For an author whose career lasted less than twenty years, Aphra Behn was exceptionally prolific. Her canon contains at least seventeen dramas, and perhaps as many as twenty-one attributions are included. It also includes numerous occasional and lyric poems, fourteen titles in prose fiction, and a handful of translations. She launched her literary career with drama, a natural beginning for an aspiring writer of her time since the theater provided more secure financial rewards than publication. Her plays are exceptionally varied, including tragicomedies, comedies of wit and intrigue, and political satires. Like many authors of her time, she drew upon previous dramatists for plots and characters. For her portrayal of character, conflict, and setting, she is particularly indebted to earlier Jacobean dramatists, such as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, Richard Brome, and John Marston. In addition to earlier plays, her sources include Spanish and French novellas and, for one drama, The Widow Ranter: Or, The History of Bacon of Virginia (pr. 1689, pb. 1690), a contemporary account of the Virginia colony.
Although her plots are often complex, she is noted for sprightly action and for colloquial, witty dialogue. These qualities appealed to her audience and led to theater revivals of some of her dramas well into the eighteenth century. A recurring theme is young love overcoming obstacles imposed by the lovers’ society and elders. A related theme is the necessity for women to make their own choices in marriage.
In addition to drama, she wrote numerous works of prose fiction, ranging in length from short story to novel. Most of these were written late in her career, after 1684. Though normally classified as novels, the longer works are not true novels but rather antecedents of the genre. Her narrative technique includes numerous details to ensure a realistic effect. Frequently the narrator assures the reader that he or she has witnessed the events firsthand, lending a touch of realism. Yet the works lack the psychological realism of true novels, and coincidence is too frequent and too substantive for the settings that Behn creates. The sources are often French and Spanish romances, though many depend on English settings or contemporary events.
Her longest prose work, Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1683-1687), is a roman à clef based upon a scandalous contemporary romance between a nobleman and his sister-in-law. Written in three parts, it enjoyed popular success despite a length of 200,000 words. Its significance lies in Behn’s early use of the epistolary narrative technique, foreshadowing the eighteenth century novels of Samuel Richardson.
Romantic love, the dominant theme of Behn’s fiction, often reaches heroic proportions. Stories such as “The Unfortunate Happy Lady” (c. 1697) and the novel The Adventure of the Black Lady (1698) depict success in love as a combination of forgiveness, intense passion, and endangered but inviolate virtue. This tendency to develop the theme of heroic love reaches its height in her best-known prose work, Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, a True History (1688), a narrative featuring an exotic setting and a hero who embodies love and honor. Even in a novel featuring the femme fatale like The Fair Jilt: Or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688), love is uncritical and entirely forgiving.
Among her poems, Behn wrote numerous lyrics, occasional verses, panegyrics, songs, prologues, epilogues, and a few satires. In her elegy on Edmund Waller, a poet prized for his polished verses, she professes that she learned the art of English poetry from studying his poems. The acknowledgment is noteworthy, for her heroic couplets reflect the idiomatic fluency and smoothness that one associates with Waller’s poetry. She achieves the limpid diction and polish that marked the style of the best writings of her times though her poems lack the insouciant tone and sharp-edged satire of witty writing at its best. Her love poems often invoke the idyllic setting of the pastoral mode, and her finest love poetry achieves an effect that is simple, rhythmic, and eloquent. Two of her best-known lyrics, “Love Arm’d” and “Song” (“’Tis not your saying that you love”), are on the theme of unrequited love, perhaps a result of her ill-fated affair with John Hoyle, a London rake. The final stanza of “Song” illustrates the stylistic purity and earnest tone that the poems achieve:
But if I fail your heart to move,And ’tis not yours to give;I cannot, wonnot cease to love,But I will cease to live.
Among her occasional poems are numerous prologues and epilogues that were published with her plays. Like other poems of this type, they appeal to the audience for approval or at least indulgence. These prologues and epilogues are written in heroic couplets, the dominant verse form of the age.
By 1680, Behn had begun working as a translator, producing poetry and prose of popular works. Her translations are from Latin and French, and the diversity suggests that she turned to translation not because she found the works congenial, but because she needed to supplement her income. By modern standards, her translations take excessive liberties with the originals, but her practice accorded well with the theory of translation put forth by John Dryden, the dominant literary figure of her time. His theory accepted paraphrase and alterations to accommodate the tastes and understanding of the audience.
The Rover: Or, The Banished Cavaliers
First produced: Part I, 1677 (first published, 1677)
Type of work: Play
In Naples, exiled English cavaliers seek pleasure and find suitable marriage partners.
Willmore, the Rover, arrives in Naples where he meets his fellow exiles Blunt, Frederick, and Belvile. They begin rather aimless adventures in quest of pleasure. Although Willmore is an example of the appealing, energetic Restoration hero of wit, it is the women characters who, indirectly, control the action. Hellena, destined by her father for a convent, wishes another kind of life and is willing to venture into the carnival setting to seek it....
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