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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 literature.

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 voice.

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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The Aphra Behn Page, winner March 1996 of the Literary Research Award.

© 1995-2011 by Ruth Nestvold

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Villa Diodati Workshop | Clarion West 98 | Cutting Edges: Or, A Web of Women | Joe's Heartbeat in Budapest | ECHO

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