Tory Ideology and Aphra Behn’s Turn to the Novel

  • Rachel Carnell


In her “Essay on Translated Prose” (1688), which appears as a preface to her translation of Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes (1686), Aphra Behn (1640–89) reflects at length on the genre of translation and on a translation’s relationship to the original work. Similarly, in several of her prologues, epilogues, and published prefaces to her dramatic works, she comments on the difference between comedy and tragedy, and on the reception of her own works vis-à-vis the reception of works by male writers in the same genre. In order to defend her forays into dramatic comedy, Behn redefines the genre even as she mocks the male critics who insist on faulting her for flaunting some of its conventions. Mocking “their musty rules of Unity, and God knows what besides” in her preface to The Dutch Lover (1673), Behn insists that if the rules “meant any thing, they are enough intelligible, and as practible by a woman.”1 However, despite this suggestion that she is indifferent to the formal rules of a genre, Behn obviously thought deeply about the differences between comedy, tragedy, poetry, and prose translation and about the significance of a woman daring to author any of these genres.2 Such an awareness of the formal and ideological conventions of these different genres also appears to have shaped her forays into writing novels.


Political Theory Formal Realism Domestic Household Restoration Stage Political Propaganda 
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  1. 1.
    The Works of Aphra Behn, 7 vols., ed. Janet Todd (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992–95), 5:163. All of Behn’s works will be cited from this edition. In the previous paragraph, she explains: “I think a Play the best divertisement that wise men have; but I do also think them nothing so, who do discourse as formalie about the rules of it, as if ‘twere the grand affair of humane life” (5:162).Google Scholar
  2. 9.
    J. Douglas Canfield argues that in most political tragedies written between the period of the first Exclusion crisis and the Revolution of 1688–89, “the royalist code of loyalty to a rightful monarch, however weak or indulgent, wrong or unfortunate, is strenuously maintained.” See “Royalism’s Last Dramatic Stand: English Political Tragedy, 1679–89,” Studies in Philology 82:2 (Spring 1985): 234–263, 238. Susan J. Owen has complicated Canfield’s history by suggesting that there certainly were Whig plays during this period, although their rhetoric of “Loyal Protestantism” has frequently been misinterpreted as Tory. Nevertheless, she agrees with Canfield when she asserts: “In the divided society of the 1660s, in which Stuart ideology has to be reconstructed and reinstated after the rupture of the interregnum, the royalist heroic play represents an attempt to paper over ideological cracks. It is an attempt which, in its very artifice, reveals the constructed nature of late Stuart ideology” (Restoration Theatre and Crisis, 19).Google Scholar
  3. 13.
    As Susan J. Owen explains in Restoration Theatre and Crisis, representations of sexual libertinage were used by both sides of the political divide: Whigs used it to allude to the constant extramarital intrigues of both Charles II and James II; Tories used it, albeit gingerly, given its potential ability to backlash against them, to slander the Whigs, frequently by suggesting that Whig leaders are impotent libertines by comparison to the sexually attractive Tory rakes. On this topic, see also J. Douglas Canfield, “Tupping Your Rival’s Women: Cit-Cuckolding as Class Warfare in Restoration Comedy,” in Broken Boundaries: Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama, ed. Katherine M. Quinsey (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996), 113–28, and Robert Markley, “ ‘Be impudent, be saucy, forward, bold, touzing, and leud’: The Politics of Masculine Sexuality and Feminine Desire in Behn’s Tory Comedies,” in Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theater, ed. J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah Payne (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 114–40.Google Scholar
  4. 17.
    Janet Todd suggests that Philander “poses as a Whig,” in his rebellious stance, but is “in fact an unprincipled and power-hungry individualist, resenting the sexual affront of Monmouth while taking no heroic action, and disliking the rule of anyone, whether legitimate king or ‘bastard.’ ” See The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (London: Pandora, 2000), 307. This description of self-serving individual, however, embodies the Tory caricature of Whiggism.Google Scholar
  5. 24.
    See Janet Todd, Secret Life, 251; she is citing Behn’s The Dumb Virgin, 3:359–360. Todd corrects previous scholarly speculation that Behn may have been raised Catholic, but points out Behn’s general sympathy for Catholics and her religious tolerance (Secret Life, 266, 369, and 439 n. 35.)Google Scholar
  6. 30.
    As Susan J. Owen points out in Restoration Theatre and Crisis, Southerne’s plays, from the early 1680s, including The Loyal Brother, articulate a standard pro-Stuart ideology (122 n. 26), although his politics seem to shift after 1688, according to his patrons, a fact that does not change the way he depicts female characters. See Robert Jordan and Harold Love, Introduction to The Works of Thomas Southerne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), xi–xliv.Google Scholar
  7. 37.
    See Jacqueline Pearson’s “The History of The History of the Nun,” in Heidi Hutner, ed. Rereading Aphra Behn, 234–52, for a further discussion of the changes to Behn’s novella made by subsequent dramatic adaptations.Google Scholar

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© Rachel Carnell 2006

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  • Rachel Carnell

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