that Inés must die. The men confront her together, but the king, already reluctant, is swayed by Inés’ beauty and innocence and commutes her sentence. However, as soon as they have him away from Inés’ influence, the counsellors resume their arguments and succeed in bringing the weak Afonso back to his original judgement. He refuses to have anything to do with it, however, effectively washing his hands of the business. The counsellors return to Inés (off-stage) and run her through with their swords. No sooner has he given his tacit permission for Inés’ death than Afonso regrets it, but by then it is too late. Meanwhile, word of the execution is carried to Pedro, who swears bloody vengeance against his father.

Two things about The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro struck me as particularly interesting. The first point, internally, is the text’s insistence upon Inés’ innocence: the love between herself and Pedro is presented as being blessed by God if not by man. It is her innocence that prompts Afonso to spare her life, while the counsellors agree that she must die in spite of it, presenting her as a martyr to Portugal’s good. The second point, externally, is that the play was written under royal patronage and first staged in the mid-1550s before the then-heir to the throne, Prince John. Evidently the Portuguese monarchy insisted on a lot less sucking up from its artists than most, since this story hardly shows royalty in a flattering light.

So! – after all that, I returned to the original point of the exercise (you remember that, right?), and read the two translations of Jean-Baptiste de Brilhac’s Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise. You can imagine my surprise, and indeed my dismay, when it turned out that de Brilhac had offered the world a version of Inés’ story that was whitewashed to the point of unrecognisability.

Not that my French is brilliant, but as far as I could tell from a comparison of the texts of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise and The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro; Taken Out Of The History Of Portugal Peter Belon’s translation is basically literal: I identified a number of paragraphs that were translated word for word, so I’m prepared to assume that the majority of it was so. In this version, which bears so little resemblance to reality as to be inadvertently amusing, Pedro marries Constantia (Constança), but falls in love with Agnes (Inés). Instead of immediately pursuing and seducing her, he struggles against his feelings and manfully keeps his secret for a number of years. Constantia is in love with Pedro, but she is painfully aware that he does not love her. Her one consolation in her unhappiness is the friendship of Agnes.

The villains of the piece are two invented characters, Don Alvares de Goncales and his sister, Elvira. The latter had hopes of Pedro before his marriage to Constantia, the former is in love with Agnes. Elvira, a born schemer and plotter, discovers Pedro’s secret and tries to get rid of Agnes by revealing it to Constantia. Constantia is as shattered as Elvira could wish, but believes both Agnes’ protestations of complete innocence, and Pedro’s assertion that, although he does love Agnes, he has never breathed a word of it to her. Meanwhile, Don Alvares, a professional sycophant, lets King Alfonse (Afonso) know of Pedro’s secret passion. The outraged king, who blames Agnes, wants to banish the girl, but Constantia refuses to part with her, defending both her and Pedro to Alfonse. The king is exasperated, and only too glad to offer his assistance when Don Alvares asks permission to court Agnes – to court her in the first instance, anyway: should the girl persist in her scornful refusals, Don Alvares has Alfonse’s permission to see what force will achieve.

So things stay for some time, until Elvira provokes a crisis: she forges a letter, supposedly from Agnes, that convinces Constantia that she and Pedro are lovers, and that it is Agnes who has overcome Pedro’s scruples, rather than the other way around. This ploy is rather more successful than Elvira intended or desired: Constantia collapses and becomes dangerously ill. Initially shunning Agnes, as she feels death approaching she admits the girl to her bedchamber and is convinced by her that the letter is a forgery. At the last, Constantia blesses both Pedro and Agnes and tells them that she hopes they will marry. The widowed Pedro soon declares himself, but Agnes rejects him. Nevertheless, she begins to realise that she does care for him. A maddened Don Alvares finally has Agnes abducted, but his men encounter Pedro on the road and flee. This rescue breaks down Agnes’ defences and she admits she loves Pedro; he persuades her into a secret marriage.

From here The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro bears at least a passing likeness to the truth. Suspicions arise of the relationship between Pedro and Agnes, and finally Don Alvares discovers the truth. He runs with it to Alfonse, and not only persuades him to have Agnes assassinated, but volunteers for the job. They wait for a day when Pedro is away hunting, and then Don Alvares invades the couple’s home and murders Agnes in her bed. The shock of Agnes’ death nearly deprives Pedro of both his life and his reason, but he slowly recovers. His first act then is to to swear vengeance against her murderers, and to cut a bloody swathe across Portugal.

Thus was the end of the unfortunate Amours of Don Pedro of Portugal, and of the beautiful Agnes de Castro, concludes The Fatal Beauty, whose memory the Prince did faithfully preserve on his Throne, on which he set by Birth-right after the Death of Don Alfonse. And we realise that we have been offered a version of the story lacking ALL of reality’s highlights.

What, then, of Aphra Behn’s Agnes de Castro; or, The Force Of Generous Love? Sadly, not much. I was hoping Aphra might have done a number on the original text and turned it into something more her own, but in fact the two translations are very close. To my taste, Aphra’s is the better one: it’s slightly shorter, having had some bits of repetition and unnecessary verbiage pruned away, while there are spots where Aphra’s choice of an English word or phrase is more apt. Beyond that, however, there is little to distinguish the two.

One thing that Aphra’s Agnes de Castro does offer us, however, is another of her intriguing dedications. Its official target is Sir Roger Puleston, a late-converted Royalist, but its main interest lies in the tone of its text. This is one of Aphra’s defences of her art, but a far cry in attitude from most of her earlier ones, many of which declared in essence that she’d write like a man if she damn well felt like it. Here, she not only objects to the crudeness of much of the prevailing literature, but offers hints that she may finally have given up on trying to win the patronage of the Stuarts. It is the cry of a woman very near the end of her tether:

Virgil and Horace had a better Age; Augustus favoured the Muses, and the whole Court was Complaisant to the Humor of their Caesar. He was a great Judge, and a great Patron: But our Age, degenerated into dull Lewdness, can relish nothing but abusive Satyr, and obscene Lampoons; and he is the most admir’d Poet who can most vilely traduce Innocent Beauty, Women of Quality, and Great Men. Our deprav’d Nature can relish nothing but Scandal in Verse, and from Noble and Heroick Songs, we are debauch’d into Scurrilous and Sawcy Libels; and every Man’s a Wit, who can but Rail. In our Age the Noble Roman Poets wou’d have Starv’d…

And to conclude this exceedingly rambling post, we should take note of one subtle point of difference that does exist between Agnes de Castro; or, The Force Of Generous Love and The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro. By the end of 1688, the word “novel” was being used more widely and more frequently to describe prose writing. We find it here in both the original work – which translates directly as Agnes de Castro: A Portuguese Novel – and as a reference to Peter Belon’s translation, released as one of Two Novels. Aphra, however, avoids the word: both Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt use instead the word “history” in their subtitles, and when Aphra’s prose work of 1688 was collected together and reissued, it was under the title Three Histories. It seems to me that the distinction was quite intentional. We have spent much time and energy debating the truth quotient of both Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt, while we know that Agnes de Castro was based upon a true story – even if, ironically, there’s less actual truth in it than in either of the two. In calling her prose “history”, at a time when the word was becoming unfashionable, Aphra Behn was telling her readers something about the nature of her work, and the artistic choices that lay behind it.

23/12/2012

The Fair Jilt; or, The History Of Prince Tarquin And Miranda

FairJilt1bThere was not a man of any quality that came to Antwerp, or passed through the city, but made it his business to see the lovely Miranda, who was universally adored. Her youth and beauty, her shape and majesty of mien and air of greatness, charmed all her beholders, and thousands of people were dying by her eyes, while she was vain enough to glory in her conquest, and make it her business to wound. She loved nothing so much as to behold sighing slaves at her feet of the greatest quality, and treated ’em all with an affability that gave ’em hope… Everybody daily expected when she would make someone happy by suffering herself to be conquered by love and honour, by the assiduities and vows of some one of her adorers. But Miranda accepted their presents, heard their vows with pleasure, and willingly admitted all their soft addresses; but would not yield her heart, or give away that lovely person to the possession of one who could please itself with so many.

