Date of Award
Master of Arts
E. Derek Taylor
Shawn B. Smith
David E. Magill
In many ways, the Restoration Period in England (1660-1700) is defined by its interest in sexuality. Following the Interregnum (1649-1660), sexuality became a mechanism to distinguish royalists from the “puritanical followers” of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), particularly through the emergence of the libertine (Novak 56). Libertinism “made the senses a primary source of knowledge,” which challenged “conventional morality” through ritualistic fornication, drunkenness, and adultery (Staves 20). Men, like John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) wrote bawdy poetry celebrating their sexual conquests. Libertines were also regularly featured in Restoration drama, with playwrights like William Wycherley (1640-1716) and George Etherege (1636-1692) depicting them as heroes of their plays. Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) follows Horner, a rake feigning impotence to cuckold other men by seducing their wives. Similarly, Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676) follows Dorimant, another libertine, as he tries to win Harriet while distancing himself from his past affairs with Ms. Loveit and her friend, Belinda, all while contemplating the possibility of cuckolding his “friend” Young Bellair. Libertines epitomize Restoration comedy, both in their use of sex as a source of power and in their more general “freedom from the conventions of society” (Novak 56).
Not unlike her male contemporaries, Aphra Behn’s (1640-1689) poetry and plays display her keen interest in sexuality. However, Behn differs from Rochester, Wycherley, and Etherege because she is primarily concerned with female sexuality. Throughout her work, women express their sexuality openly. For instance, in her best known play, The Rover (1677), Behn introduces Hellena and Florinda, two young women who disguise themselves as gypsies in order to flirt with sexual liberation (if not actually to engage in explicitly sexual activity). Hellena is disgusted that her brother thinks her fit for a convent, asking Florinda, “What dost thou see about me that is unfit for love? Have I not a world of youth?...a vigor desirable?...and sense enough to know how all these ought to be employed to the best advantage?” (The Rover l. 47-51). Similarly, Behn’s poem “The Disappointment” follows Cloris, a woman “with a charming languishment” who is disappointed by her would be lover’s impotency (l. 13). Throughout the poem, Behn clearly depicts Cloris an as an equally willing (and perhaps more willing) participant in the affair. The same can be said for “The Golden Age,” which laments the loss of free sexuality when “nymphs were free, no nice, no coy disdain / denied their joys” (l. 98-99). In short, throughout her various works, Behn depicts women with a level of sexual awareness—and sexual interest—very much in keeping with that ascribed to the male rakes by authors such as Wycherley and Etherege.
As much as Behn wants to celebrate female sexuality in her writing, however, she simultaneously signals her awareness of the impossibility for a Restoration woman to live as a libertine. In the first place, according to libertine culture, women are designed “by nature for men’s pleasure,” even if that pleasure requires the use of sexual violence (Staves 21). Behn’s plays The Amorous Prince (1671), The Revenge (1680) The City Heiress (1682), and The Lucky Chance (1686) all depict women being raped or nearly raped. In The Rover, for instance, Florinda is nearly raped by the ostensible “hero” of the play, Willmore. Nor is sexual violence all that women had to fear. While in disguise, Hellena flirts with Willmore, but rejects his advances because she understands the risks for a woman attempting to live as a libertine. “Why must we be either guilty of fornication or murder if we converse with you men,” she complains to Willmore, “And is there no difference between leave to love me, and leave to lie with me?” (Behn 1.2.229-230). For all her stated interest in sex, Hellena maintains her guardedness and her chastity until the end of the play, for fear of being left with “a cradle full of noise and mischief, with a pack of repentance at my back” if Willmore impregnates her without marrying her (Behn 5.1.495-497). By the end of The Rover, Hellena is on the way to marrying Willmore rather than living the life of a female libertine. Indeed, there seems to be no “single life” available to her at all—at least not one Behn can imagine; it is no accident that Hellena is dead by the beginning of The Rover Part II (1680). In a sense, killing off Hellena is the closest Behn can come to imagining her as sexually liberated.
Aphra Behn’s conservative political values may contribute to her inability to imagine a way for women to embrace their sexuality freely. Behn’s writing demonstrates a liberal perspective toward female sexuality, but politically she was a conservative. According to Melinda Zook’s article, “Religious Nonconformity and the Problem of Dissent in the Works of Aphra Behn and Mary Astell,” Behn’s real concern is “bitter partisan politics and religious crisis” rather than “the treatment of women” (Zook 99). In “Drama and Political Crisis,” Susan J. Owen writes that Behn “employs methods and modes reminiscent of 1660s comedies to attack the Whigs” in plays like The Feign’d Curtizans (1679) and The Roundheads (1681). According to Janet Todd, Aphra Behn favored “divine-right monarchy and elitist aristocratic culture” and expressed “nothing but contempt” for democracy (5).
Behn was not alone in her political conservatism and social liberalism. At first, Aphra Behn and Mary Astell seem to be on opposite sides of the social and political spectrum, but scholarship frequently links them together as “early feminists and ardent Tories,” making them the “prototype ‘Tory Feminists’” (Zook 99). Behn considered marriage based in a financial agreement “virtual prostitution” (Staves 16). For Astell, if a woman wanted to be free, she “must remain single—a married woman has a religious duty to be obedient to her husband, just as a political subject owes allegiance to the Monarch, just as a human being is responsible to God” (Taylor 69). For women who remain single, Astell proposes “all-female religious academies” where they can take on academic pursuits without being repressed through marriage (Taylor 94). Astell’s proposal for constructing an all-female academy was rejected for being too reminiscent of nunneries at a time when England “condemned” anything with “just the hint of papist associations” (Perry 134). Astell, like Behn, thus found herself stuck with a theoretical idea for female empowerment that she could not bring to fruition in practice.
This thesis will investigate Aphra Behn’s seemingly liberal view of female sexuality with her conservative political bent. Modern scholars have tended to see in Behn either a writer interested in female sexuality and societal double standards, or a Royalist with more concern for political values than for women’s rights. Through analysis of Behn’s conservative politics coupled with her interest in female sexuality, this thesis will investigate the degree to which each perspective enhances, and contradicts, the other.
Thompson, Amanda J., "Plays and Punks; Or, Aphra Behn and the Restoration Woman" (2016). Theses & Honors Papers. 384.