APHRA BEHN 49 |
The life and work of the "admirable Astrea," as Mrs. Behn was universally called, has received such careful and adequate treatment by Professor Siegel that the present writer need only summarize his conclusions and elaborate somewhat Mrs. Behn's relationship to the influences so far discussed, and her relative position in the development of fiction. Of her parentage and early life, we know practically nothing more than that in 1650, when the little Aphra was about ten, she, with the rest of the family, accompanied her father, one John Johnson, to Surinam, whither he had been sent as Lord Lieutenant of the Barbadoes. As he died on the way out, the family very shortly returned, but how deep an impression was made on the mind of the future novelist may be gathered from her many references to the Indies and particularly from her most notable
49 Aphra Behn's Gedichte und Prosawerke, P. Siegel. Anglia, xxv, pp. 86 sq., and. 329 sq. Separately printed, New York and Halle, 1901.
The Plays, Histories and Novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn. With Life and Memoirs. Published by Mr. Charles Gildon. Six volumes. London, 1871. Reprinted from the 1705 edition, itself revised from the 1696 edition.
novel, The History of the Royal Slave, or Oroonoko. She married, when little more than a girl, a Mr. Behn, a Dutch merchant resident in London, who, however, lived only a few years. His death deprived his widow of her only means of support and forced her to make the most of her talents to amuse the court, where her vivacity and good looks had already won her favor. The King, taking advantage of her Dutch connections, sent her to Holland as a spy in 1666-67, and, had his ministers put more faith in her advices, the English might have been spared the shame of having the fleet burned in the Medway. While in Holland, Mrs. Behn became engaged to another Dutchman, the "Vander Albert" of the letters, who, to quote her first biographer, "on his way to make all things ready for his voyage to England and matrimony died of a fever." The "fair Astrea" devoted the rest of her life to "pleasure and Poetry," or rather to the labor of supporting herself by her pen, for from 1671, the date of her first play, until her death in 1691 she wrote in many fields: — poetry, drama, fiction, besides translating Latin classics like Ovid, French novels, and such semi-scientific works as Fontenelle's Theory of Several New Inhabited Worlds . . . lately Discovered.
Only her prose narratives, in the eyes of the author and her contemporaries the least important part of her work, are of interest to us. The three series of letters, two elaborate "conceits" from the French, and seven novels are all contained within the limits of two small volumes. Two sets of letters concern her adventures in Holland; one being a burlesque correspondence between an admirer and herself, the other being a vivid account of her experiences and observations. In the latter occur the earliest attempts at narration, and in them, particularly in the story of the two young rakes, who by playing on their miserly old father's fear of ghosts, terrify him into yielding them his money and retiring to a monastery, may be found the manner and spirit of her later works almost as perfected as in The King of Bantam or Oroonoko. The third series of letters, known as The Love Letters to a Gentleman, are entirely different in tone and style
— a difference due, it seems to me, to the influence of the Portuguese Letters. The exact date of Mrs. Behn's letters is uncertain, but as there is a reference to "my new play," they must obviously have been written as late as 1671, when her first play appeared. Even if they were written in the year of the play, the French edition of the Letters of a Portuguese Nun had preceded them by at least two years. The influence of the latter may be traced in the likeness of situation, tone, and style. The situation, that of a woman trying to retain the love of a luke-warm lover by revealing the strength of her own passion, is practically unique in the writings of Mrs. Behn. The only apparent exceptions are The Fair Jilt and the subsidiary story of "the injured and forsaken Elvira" in The Nun, and upon closer examination these prove quite different. The heroine in the Fair Jilt tries to arouse a passion and fails, but she is not deserted, and her love becomes no abject devotion, but a violent hate. Furthermore, she soon shifts her affection to one of her numerous adorers, and even the unappreciative monk to whom she was first attached, appreciates the "honour done him" and writes to her "with all the profound respect imaginable." Elvira's case is more nearly in point, but Mrs. Behn took no pains to elaborate Elvira's feelings or to show that she tried to win back her lover. Moreover, in the somewhat similar instances, as in the rest of her work, Mrs. Behn held to the Platonic formulas. In the grossest of her stories the heroes and heroines employ the decadent preciosity which had been popularized in such pieces as Lycidas,50 The Lover's Watch, and Lady's Looking-Glass,51 which she herself translated, so that the very different style in the Letters to Lycidas is all the more striking.