Originally published in the first half of 1688, The Fair Jilt; or, The History Of Prince Tarquin And Miranda is a flawed but fascinating piece of short fiction. In structure and origin, it very much resembles Oroonoko, in that Aphra Behn has again taken a real-life incident from her past and woven about it a tale in which a fictionalised version of herself appears from time to time to impress upon the reader the veracity of her story. That The Fair Jilt has attracted neither the fame nor the notoriety of Oroonoko may be put down to two things: firstly, that it does not concern itself with broad social issues such as slavery and colonisation, which give the latter work a hold on the sensibilities of the modern reader; and secondly, that it centres on the sexual adventures of a woman, which too easily allows it be be dismissed, as it frequently has been, as a mere piece of vulgar “amatory fiction”. This latter reaction is, however, a complete misreading of the text, which far from being intended to titillate is an ironic rumination upon deception, and the appalling things done in the all-excusing name of love.

The tone of The Fair Jilt is set during its lengthy opening dedication to the Catholic playwright, Henry Pain (who after the Glorious Revolution turned Jacobite, and in 1690 was imprisoned and tortured for his role in a plot to restore James to the throne). It would be a serious mistake for any reader to skim or skip over this dedication, which is very much a part of the story as a whole. Aphra uses these introductory paragraphs to present her story’s apparent hero, and also to assert the veracity of her story:

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 Assertor in this incredulous World. For however it may be imagin’d 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 latter Age: And that, in the person of Tarquin, I bring a Prince to kiss your Hands, who own’d 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.

It is difficult to know precisely how these passages were intended to be taken, which would depend upon how au fait Aphra’s readers were with the true story of “Prince Tarquin”.

It was only in 1977 that Maureen Duffy, in researching her problematic but important biography of Aphra Behn, The Passionate Shepheredess, discovered at least a part of the truth about this individual, via two separate short pieces published in the London Gazette (the same paper, as we might recall, in which Henrietta Berkeley’s father advertised for her whereabouts after her elopement with Lord Grey). The first, which appeared during the last week of May in 1666, was as follows:

The Prince Tarquino being condemned in Antwerp to be beheaded, for endeavouring the death of his sister-in-law: being on the scaffold, the executioner tied a handkerchief about his head and by great accident his blow lighted upon the knot, giving him only a slight wound. Upon which, the people being in a tumult, he was carried back to the Townhouse, and is in hopes both of his pardon and his recovery.

The next issue of the Gazette added the short follow-up: From Antwerp ’tis said, that Prince Tarquino that so accidentally escaped execution, has since obtained his pardon from his Excellency the Marquis de Castel Rodrigo.

So far, The Fair Jilt is indeed “Matter of Fact”; and in its course deals with the attempt of Tarquin [Sic.] upon the life of his sister-in-law, his botched execution, and his subsequent pardon by the Governor of Flanders. It further offers the main headings of the broader story, and above all places and times its action very carefully for us, via reference to another prince:

    …there was a great Noise about the Town, That a Prince of mighty Name and fam’d for all the Excellencies of his Sex, was arriv’d; a Prince, young and gloriously attended, call’d Prince Tarquin.
    We had often heard of this great Man, and that he was making his Travels in France and Germany: And we had also heard, that some yYears before, he being about Eighteen Years of Age, in the time when our King Charles of blessed Memory was in Bruxels, in the last Year of his Banishment, that all of a suddain, this young Man rose up upon ’em like the Sun, all glorious and dazling, demanding Place of all the Princes in that Court. And when his Pretence was demanded, he own’d himself Prince Tarquin, of the Race of the last Kings of Rome, made good his Title, and took his Place accordingly. After that, he travell’d for about six Years up and down the World, and then arriv’d at Antwerp, about the time of my being sent thither by His Late Majesty.

So far, so factual. The problem is that, having so matter-of-factly established her hero’s pretensions, Aphra goes on to conclude The Fair Jilt by even more matter-of-factly concluding her story with the exposure of “Prince Tarquin” as an imposter. According to Aphra’s (unconfirmed) report, the “Prince of mighty Name” was in reality the son of a Dutch merchant. For those readers in 1688 who knew the end of the story, Aphra’s dedication would have acted as a foreshadowing of the nature of her story. The Fair Jilt‘s overriding irony is that it finds truth – human truth – in a tale of false identities, false emotions, self-deception, and blind passions:

I’ll prove to you the strong Effects of Love in some unguarded and ungovern’d Hearts; where it rages beyond the Inspirations of a God all soft and gentle, and reigns more like a Fury from Hell. I do not pretend here to entertain you with a feign’d Story, or any thing piec’d together with Romantick Accidents; but every Circumstance, to a Tittle, is Truth. To a great part of the Main, I my self was an Eye-Witness; and what I did not see, I was confirm’d of by Actors in the Intrigue, holy Men, of the Order of St. Francis: But for the sake of some of her Relations, I shall give my fair Jilt a feign’d name, that of Miranda; but my Hero must retain his own, it being too illustrious to be conceal’d…

In spite of his prominence in both title and introduction, however, this is not the story of Prince Tarquin, but of Miranda. She is introduced to us in a suitably anomalous position, as a nun who is not a nun: the narrator explains to us that in Catholic countries, apart from those women who have made their perpetual vows, there are many “temporary nuns”, young women who take a vow to withdraw from the world for a certain period of time, and who live together in governed households overseen by a prioress. The immediate effect of this withdrawal is to make these young women doubly attractive to the young men of the town, due to the extra difficulty of gaining access to them. The girls’ “religious retreat” is therefore presented to us as an elaborate gesture of flirtation.

Miranda, young, beautiful and rich, is certainly not a member of her order as an expression of her religious convictions. She is a “jilt” not according to the modern usage of the word, but in the contemporary sense of being a woman who uses and discards a series of men. Moreover, the word then carried a harsh sexual connotation, as we know from its use in The London Jilt.

When the story open,s we find Miranda encouraging the attentions of as many worshippers as she can win to herself, while carefully maintaining a public image for modesty:

Her Beauty, which had all the Charms that ever Nature gave, became the Envy of the whole Sisterhood. She was tall, and admirably shap’d; she had a bright Hair, and Hazle-Eyes, all full of Love and Sweetness: No Art cou’d make a face so Fair as hers by Nature, which every Feature adorn’d with a Grace that Imagination cannot reach: Every Look, every Motion charm’d, and her black Dress shew’d the Lustre of her Face and Neck. She had an air, though gay as so much Youth cou’d inspire, yet so modest, so nobly reserv’d, without Formality, or Stiffness, that one who look’d on her wou’d have imagin’d her Soul the Twin-Angel of her Body; and both together, made her appear something Divine…

Although it is taken for granted by Antwerp at large that Miranda will shortly bestow her fortune and her person upon one lucky man, Miranda herself has other ideas. While she revels in the incense of their adoration, her suitors’ desperate inportunities have left Miranda quite emotionally untouched, and she has no intention of restricting herself to the attentions of a single individual.

