The Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn and the Beginnings of a Female Narrative Voice
© by Ruth Nestvold
Aphra Behn is a forerunner in English literary history in more ways than one;
she is not only the first professional woman writer, she is also an important
innovator in the form of the novel. Using the epistolary form of Lettres
portugaises as a model and combining it with elements of the drama,
with Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister she created the
first true epistolary novel. In Oroonoko she used a narrative voice that
combined proximity to her readers with an unusual wealth of detail, while the
plot itself involves one of the first examples of the concept of the "noble savage"
In her search for a prose form appropriate to stories with contemporary rather
than purely heroic settings and themes, Behn wrote her novels in a conversational
tone strewn with personal references such as, "I have already said...", or "I forgot
to ask how...,", making the narrative resemble an ongoing conversation with her
readers and lending her tales a more everyday tone than was usually the case
in earlier prose forms. In addition, the presence of the narrator as the interpreter
of the story makes her a part of the narrative herself. In Behn's works, this
presence goes beyond that of an authorial narrative strategy, however; the
narrator frequently takes part in the story as well. Behn's narrative strategy is
the predecessor of the omniscient narrative voice such as that used by Henry
Fielding, Jane Austen and George Eliot. On the other hand, Behn's narrator is
more intrusive and relates events in such a way to emphasize the narrating
Despite Behn's important innovations in prose narrative, her literary
reputation lags far behind her accomplishments. The sixth edition of the Norton
Anthology of English Literature, published in 1990, still did not contain a single
work by Behn, and as Anglo-American literary critics are well aware, the two heavy
volumes of the Norton Anthology are the physical incarnation of the literary canon
in English. Since the publication of the Behn biographies from Maureen Duffy (1979)
and Angeline Goreau (1980), research on Behn has experienced a renaissance,
particularly among feminist critics, Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His
Sister (1684-87) has been reprinted by Virago Press, and five of her plays in
paperback by Methuen, making these works more readily available. Fortunately,
the feminist interest in Behn is not letting up; unfortunately, it still seems to be
primarily a feminist interest.
The female voice and the rise of the novel
Numerous feminist disciplines have shown that the interests of women in a
patriarchal society are rarely taken into account. The traditional view of history,
for example, is that it is the story of great political events; by contrast, feminist
historians have tried to uncover evidence of women in this chronicle of great
events and looked into the circumstances of women's lives through the centuries.
Now "everyday life" is becoming a more prominent concern of mainstream
historians as well. The situation in the history of the novel is quite different,
however. Several women authors at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning
of the eighteenth century made important contributions to the development of the
English novel, and the genre has always shown a concern for and an interest in
domestic arrangements. As opposed to history, the protagonists of the novel
have been women as often as they have been men, and the story of the woman
trapped in social constraints became a particularly novelistic subject.
Daniel Defoe has frequently been cited as the Father of the English Novel
(capitalization intended). An outsider from the literary establishment ruled by
Alexander Pope and his cohorts, Defoe was in some ways an anomaly during a
period defined as 'Augustan,' despite the fact that he was a writer of social criticism
and satire before he turned to novels. He did not belong to the respected literary
world, which at best ignored him and his works and at worst derided him.
(In 1709, Swift for example referred to him as "the Fellow that was Pilloryed, I
have forgot his name.") But the works of fiction for which Defoe is remembered,
particularly Moll Flanders (1722) and Robinson Crusoe (1719), owe
less to the satirical and refined impulse of the Augustan tradition, and more to a
contrary tradition of early prose narrative by women, particularly Behn, Mary
Delariviere Manley and Jane Barker. Since Ian Watt's influential study, The
Rise of the Novel (1957), literary historians have generally considered
Robinson Crusoe the first successful English novel and Defoe as one of the
originators of realistic fiction in the eighteenth century, but he was deeply indebted
to his female precursors and probably would never have attempted prose narrative
if they had not created an audience for it in the first place.
The English novel was a product of several differing literary traditions, among
them the French romance, the Spanish picaresque tale and novella, and such earlier
prose models in English as John Lyly's Euphues (1579), Sir Philip Sidney's
Arcadia (1590) and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1684). The
authors of these works collectively helped pave the way for the form of the novel
as it is known today. The true pioneers of the novel form, however, were the women
writers pursuing their craft in opposition to the classically refined precepts of the
writers defining the Augustan Age. Particularly influential were Aphra Behn's
travel narrative Oroonoko (1688) and her erotic epistolary novel Love
Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1683). In Oroonoko, Behn
provides numerous details of day to day life and a conversational narrative voice,
while with Love Letters she pioneered the epistolary form for a longer work
of fiction, over fifty years before Richardson. The political prose satires of Mary
Delariviere Manley were racy exposés of high-society scandals written in
the tradition of Love Letters, Behn's erotic roman à clef.
Manley's novels The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zaraians
(1705) and The New Atalantis (1709) were widely popular in their day and
helped create an audience for prose narratives that was large enough to support
the new breed of the professional novelist.
Eliza Haywood also began her career writing erotic tales with an ostensibly
political or high society background. Her first novel, Love in Excess (1719)
went through four editions in as many years. In the thirties, her writing underwent
a transformation suitable to the growing moral concerns of the era, and her later
novels show the influence of her male contemporaries Richardson and Fielding
(this despite the fact that she may have been the author of Anti-Pamela
(1741), an early attack on Richardson's first novel). Haywood's The History of
Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) in particular belongs in a more realistic
tradition of writing, bringing the action from high society into the realm of the
middle class, and abandoning the description of erotic encounters.
Particularly interesting among the work of early women novelists is that of
Jane Barker. Her novel Loves Intrigues: Or, The History of the Amours of Bosvil
and Galesia (1713) tells in first-person narrative the psychologically realistic
tale of a heroine who doesn't get her man. The portrayal of Galesia's emotional
dilemma, caught in a web of modesty, social circumstances and the hero's
uncertainty and indecisiveness, captures intriguing facets of psychological
puzzles without providing easy answers for the readers. Galesia retreats from
marriage, hardly knowing why she does so or how the situation came about, and
the reader is no smarter.
Many of the elements of the modern novel attributed to Defoe -- e.g. the
beginnings of psychological realism and a consistent narrative voice -- were
anticipated by women writers. Defoe's contribution was in putting them all
together and creating out of these elements sustained prose narratives blending
physical and psychological realism. In his most impressive works, such as
Moll Flanders and Roxana (1724), he created first-person
female characters faced with the difficulties of surviving in a world of
recognizably modern economic forces.
Although Defoe and his female contemporaries were looked down upon by the
intellectual establishment represented by Pope and Swift, later developments in
literary history have shown that it was they who would define the literature of a
new age, and not the so-called Augustans. While the novel remains the dominant
literary form of the twentieth century, mock epic is at best an element used
occasionally in comedy. Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders
are still widely read; The Rape of the Lock is mentioned in history books.
Jonathan Swift produced an enduring classic as well with Gulliver's Travels,
but despite his brilliance it is the merchant Daniel Defoe, a journalist who saw
writing as "a considerable branch of the English commerce" (Essay upon
Literature, 1726), who is considered the father of the English novel.
Unfortunately, there is still much to be done before the women writers who
preceded him will have attained the recognition they deserve.
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