Aphra Behn Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111204743-Behn.jpg Aphra Behn Published by Salem Press, Inc.

In addition to her plays, Aphra Behn’s literary legacy includes many noteworthy works of fiction and poetry. The three-part novel entitled Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1683-1687) is both her earliest and her longest narrative effort. A fictionalized version of a notorious contemporary scandal, this novel was extremely popular at the time, but it is little read today. Of much more interest to present-day readers are the shorter novels such as The Fair Jilt: Or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688) and Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave (1688). The latter is undoubtedly Behn’s most enduring literary creation in any genre. Allegedly based on her own experiences in Surinam during the 1660’s, the narrative relates the tragic history of a slave of African origin named Oroonoko and his wife, Imoinda, from the viewpoint of the author herself. As the story unfolds, Behn repeatedly exposes the deceitful and greedy nature of the European settlers and underscores the innate virtue of the novel’s eponymous hero. He is, therefore, one of the earliest fictional manifestations of the archetypical “noble savage.” Because of its implicit condemnation of slavery and colonialism, the novel is highly regarded as a harbinger of the crisis in political and social morality that was to trouble the conscience of Europeans in their dealings with the nonwhite population of the globe over the succeeding centuries.

Behn’s poetry is widely diverse in character. In keeping with the convention of the time, she made it a practice to provide her plays with prologues and epilogues in verse form. She...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Aphra Behn came of age during the period in English history known as the Restoration. The epoch began in 1660 with the Stuart monarchy being restored in the person of Charles II. His Royal Highness was passionately fond of the theater, and one of his first acts was to rescind the laws prohibiting the performance of plays, that had been enacted in 1642 by the Long Parliament under the domination of Oliver Cromwell. Although all forms of drama were thenceforth permitted to flourish, the best plays written in the succeeding era turned out to be comedies. The masterpieces of this genre were created by Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve, among others. While it would be injudicious to claim that any of Behn’s comedies should be ranked with the best of Etherege, Wycherley, or Congreve, many of her plays have withstood the test of time and are fully deserving of a contemporary readership. The same is true with respect to her novel Oroonoko. The dramatic vitality of Oroonoko and many of her other works of narrative fiction is attested by the fact that several of them have been successfully adapted for the theater by other hands. Using the novel The History of the Nun: Or, The Fair Vow-Breaker (1689) as the source for his plot, Thomas Southerne scored one of his greatest successes as a playwright with the tragedy entitled The Fatal Marriage: Or, The Innocent Adultery (pr. 1694). Two years later, in 1696, he...

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

As a truly professional writer, perhaps the first British female to have written for profit, Aphra Behn (bayn) moved easily through the various literary genres and forms. Her plays include The Forced Marriage: Or, The Jealous Bridegroom (pr. 1670); The Amorous Prince: Or, The Curious Husband (pr., pb. 1671); The Dutch Lover (pr., pb. 1673); The Town Fop: Or, Sir Timothy Tawdry (pr. 1676); Abdelazer: Or, the Moor’s Revenge (pr. 1676); The Rover: Or, The Banished Cavaliers (Part I, pr., pb. 1677; Part II, pr., pb. 1681); Sir Patient Fancy (pr., pb. 1678); The Roundheads: Or, The Good Old Cause (pr. 1681); The City Heiress: Or, Sir Timothy Treat-All (pr., pb. 1682); The Lucky Chance: Or, An Alderman’s Bargain (pr. 1686); The Emperor of the Moon (pr., pb. 1687); The Widow Ranter: Or, The History of Bacon of Virginia (pr. 1689); and The Younger Brother: Or, The Amorous Jilt (pr., pb. 1696).

Although Behn enjoyed only mild success as a poet, her verse was probably no better or worse than that of a large number of second-rank versifiers of the Restoration. Behn’s best poetry can be found in the song “Love in fantastic triumph sate” (1677), from her tragedy Abdelazer, and in a metrical “Paraphrase on Oenone to Paris” for Jacob Tonson’s volume of Ovid’s Epistles (1680). The remainder of her verse includes a long, amorous allegory, A Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684); an adaptation of Bernard de Fontenelle’s epic that she titled A Discovery of New Worlds (1688); and two occasional pieces, “A Pindarick on the Death of Charles II” (1685) and “A Congratulatory Poem to Her Most Sacred Majesty” (1688).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Aphra Behn’s achievement as a novelist should be measured principally in terms of the modest gains made by the novel form in England during the seventeenth century. Prior to Oroonoko, the English novel lingered in the shadows of the theater. The small reading public contented itself with works such as John Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578), Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590), Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde: Or, Euphues Golden Legacy (1590), Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton (1594), and Thomas Deloney’s The Pleasant History of John Winchcomb in His Younger Days Called Jack of Newbery (1597; better known as Jack of Newbery)—all long, episodic stories, sprinkled with overly dramatic characterization and improbable plot structures. In Oroonoko, however, Behn advanced the novel to the point where her more skilled successors in the eighteenth century could begin to shape it into an independent, recognizable form.

Behn possessed the natural gifts of the storyteller, and hernarrative art can easily stand beside that of her male contemporaries. A frankly commercial writer, she simply had no time, in pursuit of pleasure and the pen, to find a place in her narratives for intellectual substance. Nevertheless, she told a story as few others could, and the force of her own personality contributed both reality and a sense of immediacy to the still inchoate form of seventeenth century British fiction.

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Although Aphra Behn (bayn) wrote more than a dozen separate pieces of fiction that critics of her day called novels, only a portion may legitimately be labeled as such. Principal among these is her most noted work of fiction, Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, a True History (1688); others worthy of consideration are Agnes de Castro (1688), The Fair Jilt: Or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688), The History of the Nun: Or, The Fair Vow-Breaker (1689), and The Nun: Or, The Perjured Beauty (1697). During her lifetime, Behn established her literary reputation by writing for the London stage, creating more than fifteen plays.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Critics may defend Aphra Behn’s talent for drama and prose fiction as worthy of recognition beside that of her male contemporaries. As a writer of verse, however, she cannot claim a place among the poets of the first rank. This does not mean that her poetry has no value for the critic, the literary historian, or the general reader; on the contrary, her occasional verse is no worse than the political pieces of her colleagues (with the exception of John Dryden), while the songs and poems from her plays reflect her ability to manipulate verse as reinforcement for dramatic theme and setting.

In the nineteenth century, such poet-essayists as Leigh Hunt, Edmund Gosse, and Algernon Charles Swinburne recoiled initially from...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

How do Aphra Behn’s dramas differ from representative Restoration plays?

What traits of Behn’s fiction anticipate eighteenth century English novels?

What does Behn’s experience as a spy contribute to her writings?

It cannot be established whether Behn visited South America. How convincing of such a visit are the details in Oroonoko?

Support the assertion that Behn was an extraordinary woman.

What significance do you see in Behn’s frequent habit of giving two titles to her works?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Altaba-Artal, Dolors. Aphra Behn’s English Feminism: Wit and Satire. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1999. Examines Behn’s writings from the perspective of feminism. Includes bibliography and index.

Anderson, Emily Hodgson. “Novelty in Novels: A Look at What’s New in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Studies in the Novel 39, no. 1 (Spring, 2007): 1-16. Explores the aspects of novelty in novels through a focused reading of Oroonoko. Argues that the novel demonstrates a concern for didacticism and its own newness that was characteristic of many eighteenth century novels.


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