The Fair Jilt opens with a lengthy rumination upon love, and the way in which it operates upon different characters; and while we hear a great deal about, that refin’d and illustrious Passion of the Soul, whose Aim is Vertue, and whose End in Honour, within the text Love’s consequences are inavariably disastrous and often fatal. Even Miranda herself is not immune to this aspect of it: the “arrows” of “the gentle God” strike her at the worst and most improbable moment:

There was a Church belonging to the Cordeliers, whither Miranda often repair’d to her Devotion… It happen’d that Day, that a young Father, newly initiated, carry’d the Box about, which, in his turn, he brought to Miranda. She had no sooner cast her Eyes on this young Friar, but her Face was overspread with Blushes of Surprize: She beheld him stedfastly, and saw in his Face all the Charms of Youth, Wit and Beauty; he wanted no one Grace that cou’d form him for Love, he appear’d all that is adorable to the fair Sex… He had an Air altogether great; in spight of his profess’d poverty, it betray’d the Man of Quality; and that Thought weigh’d greatly with Miranda. But Love, who did not design she shou’d now feel any sort of those easie Flames with which she had hereforto burnt, made her soon lay all those Considerations aside which us’d to invite her to love, and now lov’d she knew not why…

Miranda is right about the young friar being a man of quality: we get an inserted history here, “The Story Of Prince Henrick”, which acts as a commentary upon the main narrative. In it we meet The Fair Jilt‘s only two genuinely good people, Henrick and his true love, whose mutual passion ends in heartbreak, attempted assassination and a monastery for him, and loveless marriage and death for her, after Henrick’s elder brother, in whom he foolishly confides, decides he wants the girl for himself. The brother (not named) is Miranda’s masculine counterpart: but whereas as she brokers sex for wealth and position, he uses the power of his position as heir to his father’s throne to obtain sexual access to the object of his desire. Both, finding a sibling in their way, hire assassins, he with money, she with promises of sex.

Her passion enflamed still further by learning of Henrick’s royal birth, Miranda lays siege to the first bewildered and then horrified young man, her oblique initial approaches giving way to ever more explicit declarations as her desire grows uncontrollable. Before this we have seen Miranda feigning modesty, but now she is revealed to us as capable of assuming any character that she chooses, of playing any role that will win her what she wants:

Yet notwithstanding his Silence, which left her in doubt, and more tormented her, she ceas’d not to pursue him with her Letters, varying her Style; sometimes all wanton, loose and raving; sometimes feigning a Virgin-Modesty all over, accusing her self, blaming her Conduct, and sighing her Destiny, as one compell’d to the shameful Discovery by the Austerity of his Vow and Habit, asking his Pity and Forgiveness; urging him in Charity to use his fatherly Care to perswade and reason with her wild Desires, and by his counsel drive the God from her Heart, whose Tyranny was worse than that of a Fiend; and he did not know what his pious Advice might do…

So far Miranda’s siege has been conducted from a distance, but when Henrick is finally driven to write her a single letter of firm rejection, she decides to “show her person” and see what that effect that has.

For all the disaster and bloodshed in The Fair Jilt, what follows is the story’s most shocking sequence. Miranda gets Henrick alone by the simple expedient of asking him to hear her confession, and then reveals herself as his adorer, pouring out her passion and pleading with him to cast aside his vows and flee with her. When Henrick still resists she casts herself upon him in an attempted seduction that is in truth attempted rape. Even this the young friar withstands, and this final rejection turns Miranda’s passion into murderous hate and rage:

    Throwing herself that instant into the Confessing-Chair, and violently pulling the young Friar into her Lap, she elevated her Voice to such a degree in crying out, “Help, help; a rape; help, help!” that she was heard all over the Church, which was full of People at the Evening’s Devotion…. The fFthers…found Miranda and the good Father very indecently struggling, which they mis-interpreted as Miranda desired, who, all in Tears, immediately threw herself at the Feet of the Provincial…and cry’d, “O holy Father, revenge an innocent Maid, undone and lost to Fame and Honour, by that vile Monster… For, O holy Father, cou’d it have enter’d into the Heart of Man, to have done so barbarous and horrid a Deed, as to attempt the Virgin-Honour of an unspotted Maid, and one of my Degree, even in the Moment of my Confession, in that holy time, when I was prostrate before him and Heaven, confessing those Sins that press’d my tender Conscience…”
    With that a Shower of Tears burst from her fair dissembling Eyes, and Sobs so naturally acted, and so well manag’d, as left no Doubt upon the good Men, but all she had spoken was Truth.

Henrick is committed to appear before the magistrate, and since he will not defend himself by speaking of what happened in the confessional, he is condemned to death. However, having had time to get over their shock and horror, the other monks belatedly believe Henrick’s protestations of innocence, and persuade him to show Miranda’s letters. This produces a deadlock: the monks are convinced of Henrick’s innocence, the young men of the town of Miranda’s; caught between the two factions, the magistrate repeatedly defers Henrick’s execution, but will not pardon him. And so for the next two years, the innocent young man remains on Death Row.

Long before that, however, and thoroughly cured of her passion, Miranda resumes her normal life, making new conquests in spite of a growing feeling against her, whose Life had not been so exemplary for Vertue, not to have given the World a thousand Suspicions of her Lewdness and Prostitution. But the attention of the town is diverted from Miranda by the arrival of Prince Tarquin, who in spite of a raging debate about his origins establishes and holds his position as a prince of the blood. Miranda soon sets her ambnitious sights upon the newcomer, who in turn falls madly, blindly, unshakeably in love with her:

So that he had no Faith, but for her; and was wholly inchanted and bewitch’d by her, at last, in spight of all that would have oppos’d it, he marry’d this famous Woman, possess’d by so many great Men and Strangers before, while all the World was pitying his Shame and Misfortunes.

Now that Miranda is “a great princess”, she insists upon as much opulance and extravagance as possible, and she and Tarquin rapidly run through her fortune. Miranda’s answer to this is to invite her young sister, their late uncle’s co-heir, to live with them, and to accept Tarquin as her guardian. The innocent Alcidiana is quickly seduced by the magnificence she sees all around her, and does not think to question where the money is coming from to pay for it.

However, Alcidiana does not lack for suitors. When she engages herself to one of them over her sister’s protests, the immediate consequence is a demand for her “portion” – while the immediate consequence of that, is that Miranda starts plotting Alcidiana’s death.

Miranda’s first accomplice is a young servant, a page called Van Brune, who was raised in the sisters’ household, and who suffers from an unrequited passion for Miranda. Seeing this, she skilfully enflames the boy to the point of madness, finally hinting that if he will do as she asks of him, he will get all the reward he could desire. Van Brune is so dazed and dazzled that he agrees without hesitation, but bungles the job: Alcidiana survives the attempted poisoning, and suspicion falls upon the page, who collapses under questioning and implicates Miranda. The boy is sentenced to death, while – thanks to her “quality”, and the intervention of her royal husband – Miranda’s punishment is to be present at the execution and, To stand under the Gibbet, with a Rope around her Neck…and to have an Inscription in large Characters upon her Back and Breast, of the Cause why: Where she was to stand from Ten in the Morning, to Twelve.

The theory of this punishment is that the shame of it is a fate worse than death; but since it starts with Miranda graciously forgiving Van Brune for giving her away, and ends with her being escorted home with all possible pomp by her still-besotted husband, we have our doubts. In any event, this slight disruption to her plans barely slows Miranda down. Financial ruin and exposure are imminent; Tarquin will be imprisoned for embezzlement; and worst of all, she will no longer be able to live in the style to which she has become accustomed. In short, Alcidiana still has to die. Miranda therefore sets to work with all her hystrionic powers:

    And therefore, without ceasing, she wept, and cry’d out, She cou’d not live, unless Alcidiana dy’d. This Alcidiana, (continu’d she,) who has been the Author of my Shame: who has expos’d me under a Gibbet, in the publick Marketplace, Oh! I am deaf to all Reason, blind to Natural Affection. I renounce her: I hate her as my mortal Foe, my Stop to Glory, and the Finisher of my Days, e’er half my Race of Life be run.
    Her…Lord, and Lover, who lay sighing and list’ning by her Side, he was charm’d and bewitch’d into saying all things that appeas’d her: And lastly, told her, Alcidiana shou’d be no longer an Obstacle to her repose; but that, if she wou’d look up, and cast her Eyes of Sweetness and Love upon him, as heretofore; forget her Sorrows, and redeem her lost Health, he wou’d take what Measures she shou’d propose, to dispatch this fatal Stop to her Happiness…

But alas, Miranda is singularly unfortunate in her tools: Tarquin botches the job even worse than Van Brune, and is immediately captured. His plea that the intended victim survived does him no more good than Van Brune’s did him, and he too is sentenced to die. Miranda again escapes with her life, but is sentenced to banishment. While the two of them are in prison, the monks succeed in persuading Miranda to admit Henrick’s innocence, and that long-suffering young man is finally exonerated and released.

