In the early twentieth century, Vita Sackville-West, in trying to estimate Aphra Behn’s contribution to English fiction, asked, “What has she left behind her that is of any real value?” Sackville-West bemoaned Behn’s failure in her fiction to reflect fully London life, London characters, London scenes; her attention to exotic themes, settings, and characters merely debased and wasted her narrative gifts. Such a judgment, while plausible, fails to consider Behn’s fiction in its historical and biographical context. Her tales abound with German princes, Spanish princesses, Portuguese kings, French counts, West Indian slaves, and various orders of bishops, priests, and nuns, yet Behn’s real world was itself highly artificial, even fantastic: the intrigue of the Stuart court, the ribaldry of the London stage, the gossip of the drawing room, the masquerade, and the card parlor. Behn, in her real world, took in the same scenes as did John Dryden, Samuel Pepys, and the earl of Rochester. Thus it may be too hasty to assert that her fiction neglects her actual experience in favor of fantastic and faraway window dressing.
In Agnes de Castro, Behn lets loose various powers of love, with the result that her heroines’ passions affect the fortunes of their lovers. Thus, Miranda (The Fair Jilt) reflects the raving, hypocritical enchantress whose very beauty drives her lovers mad, Ardelia (The Nun) plays the capricious lover whose passion carries her through a series of men as well as a nunnery, and Agnes de Castro presents a slight variation on these others in that she is a product of circumstance: She is loved by the husband of her mistress.
Another primary theme in Behn’s work is that of the noble savage, which has traditionally been assigned to Oroonoko, as has the subordinate issue of antislavery in that same novel. In 1975, Professor George Guffey suggested a withdrawal from the feminist-biographical positions on Behn’s work from which the noble savage/antislavery ideals spring and a movement toward “a hitherto unperceived level of political allusion.” Guffey did not label Oroonoko a political allegory but did suggest that readers should look more closely at events in England between 1678 and 1688. Guffey maintained that the novelist deplores not the slavery of a black, noble savage but the bondage of a royal prince—again a reference to the political climate of the times. The interesting aspect of Guffey’s analysis is that his approach lends substance to Behn’s principal novel and to her overall reputation as a literary artist, and it parries the complaint that she failed to echo the sound and the sense of her own age.
In 1678, Sir Roger L’Estrange published Five Love Letters from a Nun to a Cavalier, a translation of some fictional correspondence by the minor French writer Guilleraques. Behn used the work as a model for at least three of her prose pieces: Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, The History of the Nun, and The Nun. For the latter two, the novelist took advantage, at least on the surface, of the current religious and political controversies and set forth the usual claims to truth.
The History of the Nun
There may be some validity to the claim that The History of the Nun exists as one of the earliest examinations by a novelist into the psychology of crime and guilt. The events of the novel proceed reasonably enough at the outset but become less believable; by the conclusion, the events appear to be exceedingly unreal. Despite this difficulty, the novel does have some value. Behn demonstrates her ability to develop thoroughly the key aspects of the weaknesses and the resultant sufferings of the heroine, Isabella. Behn immediately exposes the concept that “Mother Church” can take care of a girl’s problems, can easily eradicate the desires of the world from her heart and mind, and can readily transform a passionate maiden into a true, devoted sister of the faith. In addition, despite her wickedness, Isabella is very much a human being worthy of the reader’s understanding. At every step, the girl pays something for what she does; with each violation against the Church and each crime of passion, she falls deeper...
(The entire section is 1764 words.)