"Possibly you will wonder what compels me to write? What moves me to send where I find so little welcome; nay, where I meet with such returns: it may be I wonder too." 51a
50 From Le Voyage de l'isle de l'Amour à Lycidas, 1663-1664, trs. 1680.
51 From La Montre; par M. de Bonnecorse; à Cologne 1666; seconde partie contenant La Boéte et Le Miroir. Paris, 1671.
51a Letter III, p. 58.
"Was that, my friend, was that the esteem you profess? Who grows cold first? Who is changed? And who the aggressor? 'Tis I was first in friendship and shall be last in constancy. Take your course; be a friend like a foe, and continue to impose upon me, that you esteem me when you fly me. Renounce your false friendship, or let me see you give it entire to Astrea." 52
"You ought, Oh faithless and infinitely adorable Lycidas! to know and guess my tenderness; you ought to see it grow, and daily increase upon your hands. If it be troublesome, 'tis because I fancy you lessen. . . . Oh unlucky, oh vexatious thought! . . . Or, why make more words of tenderness, than another woman, that loves as well, would do, as you once said? . . . Farewell. I love you more and more every moment of my life. Know it, and Good-night." 53
The difference between these letters and the rest of Mrs. Behn's work is usually explained on the ground that this was a more sincere attachment, and it is very possible that her love for Lycidas may have been real, but certainly in expressing herself she deliberately modelled her letters after those by the Portuguese Nun. 78
The seven novels, whether classified according to chronology or according to genre, fall into the same three groups: humorous stories, "histories" based on observed facts, and novels of the cloak and sword order. As has just been pointed out, the earliest attempts at prose narrative are in the letters retailing gossip, and are amusing anecdotes preparing directly for such a piece as The Little Black Lady 54 which appeared in 1663 and is presumably her earliest novel. It is a witty description of the many humorous mishaps that befel a most unsophisticated little brunette when she visited London. As in many of these stories of the French order, we feel that the author originally read it aloud, and that, bright as it is, we lose something by knowing it only from the printed page. This is less true of Mrs. Behn's next narrative The King of Bantam,55 though that also is in
52 Letter II, pp. 64-5.
53 Letter VIII, pp. 84-5.
54 The Adventure of the Black Lady, vol. ii. Histories and Novels, or Complete Works, vi. 325-336.
55 The Court of the King of Bantam, Complete Works, vi. 292-324. The date is uncertain, but the story must have been written before the death of
the conversational French manner. The plot is much more elaborate, the characters sharply contrasted, and the general style and method those of the narrative comedies.
Sir Philip Friendly, by taking advantage of the Twelfth Night custom of choosing a mock king and queen, tricked a foolish fop, Would-be King, into bestowing a round sum on his (Friendly's) mistress, and on his niece a fortune sufficiently large to permit her to marry her lover.
From the point of view of structure and style this is Mrs. Behn's best novel; in cleverness, extravagance, and comic force it challenges comparison with the best Restoration comedies. The local color given by the names of Whitehall and Charing-Cross, the seeming endeavor to be accurate, and the raciness of the style obscure its close relationship to contemporary French fiction, yet these very characteristics are imitated from the Parisian stories. 56
"This money certainly is a most devilish thing! I'm sure the want of it had like to have ruined my dear Philabella, in her love to Valentine Goodland." 57
"When he was in town, he lived -- let me see! in the Strand; or, as near as I can remember, somewhere about Charing-Cross; where, first of all Mr. Would-be-King, a gentleman of a large estate in houses, land and money, of a haughty, extravagant, and profuse humor, very fond of every new face, had the misfortune to fall passionately in love with Philabella, who then lived with her uncle." 58
Mrs. Behn did not again appear as a writer of fiction until 1688, in which year she published her two so-called histories.
Charles II, since this passage occurs: "Indeed I don't hear that his Majesty King Charles II ever sent an ambassador to compliment him; though possibly, he saluted him by his title . . . for, you know, he is a wonderful goodnatured and well-bred Gentleman" (p. 313).
In Spectator, 557, June 21, 1714, there is a reference to a letter as written in King Charles II's reign, by the "Ambassador of Bantam."
56 As, for example, such translations as The Gentleman-Apothecary, Being a Late and True Story, 1670; The Husband Forc'd to be Jealous, 1668; The Disorders of Bassett, 1688; "The Crafty Lady", or the Rival of Himself, 1683.