The narrative opens up somewhat following Tarquin’s arrest, to include contemporary debate about his identity. Another tussle to prevent an execution occurs, this time between those people who felt for Tarquin “all the compassion and pity imaginable”, including the monks who just secured Henrick’s release, and those personally offended by him:

On the other side, the Princes, and great Men of all Nations, who were at the Court of Bruxels, who bore a secret Revenge in their Hearts against a Man who had, as they pretended, set up a false Title, only to tale Place of them: who, indeed, was but a Merchant’s Son of Holland, as they said, so incens’d them against him, that they were too hard at Court for the Churchmen.

With its account of the execution – or rather, “execution” – of Tarquin, The Fair Jilt offers a fascinating collision of fact and (presumably) fiction. We know, after all that there was a Tarquin, whoever he was; that he tried to murder his wife’s sister; that he was condemned to be beheaded; and that he improbably survived the event. At the same time, we have no idea if there was a Miranda, or if she was responsible, as the narrative asserts. However, the truly fascinating thing here is the way in which Aphra Behn’s account of the failed execution, which she gives in gruesome detail, differs from the brief newspaper account: there is an authenticity about her description of Tarquin’s unlikely survival that suggests she was either there, or that she gained (and retained) a more accurate knowledge of the circumstances from the local newspapers than the short, hurried account in England could provide. The explanation offered, that the scimitar struck too low and hit the shoulder-blade rather than the neck, seems far more probable than a barrier formed by a knotted handkerchief, and moreover like something determined only after the event, once the doctors had taken over. The detail of the scimitar suggests an eyewitness, too.

We do not know the circumstances of Tarquin’s pardon, although granting freedom in the wake of an unsuccessful execution is not unprecedented. In Behn’s version, the initially vengeful Alcidiana, who remained stubbornly deaf to pleas for leniency prior to the execution, is so affected by the outcome she pleads for Tarquin’s pardon and wins it. He then ventures forth from the sanctuary of a Jesuit monastery, to which the rejoicing crowd carried him, and departs from Flanders once and for all, swearing “never to live with the fair Hypocrite more”. We are not, however, much surprised by Behn’s deadpan follow-up to this oath:

…but e’er he departed, he writ her a Letter, wherein he order’d her, in a little time, to follow him into Holland; and left a Bill of Exchange with one of his trusty Servants, whom he had left to wait upon her, for Money for her Accommodations… But, above all, she was receiv’d by Tarquin with a Joy Unspeakable…

Without editorialisation, Behn then sides with “the Princes, and great Men of all Nations” by having the faux-Tarquin return home to his father, who is “exceeding rich” but, after all, just a merchant. Nor does Behn offer commentary upon our last glimpse of Miranda, who ends her career of deceit, sex and murder the spoiled daughter-in-law of a doting, rich old man, and the object of Tarquin’s unwavering devotion; not a princess any more (though the narrator still calls her so), but as comfortable and secure as wealth and love can make her—beyond, perhaps, a certain lingering note of irony:

They say Miranda has been very penitent for her Life past, and gives Heaven the Glory for having given her these Afflictions, that have reclaim’s her, and brought her to as perfect a State of Happiness as this troublesome World can afford…

 I love a happy ending, don’t you?

The Fair Jilt is certainly not a flawless work. In particular, it loses its way somewhat in its portrait of Miranda, who goes without internal justification from a (presumed) injured innocent to a woman who has “given the World a thousand Suspicions of her Lewdness and Prostitution”, and who, after it is implied she is flattered by unmoved by her empassioned suitors, is revealed to have had a string of secret sexual affairs. Nor do we find in The Fair Jilt the kind of groundbreaking narrative experimentation that was such a feature of both Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister and Oroonoko.

Nevertheless, this is yet another intriguing piece of prose fiction—nothing less than a gender-reversed rogue’s biography, with its protagonist cutting an unmoved swathe through anyone unfortunate enough to get between her and her desires, at last emerging not just unscathed but triumphant from a lifetime of immoral adventuring, and even undergoing a thoroughly unconvincing, last-scene repentence. Miranda herself puts me very much in mind of Sylvia from Love-Letters, at least as she is at the end of the third volume, but even worse: a woman who has learned how to use sex as a weapon and does so without compunction.

The positioning of The Fair Jilt as another of Behn’s “true histories” as also fascinating. There is certainly a much larger proportion of demonstrable truth in this piece of prose than there is in Oroonoko, and yet somehow it rarely figures in the “Aphra Behn is a liar” arguments; probably, as I say, because of its easy dismissability as “amatory fiction”. Behn’s telling of the story of Tarquin, which mixes facts with things she could not have known in a by-now-familiar way, is more straightforward than the narrative of Oroonoko; the narrator here has no personal axe to grind, and this makes it hard to spot where truth ends and invention begins.

And while its narrative is not as complex as those of its fictional companion-pieces, what is noteworthy is how much in control of her language Aphra Behn shows herself to be in The Fair Jilt: much more so than in Love-Letters, where the demands of fiction (as opposed to the visuals of drama) occasionally made her stumble. We find her here more relaxed with the form; and while, as we have seen, she does still sometimes resort to the kind of comma-strung run-on sentences with which the literature of the Restoration has made us very familiar, there are other moments when she constructs sentences both pithy and stinging – such as this early comment upon the nature of Miranda’s education:

To this she had a great deal of Wit, read much, and retain’d all that served her purpose.

In this respect, I was particularly struck by the grandiloquent opening sentence of The Fair Jilt, which – to draw an exceedingly long bow, I grant you – put me irresistably in mind of one of the most famous sentences in all English literature, the opening of Pride And Prejudice:

As Love is the most noble and divine Passion of the Soul, so it is that to which we may justly attribute all the real Satisfactions of Life; and without it, Man is unfinish’d, and unhappy.

I know several people whose heads would explode at the thought of the juxtapositioning of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen, yet I feel inclined in this instance to press my point. The dominant note of The Fair Jilt is certainly irony, and irony sustained with a light hand: one of Austen’s many talents, as well. And even as Jane Austen goes on subsequently to demonstrate how the real “truth universally acknowledged” is that an unmarried man with a fortune will be relentlessly pursued to the altar, in The Fair Jilt Aphra Behn offers a devastating dissection of “the most noble and divine Passion”, which in her world leaves death, misery and ruined fortunes strewn in its wake; the crowning irony of both works being their eventual proving of their own overt theses.

01/12/2012

She’s doing it again!

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.

17/11/2012

Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 4)

…he no sooner came to the houses of the slaves, which are like a little town by itself, the Negroes all having left work, but they all came forth to behold him…and, from a veneration they pay to great men, especially if they know ’em, and from the surprise and awe they had at the sight of him, they all cast themselves at his feet, crying out in their language: “Live, O King, live long, O King!”, and kissing his feet, paid him even divine homage…

While there is certainly some validity to the long-standing interpretations of Oroonoko  as an anti-slavery tract and as an early example of “noble savage” literature, I have to say that, this time around, the reading that leapt off the page at me was that which places it as an allegory of the Stuarts. While I am hardly the first person to draw this conclusion, it is not, to say the least, the most popular way of “seeing” Oroonoko; nor is it the easiest one to reach, without the kind of immersion in Restoration politics and literature that I have just been through (and which I have inflicted upon you). Yet I think that it is ultimately the correct one. Furthermore, I think that without a proper understanding of when and why Oroonoko was written, the reader cannot grasp its full implications.

