The Fair Jilt introduces the beautiful femme fatale Miranda, whose unconcerned and unrestrained pursuit of romance and pleasure jeopardizes the lives of others. The narrative divides into two loosely intertwined parts, one involving the heroine’s love for an exiled German prince, Henrick, and a second involving her marriage to Tarquin, the only son of a wealthy Dutch merchant. Miranda, joint heiress with her younger sister to a large fortune, enters an Antwerp convent following the death of her parents, though she has no intention of making permanent vows.
In retaliation for Miranda’s numerous shallow flirtations, the God of Love imposes upon her a deep, genuine love for a young Franciscan friar, who is devoted to his vocation and his vow of chastity. After learning that he is a German prince named Henrick (complete with a tragic past), Miranda begins pursuing him through letters and calculated meetings, offering herself and her inheritance and imploring him to elope with her. He steadfastly refuses all of her advances. Unable to comprehend that he would refuse her because of his religious devotion, she accuses him of rape and sees him sentenced to death, a sentence commuted to life imprisonment after some of her letters to him have been released.
In the second episode, she meets and marries the young Tarquin, whose love for her exceeds anything she feels for him. Having inherited her fortune and having become guardian for her sister’s portion, she lives with Tarquin on a lavish scale in Antwerp, freely spending her sister Alcidiana’s portion while discouraging would-be suitors. When Alcidiana asserts her independence and demands her inheritance, Miranda induces a page to murder her, but the effort at poisoning fails. The page is apprehended, tried, and hanged, while Miranda herself is judicially humiliated by being forced to stand at the foot of the gallows. Still undeterred, she later persuades her devoted husband to shoot Alcidiana as she enters the theater. The bullet passes harmlessly through her garments, but Tarquin is apprehended and condemned to death. Miranda is sent to the prison where the princely friar is incarcerated. Upon release, the friar pleads for Miranda’s freedom, and Tarquin is spared when the executioner wounds instead of kills him. After his recovery, Tarquin joins Miranda in Holland, where, having lost all Miranda’s fortune, they are supported by the wealth of his father.
Behn portrays Miranda as an example of role reversal in love. Bent on dominance and self-assertiveness, she moves from tyrannizing over the friar to tyrannizing over her sister. Yet even she can be rescued from her excesses, and the book suggests that she has lived in quiet retirement with Tarquin until his death.
The story also admirably depicts Behn’s concept of love as totally self-sacrificing and forgiving. Smitten by her beauty and charm, the other characters are putty in Miranda’s hands. Yet willingness to forgive means that the worst evils can be remedied. Tarquin harbors no lasting resentment for the calamities she has brought upon him, and Prince Henrick, despite his two years’ imprisonment on a false charge, is eager to beg mercy on her behalf. The limited suffering in the denouement, however, depends upon extravagant improbabilities and astounding coincidence. Despite a wealth of concrete detail and authorial testimony, the story lacks genuine realism, although realism was not a standard for judging long fiction in Behn’s time.