Of Privileges and Masculine Parts: The Learned Lady in Aphra Behn's Sir Patient Fancy

By Hayden, Judy | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Of Privileges and Masculine Parts: The Learned Lady in Aphra Behn's Sir Patient Fancy


Hayden, Judy, Papers on Language & Literature


In his "Preface of the Author" in The Six Days Adventure, or The New Utopia (1671), Edward Howard observes that there are "not seldome to be found as great abilities in them [women] (allowing for the disadvantage they have in not being suitably educated to letters,) as are to be observ'd in men of greatest comprehensions" (4). Aphra Behn takes a similar line in her preface to The Dutch Lover (1673): "[W]aving the examination, why women having equal education with men, were not as capable of knowledge, of whatever sort as well as they: I'l only say as I have touch'd before, that Plays have no great room for that which is mens great advantage over women, that is Learning." (1)

The educated woman or "learned lady" became the subject of much debate--and satire--in the Restoration. Women such as Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, Bathsua Makin, Anna Maria van Schurmann, Judith Drake, and Mary Astell argued decidedly for the education of women. Custom has it, Makin writes to Mary, the eldest daughter of James, Duke of York, that the education of a woman is "lookt upon as a monstrous thing"(1). While men largely resisted the notion of educating females, early female advocates for the improvement of women's minds found, unfortunately, that sometimes women themselves offered as much opposition, particularly when these "educated" or "learned ladies" offered their knowledge in the public forum of print. Dorothy Osborne, for example, wrote to Sir William Temple, after having read Margaret Cavendish's Philosophical Fancies (1653), that "there were many soberer People in Bedlam." (2) Mary Evelyn, John Evelyn's wife, censures learned women, remarking that women should "acknowledge all time borrowed from family duties misspent [...]. The distaffe will defend our quarrels as well as the sword, and the needle is as instructive as the penne" (qtd. in Reynolds 142).

In her play, Sir Patient Fancy: A Comedy (1678), Aphra Behn depicts a learned lady whom the main male character, Sir Patient Fancy, finds impertinent and intolerable and to whom he refers to as "Madam Romance, that walking Library of Profane Books" (2.1.179-81). Several scholars have argued that Behn's intention in this play is to mock the learned lady. (3) Through her imaginative and humorous construction of the Lady Knowell, however, Behn does not deride the learned lady; rather, she mocks men's pretentiousness and offers her audience an opportunity to consider the concept of knowledge unrestricted by gender.

Throughout her work, Behn continuously rejects the idea that intellectual capacity and gender are interdependent and frequently questions why beauty and wit should be mutually exclusive. For example, she notes playfully in the prologue to her first produced play, The Forc'd Marriage, or, The Jealous Bridegroom (1671), "Who is't that to their [women's] Beauty wou'd submit, / And yet refuse the Fetters of their Wit" (45-46).

Behn sets the tone for Sir Patient Fancy in the prologue in which she notes, "Our Author / Knows better how to juggle than to write" (30-31), lightheartedly deriding herself as a woman of wit. The main female character in the play, Lady Knowell, is just such a woman of wit, and the first act opens with this learned lady's daughter, Lucretia, complaining to her friend Isabella about her mother's intellectual endeavors, which she describes as "the peculiar Province of the other Sex" (1.1.57-58). But Isabella presents an opposing view, suggesting that "Indeed the men wou'd have us think so, and boast their Learning, and Languages," but, she continues, their sex is full of words that are to little purpose (1.1.59-62). Isabella reiterates the argument from Behn's preface in The Dutch Lover, in which the playwright maintains that while she as a female writer may lack sufficient "words" owing to her lack of an education in classical languages, what words the learned men do use often "mean just nothing" (5:160).

Lady Knowell complains about contemporary women, including her daughter, who she claims are "unthinking creatures" since they "have no other knowledge than that of dressing" (1. …

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