As we have touched upon in the previous posts, Aphra Behn published Oroonoko in the second half of 1688. She was ill and in debt; plays were not being commissioned, and her poetry and translations were not paying the bills. Needing money urgently, she understandably turned to the increasingly popular literary form, fiction, to supplement her dangerously slender income. Behn turned out a clutch of short works at this time, but Oroonoko distinguishes itself from the others in several significant ways.

Firstly, over the previous twenty years Aphra Behn apparently told the story, or versions of it, to her friends – suggesting that there was a real incident in Surinam that burned itself on her memory, however little it might have resembled what she finally put on paper. For all the later attempts to conflate Behn’s life with her fiction, this would seem to be the only point at which the two clearly crossed paths. Secondly, and further to that point, this is the only piece of Behn’s fiction to be told in the first person, in which she deliberately inserts a version of herself into her narrative. Behn’s other fictions may have been nothing more to her than an effort to raise some money in a hurry, but it seems clear enough that when it comes to Oroonoko, there was a more complex relationship between author and text.

Oroonoko was, as I say, published in the second half of 1688; we know it was, because it was advertised in the re-release of some of Aphra’s Behn’s Royalist poetry, which we examined in an earlier post. Having written one lengthy poem upon the announcement of Mary of Modena’s pregnancy early in the year, Behn followed up with another after the birth of the Prince of Wales on 10th June 1688; the two works were subsequently bundled together and reissued. Before this happened, however, one of the most significant events in English history had taken place, with the issuing of the invitation to William of Orange by the “Immortal Seven” on 18th June.

(The “seven” were: William Cavendish, then the Earl of Devonshire; Charles Talbot, then the Earl of Shrewsbury; Thomas Osborne, then the Earl of Danby; Richard Lumley, then Viscount and Baron Lumley; Henry Compton, the Bishop of London; Edward Russell; and Henry Sidney. The “thens” foreshadow the honours which the men predictably received under William and Mary, with a generous bestowal of dukedoms. Russell, a former high-ranking naval officer who was stripped of his command after his relative, Lord Russell, was executed in the wake of the Rye House Plot, became First Lord of the Admiralty and the 1st Earl of Orford; while Henry Sidney was created 1st Earl of Romney. It was Sidney who actually wrote the letter to William. Lord Lumley, later created the 1st Earl of Scarborough, was – ironically enough – the man who had captured Monmouth after his disastrous rebellion.)

By the time Aphra Behn put pen to paper to tell the story of her “royal slave”, everyone knew that William was coming; what they did not know was what would happen when he did. Would James, by some miracle (perhaps via Divine intervention), hold onto his throne?—or would he follow his father to the block? That James would simply pack up quietly and leave was not, I imagine, very high on the list of anyone’s guesses, and least of all Aphra Behn’s.

Aphra sat down to write Oroonoko, then, in an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty; at a time when, as a Royalist and one of James’s most loyal adherents, she must have been suffering agonies of fear and doubt. What appeared on her sheets of paper was a story of the betrayal and murder of a royal prince, set against a backdrop of England ceding its territories to the Dutch.

While it is, as I say, quite easy to understand why people prefer the anti-slavery reading of Oroonoko to one that positions it as an allegory mourning the imminent downfall of the Stuarts, if we do accept Oroonoko as a literary stand-in for James, it seems to me that most of the pieces of the puzzle fall fairly easily into place. This a Royalist piece par excellence: much of its first half is devoted to the extolling the superiority of Oroonoko to his fellow slaves and his English captors alike; an innate superiority that shows itself unmistakably in his physical perfections, his mental attainments, and the beauties of his character:

Nor did the perfections of his mind come short of those of his person, for his discourse was admirable upon almost every subject , and whoever had heard him speak would have been convinced of their errors, that all fine wit is confined to the white men, especially to those of Christendom, and would have confessed that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well and of governing as wisely, had as great a soul, as politic maxims, and was as sensible of power, as any prince civilised in the most refined schools of humanity and learning, or the most illustrious courts.

James Trefry, who buys Oroonoko as a slave for the plantation belonging to Lord Willoughby, is struck at first glance by a certain  je ne sais quoi, which sets this newcomer apart from his fellow slaves:

He…no sooner came into the boat but he fixed his eyes on him, and finding something so extraordinary in his face, his shape, his mien, a greatness of look and haughtiness in his air, and finding he spoke English, had a great mind to be inquiring into his quality and fortune; which, though Oroonoko endeavoured to hide by only confessing he was above the rank of common slaves, Trefry soon found he was yet something greater than he confessed…

Not even shackles and rags can disguise Oroonoko’s royal blood, and everyone in Surinam who comes into contact with him instinctively pays him the homage due to a prince:

When he found his habit made him liable, as he thought, to be gazed at more, he begged Trefry to give him something more befitting a slave, which he did, and took off his robes. Nevertheless, he shone through all…and he had no less admirers than when he had his dazzling habit on; the royal youth appeared in spite of the slave, and people could not help treating him after a different manner, without designing it. As soon as they approached him, they venerated and esteemed him; his eyes insensibly commanded respect, and his behaviour insinuated it into every soul, so that there was nothing to be talked of but this young and gallant slave, even by those who yet knew not that he was a prince…

Oroonoko’s fame spreads quickly, and the English begin to tussle amongst themselves for the privilege of this unexpected celebrity’s company:

But if the King himself (God bless him) had come ashore, there could not have been greater expectations by all the the plantation…and he was received more like a governor than a slave.

That quick “God bless him” is, by the way, the only direct reference to James to be found in the pages of Oroonoko, although his brother wanders by at certain points, as we shall see.

But Oroonoko’s very perfections breed jealousy and fear—particularly a fear that he might have the power to rouse the other slaves to violent rebellion against their captors. It is at this point that The Narrator begins her Quisling-like interaction with Oroonoko, soothing him with promises about his future liberty, if only he will be patient for just a little longer…

The carrot dangled before the increasingly frustrated prince is the arrival of Surinam’s new governor, who does not in fact arrive within the confines of the story. The previous governor—he who is summarily dismissed by the natives as “a liar”—is, we are told, later “drowned in a hurricane”. This incident prompts the appointment of The Narrator’s father, but he dies on the journey to Surinam, leading to yet another delay as news of his demise is sent back to England and a second replacement governor despatched. During this time, Surinam is necessarily without proper leadership—or, if you prefer, is a country without a king.

The deputy-governor of Surinam is one William Byam, another real historical figure, and one for whom Aphra expresses a loathing that may be personal, or may represent her feelings against those Englishmen who were plotting James’s downfall—or both:

The deputy-governor, of whom I have had no great occasion to speak, and who was the most fawning, fair-tongued fellow in the world, and one that pretended the most friendship to Caesar, was now the only violent man against him, and though he had nothing, and so need fear nothing, yet talked and looked bigger than any man. He was a fellow whose character is not fit to be mentioned with the worst of the slaves…

Ouch. It seems to me that, twenty-five years on, there’s too much venom in this lack-of-character sketch for it to be entirely a portrait of William Byam, although Aphra clearly brought no friendly memories of him back from Surinam. More likely, I think, it is mixed with her views on someone close to James, someone she considered guilty of a particularly personal betrayal.