57 Ibid., p. 292.
58 Ibid., p. 293.
Of these The History of the Royal Slave; or, Oroonoko 59 is the better known. The author lays great stress on the fact that she is chronicling events and not writing a romance:
"I do not pretend, in giving you the History of this Royal Slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents, but such as arrived in earnest to him." 59a
The plot therefore is biographical, but is nevertheless composed of two distinct parts; the first deals with Oroonoko's life in his native land and particularly concerns his love affair with Imoinda, the second recounts his kidnapping and his adventures in Surinam. The first, Mrs. Behn fabricated, the second she witnessed. Nothing could show more clearly than the first part her lack of real imaginative power; her negro court is a combination of Restoration licentiousness and the luxuriousness of the pseudo-Oriental romances. The second part has all the interest of a sensational incident reported by a keen and able eye-witness. With contagious zest, she describes Oroonoko's appearance, his manners, and behavior, tells us what he said, what he did, what she thought of him, and what the other people thought, yet always keeps us in sympathy with the hero. Her hold on her readers, like that of Defoe, comes first of all from her own earnestness. In form and style Oroonoko is inferior to its predecessors, there is more extraneous material, and a tendency to rant in the moments of emotional stress, but the tone is so much higher and the subject so interesting that Oroonoko justly ranks as the author's masterpiece. It is frequently referred to as the first humanitarian novel and as a forerunner of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but it is more than doubtful if Mrs. Behn
59 The History of the Royal Slave; or, Oroonoko. Complete Works, vol. v. The plot, briefly stated, relates the kidnapping of Oroonoko and Imoinda into slavery; their reunion and marriage in Surinam, and the ill treatment and final revolt of Oroonoko, culminating in his murder of his wife, Imoinda, and his own execution.
It was dramatized as "Oroonoko; a tragedy", by Southern in 1696, and as Victorious Love by William Walsh in 1698.
59a v. 75.
was trying to arouse sentiment against slavery. Abuse of the slaves she certainly denounced, but, as in the case of Defoe, there is nothing in her discussion to indicate that she thought they, as a race, ought to be free, or that she thought such inferiors could be anything but slaves. 59b Oroonoko was an exceptional case. She had come in contact with his personality and her sympathy had been aroused. Moreover, it should be remembered that Oroonoko is no ordinary negro, but a king and a hero from romance. The brutal murder of Imoinda and the stoical endurance of torture is the conduct of a savage, and in those passages Mrs. Behn was depending upon her observations; but, generally speaking, Oroonoko conducts himself with the propriety of those heroes of romance who were enslaved by the piratical Moslems.
"The most famous statuary could not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot. His face was not of that brown rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet. . . . His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly formed, that bating his colour, there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome." 60
"He had an extreme good and graceful mien, and all the civility of a well-bred Great Man. He had nothing of barbarity in his Nature, but in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court." 60a
Closely connected with the heroic mould of Oroonoko is the conception of the ideal man as the good savage. Mrs. Behn introduced this character into fiction, and no doubt had much to do with popularizing the idea. 60b It was, however, well disseminated at this time, for it was a current Hobbism and had 81
59b Cf. Oroonoko's denunciation of his confederates, "by nature slaves." p. 181.
60 Ibid., p. 87.
60a p. 86.
60b Oroonoko was translated into German in 1709 and into French in 1745, and in both countries was dramatized.
already been finely phrased by Dryden in The Conquest of Granada ( 1672):
"But know, that I alone am king of me.
I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran." Act I, sc. 1.
The Fair Jilt, having more commonplace material, has received less attention, yet it is better constructed, and, from the point of view of characterization, more interesting.61 As in Oroonoko great stress is laid on the absolute fidelity of the author to the facts, and again the story is biographical.
Miranda was a beautiful flirt who lived, at the beginning of the narrative, in a religious house in Amsterdam. She fell in love with a young priest who repelled all her advances, whereupon the angry lady charged him with trying to seduce her and had him committed to prison. There she left him to languish while she carried on her flirtations and was wooed and won by a rich traveller who went by the name of Prince Tarquin. Time went on; and the extravagant ways of the young couple soon used up their fortune. To get more money, Miranda determined to have her younger sister murdered, and for this purpose worked first upon the love of a youthful admirer, and then upon that of her doting husband. Both failed to kill the girl, but being detected in the attempt, were caught, condemned, and sentenced to death. The boy died, but by a slip on the part of the headsman and the connivance of a friendly crowd, Tarquin, though severely wounded, managed to escape. He was finally pardoned and returned to his native land, where he was joined by his still adored and now penitent wife, who had secured her own release by confessing all her nefarious practices and clearing the long-suffering friar.
