Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Flesh on the Mind: Behn Studies in the New Millennium

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Flesh on the Mind: Behn Studies in the New Millennium

Article excerpt

It would be overenthusiastic to claim that all Behn's plays merit revival, but those who read them would do well to make them flesh in the mind, instead of treating them as mere subjects of ideological enquiry, or fantasy. (1)

Aphra Behn has never not been read. As the excellent bibliographies compiled by Mary Ann O'Donnell (1986), Janet Todd (1998), and Jane Spencer (2001) reveal, Behn's plays, poetry, and fiction have generated a steady flow of adaptation, revision, and critical scrutiny since the author's death in 1689. (2) In the past twenty years, Behn studies have benefited enormously from textual editing; from the reissuing of texts for the classroom; and from new archival work that allows for precise contextualizations of the author and her works. (3) As the landscape surrounding Behn has taken on new breadth, so too the critical essays on her works have assumed added depth. Criticism today routinely links Behn to topics central to our field, including religious, political, and intellectual controversies, the rise of the novel, English imperialism, the history of sexuality, Restoration stagecraft, and lyric poetics. (4)

The professionalization of literary studies that took hold in the 1950s certainly marginalized Behn, and her rediscovery in the 1980s was made possible, to a large extent, by feminists' interrogation of New Criticism's and novel studies' masculinist assumptions. Behn now suffers under a different kind of burden, one created by the very concern with sexual difference that has allowed readers to recognize the blind spots of twentieth-century critical methodologies. Behn's status as England's first professional woman author is both the good news and the bad news: we want to recognize the singularity of her achievement without ascribing notions of gender identity to her that seem limiting, both historically and theoretically. This debate, of course, has implications for women's literary history and for Restoration and eighteenth-century cultural studies more generally, and we can look forward to productive conversations on the subject in future conference sessions, essays, and monographs.

One would never guess, reading Derek Hughes's The Theatre of Aphra Behn (Palgrave, 2001), that the efforts of late twentieth-century scholars had enriched Behn studies. Readers familiar with two of Hughes's recent essays, "Race, Gender, and Scholarly Practice: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko" and "The Masked Woman Revealed; or, The Prostitute and the Playwright in Aphra Behn Criticism," will not be surprised by the tone of the book's introduction, in which Catherine Gallagher serves as the whipping girl for an attack on "ideological" criticism. (5) Particularly offensive to Hughes is Gallagher's assertion that Behn exploited misogynist identifications of female authorship with prostitution to advance her career. (6) For Hughes, Gallagher's argument marginalizes Behn, isolating her from her male contemporaries and downplaying the common interests she shared with them. However, Hughes can only make this claim by shutting his eyes to Gallagher's central point: that all authors became dispossessed "nobodies" in the literary marketplace that emerged after the Restoration: "authors of both sexes called attention to their existence in and through their commodification and their inseparability from it" (Gallagher, Nobody's Story, xxi).

That Behn might sexualize the fact of her commodification should hardly shock us, given the character of Restoration court culture and its powerful royal mistresses, as well as London's celebrity actress-whores and bawds. Indeed, despite his objection to reading Behn's sense of authorship through the poetess-punk analogy, Hughes repeatedly comes back to the whore as a central thematic concern for Behn: "Most of Behn's plays explore the complex mental and social processes that both link and divide the gentlewoman and the prostitute" (125). But for Hughes, the prostitute emerges solely as a figure of abjection: "sex by numbers" is "suffered" by the courtesan Angellica Bianca (17); the heroine of The Rover II is harassed by Willmore, "as though she were another La Nuche," and so on (126). …

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