In any event, it is Byam who is responsible for Oroonoko’s fate. Again and again, he makes promises, which Oroonoko is persuaded by his English “friends” to believe; again and again, he breaks them. The entirely honourable Oroonoko has no defence against a man who can tell such lies, and commit such dishonourable acts:

But Trefry and Byam pleaded and protested together so much, that Trefry, believing the governor to mean what he said, and speaking very cordially himself, generously put himself into Caesar’s hands, and took him aside, and persuaded him, even with tears, to live by surrendering himself, and to name his conditions. Caesar was overcome by his wit and reasons, and in consideration of Imoinda, and demanding what he desired, and that it should be ratified by their hands in writing, because he had perceived that was the common way of contract between man and man amongst the whites. All this was performed, and Tuscan’s pardon was put in, and they surrender to the governor, who walked peaceably down into the plantation with ’em… But they were no sooner arrived at the place where all the slaves receive their punishments of whipping, but they laid hands on Caesar and Tuscan, faint with heat and toil, and, surprising them, bound them to two several stakes, and whipped them in a most deplorable and inhumane manner, rending the very flesh from the bones…

Byam is supported in his governorship of Surinam, such as it is, by a council of Englishmen; and it does not take too much imagination to read into Aphra’s presentation of these “gentlemen” her opinion of the Immortal Seven:

The governor was no sooner recovered and had heard of the menaces of Caesar but he called his council who (not to disgrace them, or burlesque the government there) consisted of such notorious villains as Newgate never transported, and possibly originally were such, who understood neither the laws of God or man, and had no sort of principles to make ’em worthy the name of men…

Oroonoko is, in fact, betrayed on all sides: by Byam and his lies; by his “friends”, Trefry and The Narrator, and their empty promises; and even by his fellow-slaves, who follow him when he offers to lead them to their freedom, only to turn tail and abandon him when it comes to a confrontation with the English—“Yield and live; yield and be pardoned!”

This final betrayal is the most bitter of all for Oroonoko, who responds that:

…he was ashamed of what he had done, in endeavouring to make those free who were by nature slaves, poor, wretched rogues, fit to be used as Christians’ tools, dogs treacherous and cowardly fit for such masters, and they wanted only but to be whipped into the knowledge of the Christian gods to be the vilest of all creeping things…

And here we see the problem with trying to read Oroonoko as a simple anti-slavery pact, namely that all the other slaves – the non-royal slaves, that is – are exactly what the pro-slavery faction so often argued: cowardly, weak and stupid; inferior.

However—this should not to be taken to mean that Aphra was in fact pro-slavery, but rather that she wasn’t thinking here of real slavery, or real slaves, at all. Instead, it was simply a matter of her allegory requiring the slaves of Surinam to stand in for the English people: too stupid to realise what they had in James Stuart; too weak to rise up in his defence, as they should; too cowardly to do anything but hunker down and protect their own skins, even as seven treacherous men almost openly plotted their king’s downfall.

Betrayal is the overriding theme of Oroonoko, from the King of Coramantien’s siezing of Imoinda and his later selling of her into slavery, to the tricking of Oroonoko into slavery by the ship’s captain, to Oroonoko’s treatment at the hands of the English; but it is not the only one. This short tale also functions as a warning to the English people, as to what exactly they will be letting themselves in for should they allow the coming of William. And in pursuit of this particular end, Aphra does something I have not seen in any other of her writings: she openly criticises Charles II.

At the time of Aphra’s visit, Surinam was an English colony. However, in 1667, under the Treaty of Breda, which brought to an end the second Anglo-Dutch War, the colony was given up to the Dutch. This surrender of a land rich in natural resources, including gold, was in Aphra’s opinion a major blunder on Charles’s part, and she says so twice—albeit tempering her complaint by referring to Charles as “his late Majesty of sacred memory”:

Though, in a word, I must say this much of it, that certainly had his late Majesty of sacred memory but seen and known what a vast and charming world he had been master of in that continent, he would never have parted so easily with it to the Dutch…

The loss of gold, discovered in the interior of Surinam not long before Aphra’s departure, was clearly a particular bug-bear:

…but we going off for England before the project was further prosecuted, and the governor being drowned in a hurricance, either the design died, or the Dutch have the advantage of it, and ’tis to be bemoaned what His Majesty lost by losing that part of America...

Of course, Aphra is being just a tad disingenous here. Under the terms of the Treaty of Breda, the English did not simply “give up” Surinam to the Dutch—they received New York in exchange for it. Then again—by the time Aphra wrote Oroonoko she had visited North as well as South America; perhaps she genuinely believed that the Dutch had got the better part of the bargain.

While Oroonoko is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a humourous work, it is hard not to smile at the number of times Aphra manages to drag the Dutch into the story—always as a grim portent of Things To Come. If the English are bad, the Dutch are infinitely worse; and Aphra, in her guise as The Narrator, takes pains to let her readers know just how rapidly Surinam went to hell in hand-basket, once the country had changed ownership:

About this time we were in many mortal fears about some disputes the English had with the Indians, so that we could scarce trust ourselves without great numbers to go to any of the Indian towns or places where they abode, for fear they should fall upon us, as they did immediately after my coming away, and that it was in the possession of the Dutch, who used ’em not so civilly as the English…

It is even the fault of the Dutch that the telling of Oroonoko’s story is left to the feeble powers of a “female pen” (disingenuous again, Aphra!):

But his misfortune was to fall in an obscure world, that afforded only a female pen to celebrate his fame; though I doubt not but it had lived from others’ endeavours, if the Dutch who, immediately after this time, took that country, had not killed, banished and dispersed all those that were capable of giving the world this great man’s life better than I have done…

Mind you—even the Dutch have their uses. After sharing with us her opinion of the council that assisted William Byam in his misdeeds, The Narrator adds parenthetically:

Some of ’em were afterwards hanged when the Dutch took possession of the place…

Be that as it may, the subtext of Oroonoko is clear enough: Pay attention, English people—do you REALLY want the Dutch in charge??

Perhaps because she was speaking allegorically, in Oroonoko Aphra Behn allows herself to be as critical of the Stuarts as she ever was, even apart from those cracks at Charles. Oroonoko’s indecisiveness towards the end of the story, the constant gap between what he says he’s going to do, and what he actually does, is particularly telling. Recognising at last that the English are never going to let them go, Oroonoko makes another escape with Imoinda, carrying out his drastic plan so far as killing his pregnant wife so as to prevent her subsequent “despoiling” and their child being born a slave. Having done so, however, instead of carrying out the next part of his plan, a bloody revenge on William Byam, Oroonoko collapses, remaining passively by Imoinda’s rotting body until he is recaptured by his enemies.

It is suggestive, too, that there is a second layer to this criticism, inasmuch as most of Oroonoko’s problems stem from his interaction with women.  It is the sexual struggle between Oroonoko and his grandfather over possession of Imoinda that starts all the trouble in the first place, after all, while once in Surinam Oroonoko’s feet are set on the road to disaster chiefly because, again and again, he allows himself to be over-persuaded by a woman. Even the slave rebellion fails because, when it comes to the crunch, the male slaves give into the pleading of their wives to save their own lives by surrendering.

Is this Aphra Behn having a dig at the notorious weakness of the Stuart men? Perhaps. She does make a point of excluding Imoinda herself from her criticism, lauding her for the way she stands by her man—as indeed, for all her faults, Mary of Modena did James. That said, Mary’s own talent for making enemies almost matched her husband’s, and in that respect she was no help to him at all.

And if we do follow this line of argument, it begs the tantalising question of who The Narrator, with her disastrous influence upon Oroonoko’s affairs, might be meant to be? I don’t think there is an easy, or even a definite, answer to that, although it’s fun to play with. It’s possible, for instance, to see her as the other Mary in James’s life, his daughter, who would finally replace him on the throne; a treacherous figure, and yet a royal Stuart. However, my own preferred reading sees The Narrator not as any contemporary woman, but as a kind of Henrietta Maria—constantly interfering in Stuart affairs, until she finally helps to get one of them killed.

The shadow of Charles I lies long and dark across Oroonoko; Aphra Behn’s fear that James would go the way of his father is clear throughout the text, which from the start dwells morbidly upon the various physical injuries suffered by Oroonoko, until the story reaches its climax in his grotesque execution:

…so inhumane were the justices, who stood by to see the execution, who after paid dearly enough for their insolence. They cut Caesar in quarters and sent them to several of the chief plantations. One quarter was sent to Colonel Martin, who refused it, and swore he had rather see the quarters of Banister and the governor himself, than those of Caesar, on his plantations, and that he could govern his Negroes without terrifying and grieving them with frightful spectacles of a mangled king.

