Aphra Behn's English Feminism: Wit and Satire

Article excerpt

Aphra Behn's English Feminism: Wit and Satire. By Dolors Altaba-Artal. Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna University Press; London: Associated University Presses. 1999. 231 pp. 32 [pounds sterling].

Aphra Behn's recent installation in the English literary canon has produced curious critical consequences. In the past generation, she has passed in reverse order through the processes normally applied to Great Writers: at first the emphasis fell on theorizing her, then on establishing her historical context, and now, in Aphra Behn's English Feminism, Dolors Altaba-Artal has produced the first `exhaustive comparison of her production with texts from the Spanish siglo de oro' (p. 9). Although previous studies have made valuable contributions to the subject, Altaba-Artal is the first to deal comprehensively, exclusively, and even-handedly both with Behn's dramatic and narrative works, and her Spanish dramatic and narrative sources, whether direct or indirect. She proceeds with proper caution, sifting through the evidence for English and French versions that might have been available to Behn, but finding strong indications that Behn read Spanish. Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister (1683-87) bears strong traces of Francisco Delicado's La Lozana andaluza (1528), for which `there is no known contemporary translation' (p. 145). The frankness with which this evidence is presented as negative bears witness to her scholarly integrity. There are also important biographical implications, of an equally negative kind: readers hoping to glean information about Behn's personal experience from authorial intrusions in her prose narratives should be especially cautious when not only the stories, but the intrusions, are adapted from Spanish originals. This does not mean that Behn never reveals anything of herself in these asides to the reader, but allowances should be made for an initially foreign context.

This is no mere arid source-hunt: Altaba-Artal enthusiastically acknowledges Behn's distinctive artistry. The most exciting element in this book is her examination of the relationship between Behn's narratives and the Novellas amorosas (1637) and Desenganos amorosos (1647) of Maria de Zayas y Sotomayor. Both authors protested vigorously against the injustices inflicted on their sex, suffered unmerited obscurity, and `had to be recovered by women writers' (p. …