The heroine is so consistently and inhumanly villainous that she fails to be interesting, but the hero, who could love her through all the ills he endured on her account and finally could take her to his old father as the woman who had saved him from an ignominious death, is an unusual and original82
61 The Fair Jilt; or, the Amours of Tarquin and Miranda. Complete Works, v. 201-87. The exact date is unknown, but the phrase . . ." in the time when our King Charles of blessed memory, was in Brussels, in the last year of his banishment," puts it after 1685. There is an advertisement in the Term Catalogues for T. Tonson, Michaelmas, 1678, which strongly suggests the first part of the story, The Amorous Convert; being a true relation of what happened in Holland.
type. Curiously enough, in drawing this magnanimous character, Mrs. Behn did not think of him as fine and noble, but on the contrary, regarded him as a foolish victim of "the force of love." As in the old novelle there is no sympathy for the cheated. In this novel, even more than in the others, we find those little devices for producing a realistic effect which we are prone to regard as peculiar to Defoe. Take, for instance, the accurate description of the crowd of by-standers who "scrambled for some of the bloody saw-dust, to keep for his memory," or that of Tarquin preparing for execution:
"and undressing himself with the help of his valet and page, he pulled off his coat, and had underneath a white satin waistcoat; he took off his periwig, and put on a white satin cap, with a Holland one done with point under it, which he pulled over his eyes."
Most "Defoeian" of all is the last sentence: "Since I began this Relation, I heard that Prince Tarquin died about threequarters of a year ago." Such phrases as these explain Macaulay's astonishing statement that Moll Flanders, Roxana, and Colonel Jack were "in no respect. . . . beyond the reach of Afra Behn." 61a 83
The novels of the cloak and sword, which compose the third group, of Mrs. Behn's fiction are three in number. The first, The History of Agnes de Castro, or the Force of Generous Love,62 came out in 1688, and was followed the next year by The Nun; or, The Perjured Beauty,63 a tale of false friends, lying lovers, duels, and mistaken identities, ending in the death of all the participants. About the same time was written The Lucky Mistake, a story of crossed loves, obdurate parents, and steadfast devotion, in which everything comes out right in the end and everybody lives happily forever after. Though the least powerful, it is decidedly the prettiest and purest of Mrs. Behn's novels.
61a Cf. Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, ed. Trevelyan, 1876, II. 385.
62 Mrs. Behn version of Agnès de Castro, Nouvelle Portugaise, par J. B. de Brilhac, Amsterdam, 1685, appeared in Modern Novels, vol. iv, and was dramatized in 1696 by Mrs. Catherine Trotter.
63 History of the Nun, or, the Faire Vow-Breaker, was the title of the first edition, 1689.
In these seven narratives, Mrs. Behn passed, for she can scarcely be said to have progressed, from humorous anecdotes of actual experience, to sensational, journalistic and supposedly true accounts of episodes which she had witnessed, and from these to deliberately fictitious stories in the Spanish manner. Her first attempts at fiction, which, as has been said are in the letters, resemble the first two groups and are almost as artistically perfect as the later and longer examples. To speak paradoxically, there is no "art" in any of them, which does not mean no artifice. At literary trickery, Mrs. Behn was an adept, but she never worked according to principles or selected and arranged her material to produce certain results and large effects. In common with most clever men and women of her gossip-loving generation, she possessed the gift of "telling a good story," and circumstances forced her to develop this gift. Very naturally, she imitated the popular French stories from contemporary life, substituting for the continental material the experiences of her own circle of acquaintances, and for the indescribable "esprit," a flashy impudence. Yet she never progressed beyond the conversational and episodic stage. She elaborated episodes at length, she combined them, she connected them by bits of description, but she never completely merged them into one large plot. When relating incidents that had not come within the range of her observation, or analyzing emotions or expressing passion, she borrowed from the romances or current love-letters. Her interests were rather narrow and vulgar, her imaginative range was limited to matters of detail, she had no sense of mystery, and no conscience either moral or aesthetic; but, as a compensation for so many limitations, she possessed keen powers of observation, a strong personality, a racy style, and the trick of producing verisimilitude, which with her unusual experiences have given her a reputation for originality. Original in the sense of creative, Mrs. Behn was not, but she knew how to make the most of what was at her command. She was a woman of strong feelings and of amazing vigor, all of which she threw into her work without the least restraint. The personal element is what makes her work so readable, for her vulgarity and gross 84
immorality are almost counter-balanced by her buoyancy and robust common sense. All her work is enlivened by a dash and impudence that give snap and life to her colloquial slipshod style. It was just such vigor, just such vivid style that English fiction needed, and it is for these more than for any originality, more even than for the accident of Oroonoko, that she deserves a place in the history of the English novel. 85