When The Narrator describes Oroonoko’s re-christening as “Caesar”, she concentrates on the applicability of the name to this brave and glorious warrior (with the Roman nose), who…wanted no part of the personal courage of that Caesar, and acted things as memorable. Not for a second, however, should we forget the ultimate fate of the original Caesar – nor who was responsible for it.

Nor should we overlook the poignant significance of the fact that, at the very last, while his mangled remains are being distributed amongst the “nobility” of Surinam, The Narrator refers to Oroonoko not as he is, as a prince, but as a king. It is not hard to tell that the “frightful spectacle” of a “mangled king” was vividly before the eyes of Aphra Behn’s imagination as she was writing the closing lines of her tragedy.

Nevertheless, in the latter stages of the story there is also an unmistakeable sense of exasperation about Aphra’s handling of her hero, particularly with respect to his helpless vacillation in the aftermath of Imoinda’s death. The impression given by these passages is that Aphra couldn’t understand why James was just sitting there, when everyone knew that William was on his way. Why didn’t he summon the army?—appeal to his people?—draw his sword—anything?

It is easy to imagine that after so many years of loyal service, James’s tame surrender of his throne must have come as a bitter blow to Aphra Behn—yet in Oroonoko, she all but predicts it. Perhaps, with the end of the struggle in sight, and under cover of allegory, Aphra finally allowed herself to admit about the Stuarts everything she had been closing her eyes to for more than twenty years.

03/11/2012

Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 3)

    And turning to the men that bound him, he said, “My friends, am I to die, or to be whipped?”, and they cried, “Whipped! No, you shall not escape so well.” And then he replied, smiling, “A blessing on thee”, and assured them, they need not tie him, for he would stand fixed like a rock, and endure death so as should encourage them to die. “But if you whip me,” said he, “be sure you tie me first.”
     My mother and sister were by him all the while, but not suffered to save him, so rude and wild were the rabble, and so inhumane were the justices, who stood by to see the execution… Thus died this great man; worthy of a better fate, and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise; yet I hope the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages…

I allowed the anti-slavery aspects of Oroonoko to stand at the end of the previous post because I do think that they are remarkable, and deserve to be highlighted; but for all that I hold fast to my contention that this is not, at heart, an anti-slavery text. Certainly Aphra Behn’s approach to the subject here bears similarities to that we have already seen deployed throughout the 19th century in actual anti-slavery stories, which focus upon a single, sympathetic figure (in those later instances, usually a girl who is essentially white) rather than attempting to engage with the broader aspects of slavery; but whereas those texts use the specific to criticise the general, Behn never gets beyond the specific. Rather, it becomes increasingly evident that she has no real interest in the fate of any of the slaves but Oroonoko himself; and in fact, in the pursuit of the story she is actually telling here, she needs the rest of the slaves to be what the pro-slavery faction insisted that they were – “naturally inferior” – weak, cowardly, and untrustworthy. For all that she so bluntly exposes the degradations of slavery in Oroonoko, Behn never really contends that slavery in general is wrong, just that it is wrong with respect to Oroonoko—for reasons made evident in the subtitle of her work, where the operative word is not “slave”, but “royal”.

Before we get into that, however, we should return to the actual story. The first part of Oroonoko is, as we have seen, supposedly a transcription of events told by Oroonoko by The Narrator, who comes to prominence in the text following Oroonoko’s arrival in Surinam, and his purchase at the auction block for the estate upon which she is living. After being tricked into captivity, placed in shackles, and publicly sold, Oroonoko suffers one more profound humiliation: he has his name changed:

I ought to tell you, that the Christians never buy any slaves but they give ’em some name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous and hard to pronounce; so that Mr Trefry gave Oroonoko that of Caesar…

Robbing a subjugated people of their personal and cultural identity is a standard colonial practice, of course; and while Behn does not explicitly list this habit amongst the miseries of slavery, her use of the word “Christians” here indicates that she is fully aware of the implications.

From the very first, Oroonoko’s innate superiority is evident to his owners, who distinguish him from the other slaves and begin to grant him certain privileges. He is removed from general duties, and included in various of the settlers’ parties, where he is treated as something between a honoured guest and a pet. His prowess as a hunter is displayed when, armed only with a bow and arrow, he kills a tiger that has long terrorised the settlers. (Behn uses the word “tiger” here as a generic term for “big cat”; presumably the animal is a jaguar.) There is even a roughly comic episode when, refusing to believe that a fish could injure a man, Oroonoko insists on investigating the powers of a “numb-eel” for himself, with unfortunate consequences.

Stories are then told of a beautiful and virtuous she-slave, who has all the men in the settlement, white as well as black, mad with passion. Mr Trefry, who purchased Oroonoko for the plantation of which he is overseer and who becomes one of his main adherents, describes her in extravagant terms, and is mocked when he admits that, instead of taking his many opportunities to force his “love” upon the girl, her very modesty has compelled him to treat her with respect. We are not long in recognising in this paragon none other than Imoinda herself – now known as Clemene – and she and Oroonoko are rapturously reunited.

(John Trefry is one of Oroonoko‘s real identities: he was the agent of Lord Willoughby, who opened Surinam for colonisation in the first place.)

With the permission of the English, Oroonoko and Imoinda are formally married and allowed to live together. However, when Imoinda falls pregnant, the thought of his child being born into slavery drives Oroonoko to take increasingly desperate action. At first he tries to treat with his captors, promising them a fortune in exchange for his freedom and that of his family, but is put off with references to the imminent arrival of a new governor of Surinam. At last Oroonoko realises that the English have merely been stringing him along until they can gather their forces, and have no real intention of letting him go. In a state of anger and outraged honour, Oroonoko does indeed raise a revolt amongst the slaves…

Oroonoko is in many ways a disconcerting work of fiction, never following the expected paths (or at any rate, the paths we expect these days) but wandering off on tangents and putting its emphasis in unexpected places; and in fact it can be quite difficult to let go of those expectations and consider this short work for what it is, instead of what we feel it should be. Though it is perfectly understandable that people today would focus upon the anti-slavery aspects of Oroonoko, which certainly make it an easier “sell” for teaching purposes, I have to say that the more that I thought about it, the more that aspect of the story receded, or took on other forms, while two alternative readings emerged very clearly from the text.

The first of these concerns The Narrator. The actual narrative of Oroonoko seems to me to have received far too little attention over the years, probably because its real significance has been obscured by all the ridiculous arguments over the truth or otherwise of the story itself. As is the case with Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, we find in Oroonoko some remarkable experimentation with narrative form. In the earlier work—in addition to, to all intents and purposes, inventing the epistolary novel—Aphra Behn tried out a variety of different approaches to the telling of her tale. In the third volume, for example, which is told predominantly in the third-person, there is an abrupt switch to first-person-eyewitness for the description of a particular incident, a move which adds both urgency and intimacy – and above all, authority – to the telling.

And authority is what Oroonoko most gains from Behn’s choice to narrate in the first-person. Time and again The Narrator diverges from the actual story to question or criticise the actions of her fellow English, in a manner that powerfully suggests a real emotional response to real events; while the combination of local colour with the well-known real-life figures who populate the story creates a backdrop for the story that is dangerously convincing—“dangerously”, because to my mind what we have here is a very early example of the concept of the unreliable narrator.

Though we need to be careful to distinguish between Aphra Behn and The Narrator, it must be said that one of the more amusing aspects of Oroonoko is the way that Behn uses its pages to shore up her public image, her reinvention of herself as a person of higher birth and better breeding than was, almost certainly, actually the case. The Narrator, we learn, is in Surinam with her family, consisting of her mother, sister and brother (and a brother at least Behn did have; he later accompanied her to Antwerp), not as mere settlers, but because her father was appointed “lieutenant general of six and thirty islands, plus the continent of Surinam”—although his death during the journey meant that he never assumed the position. The family must finish their journey, of course, and are forced to stay in Surinam while they wait for transport to take them away—probably the same ship that is bringing the replacement governor, whose arrival is much anticipated throughout the story but never actually happens.

Being the teller of the tale, The Narrator is able to control its form and tone, as well to place herself carefully within the action. She is loud in her expressions of admiration and pity for Oroonoko, and of her abhorrance of the Englishmen who betray and murder him. So far, so familiar: it is a standard tactic in a certain branch of historical fiction to have this sort of story told by a white woman, who stands on the sidelines of the action wringing her hands over the immorality of it all, but (being a woman) is powerless to help or to change anything, and is therefore exonerated of blame. While at first glance Oroonoko fits this profile, something more complex is actually going on, with The Narrator using her stance of moral authority not merely to assign blame, but to evade it. By foregrounding her identification with Oroonoko, and by reiterating her condemnation of those directly responsible for his gruesome death, she almost succeeds in disguising just how self-serving her account of his life and death really is, and her own culpability in his fate.

The Narrator is quick to position herself as a person of some importance, making sure that we know that, As soon as I came into the country, the best house in it was presented me, called St John’s Hill. She is fascinated like all the English by this strangely superior slave, of whom she hears from Mr Trefry, and takes pains to befriend both him and Imoinda, and so hears the story of how they came to be in Surinam. Much of the narrative here dwells upon Oroonoko’s perfections; we hear tales of his strength, his courage, his intelligent conversation.

But there is something dark and dangerous lurking behind this surface idolatry. The settlers admire Oroonoko trememdously, but as their admiration grows, so does their fear of him. Violence is never far away in Oroonoko: stories of revolt, by the natives or by the slaves, pepper the narrative; and the English are quick to see the potential danger posed by Oroonoko in this respect. Their response is to “handle” him – and their main agent is The Narrator herself.

There is a moral elusiveness about The Narrator that grows increasingly worrying. On one hand she seems to proudly represent “the other”, setting herself apart from the white male power complex of which she is so critical, and positioning herself with the slaves in her support of Oroonoko and Imoinda, and with the natives, of whom she speaks so admiringly. She brags repeatedly about her friendship with Oroonoko, and his admiration of her, and her influence over him—but too often that vaunted influence is exerted not to help Oroonoko, as she promises (and we are given no indication that she really tries to), but to persuade him into passivity on behalf of the slave-owners:

    They fed him from day to day with promises, and delayed him till the lord governor should come, so that he began to suspect them of falsehood, and that they would delay him till the time of his wife’s delivery, and make slave of that too, for all the breed is theirs to whom the parents belong. This thought made him very uneasy, and his sullenness gave them some jealousies of him, so that I was obliged by some persons who feared a mutiny (which is very fatal sometimes in these colonies, that abound so with slaves that they exceed the whites in vast numbers) to discourse with Caesar, and to give him all the satisfaction I possibly could…

       We had all the liberty of speech with him, especially myself, whom he called his great mistress; and indeed my word would go a great way with him. For these reasons I had opportunity to take notice to him that he was not well pleased of late as he used to be, was more retired and thoughtful, and told him, I took it ill he should suspect we would break our words with him…

    Before I parted that day with him I got, with much ado, a promise from him to rest yet a little longer with patience, and wait the coming of the lord governor, who was every day expected on our shore. He assured me he would, and this promise he desired me to know was given perfectly in complaisance to me, in whom he had entire confidence. After this, I neither thought it convenient to trust him much out of our view, nor did the country, who feared him…

(These posts are already running to untenable lengths, so I won’t make the attempt here, but if it hasn’t been done already, someone needs to sit down and analyse Behn’s use of pronouns in Oroonoko – particularly when The Narrator chooses to say “us” and “we” and when she does not.)

Finally, pushed past breaking point by the ill faith and constant lies of the English, Oroonoko does raise a revolt, leading the other slaves in an attempted escape. It ends in disaster, with a violent conflict between the slaves and the plantation-owners, who are led by William Byam, the Deputy Governor, and the betrayal of Oroonoko by the other slaves, who are promised mercy if they will desert him. Oroonoko himself, thanks to the intervention of Trefry, is finally brought to surrender after terms are made—only to learn yet again what an Englishman’s word is worth. Brutally whipped in public, Oroonoko swears vengeance on the false Byam, who takes his menaces seriously enough to pronounce sentence of death on him.

Oroonoko does not fear death, but he fears for Imoinda and his child—enough to take the final extreme step of killing Imoinda with her own consent, so that their child will not be born a slave, and so that she will not be defiled after his death. He intends also to kill himself, but the sheer shock of what he has done almost overpowers him, and he spends two days in a near stupor by her grave. There he is found by the English, who recoil in horror when they realise what he has done, but who fear to approach him even in his weakened condition. Oroonoko then tries to conclude the suicide pact, slicing off bits of his own flesh before partially disembowelling himself before his pursuers’ eyes. At this point they stop and seize him—only to perform the legal system’s most perversely cruel act, nursing him back to health so that they can execute him, in a scene even more bloody and grotesque than the attempted suicide:

The executioner came, and first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire; after that, with an ill-favoured knife, they cut his ears, and his nose, and burned them… Then they hacked off one of his arms, and still he bore up…but at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk and…he gave up the ghost without a groan or reproach… They cut Caesar into quarters and sent them to several of the plantation owners…

And where is The Narrator while all this is going on? Elsewhere. As the story she is telling moves towards its hideous climax, The Narrator discovers within herself a remarkable talent for being somewhere else just at the critical moment – all the while assuring the reader that things would have been very different, if only she had been there. We see this first when the slaves revolt:

When the news was brought on Monday morning that Caesar had betaken himself to the woods and carried with him all the Negroes, we were possessed with extreme fear which no persuasions could dissipate that he would secure himself till night, and then, that he would come down and cut all our throats. This apprehension made all the females of us fly down the river to be secured, and while we were away they acted this cruelty. For I suppose I had authority and interest enough there, had I suspected any such thing, to have prevented it…

—and then again when Oroonoko is to be executed:

…his discourse was sad and the earthly smell about him so strong that I was persuaded to leave the place for some time (being myself sickly, and very apt to fall into fits of dangerous illness upon any extraordinary melancholy), the servants and Trefry and the chirurgeons promised all to take what possible care they could of the life of Caesar, and I, taking boat, went with other company to Colonel Martin’s, about three days’ journey down the river. But no sooner was I gone…

Pulled from their context, these passages expose The Narrator as almost pathetically delusional.

When Aphra Behn published Oroonoko late in 1688, she was already seriously ill, and as it happened had only a few months more to live. It is not hard to think that she might have stopped to look back over her life and her choices—particularly as she sat down to commit to paper a story that she had, apparently, told verbally at various points in the past (or at least a version of it), and which was drawn from the experiences of her youth. In this respect the protean form of The Narrator becomes particularly interesting. Conflating authors with their characters is always a risky business, but it is nevertheless tempting to read into The Narrator, with her overt support of Oroonoko and her dreams of power, and her covert allegiance to a power structure she declaredly despises and her ultimate powerlessness, an examination by Aphra Behn of some of the contradictions of her own life; particularly her ongoing fight for personal autonomy, while she used her talents to support for a political system that would, as a matter of course, have relegated her to a subordinate, dependent role, even had she ever succeeded in getting that toe-hold on the fringes of the Stuart court for which she fought so long and so hard – and so vainly.

But whatever Behn might have intended of a personal nature in Oroonoko, in the end it is something much bigger: a story of the world that was crumbling about her ears even as she wrote it…

[Sigh. I did hope to get through this in three, but The Narrator got away from me. So—to be continued…]