Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Subverting Tragic Conventions: Aphra Behn's Turn to the Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Subverting Tragic Conventions: Aphra Behn's Turn to the Novel

Article excerpt

Aphra Behn's concern with the difference between the standards of criticism applied to her as a female playwright and those applied to the male dramatists of her era is evident in the oft-cited lines from her preface to The Luckey Chance, or An Alderman's Bargain (1687): "That had the Plays I have writ come forth under any Mans Name, and never known to have been mine; I appeal to all unbyast Judges of Sense, if they had not said that Person had made as many good Comedies, as any one Man that has writ in our Age; but a Devil on't the Woman damns the Poet."(1) Here Behn is referring to criticism of her plays as being too racy for female theater goers; however, her appeal to "sense" and "judgment" represents an entreaty to a public that may be relied on to judge according to its collective capacity for reason. Earlier in the same preface, she makes a "Challenge to any person of common Sense and Reason" (7:215, emphasis added) to read her plays and judge for him- or herself of their licentiousness. These appeals to reason are echoed in the dedicatory letter to the first edition of Oroonoko, in which Behn compliments not only the "excellent Knowledge" of Lord Maitland but also his predilection for studying historical chronicles, which he is "sure to turn to the Publick Good" (3:55).

Although Behn's interest in reason and the "Publick Good" might seem perfunctory--an excuse to complain about her treatment as a woman playwright or a means to flatter a would-be patron--in fact, the above references fit into a broader pattern of interest in political affairs and the state. Behn herself was employed as a spy during the second Anglo-Dutch war (1666-67), and many of her stage comedies are partisan polemics against Whig leaders. Moreover, in the dedication to The Luckey Chance, Behn herself acknowledges the demonstrable political nature of her writing when she characterizes "Plays and publick Diversions [as] ... one of the most essential parts of good government" (7:213). Within this context, we may understand Behn's references to politics and state affairs as an attempt to add her voice to the public sphere of rational debate emerging at the end of the seventeenth century in Britain, which, according to Jurgen Habermas, relied on private "people's public use of their reason" to address questions of government, culture, and the public good.(2)

Habermas defines the public sphere in late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Britain as a loose conglomeration of voices appearing in periodicals, satire, and coffee house debates, that "raised to the status of an institution, the ongoing commentary on and criticism of the Crown's actions and Parliament's decisions" (p. 60). Reason provided the foundation through which private individuals of different ranks entered public discussions about politics and culture. Commenting not only on immediate parliamentary actions, the participants in the public sphere expanded their debates to include such general topics of government as party factions, corruption, patriotism, and separation of powers. This claim for the universality of the rational individual, of course, belies the fact that such an individual was hardly universal, but both propertied and male. As Habermas acknowledges, "women and dependents were factually and legally excluded from the political public sphere" (p. 56), despite its discourse of universality. However, he also alludes to a related sphere of literary discourse and debate in which "female readers and servants often took a more active part ... than the owners of private property and family heads themselves" (p. 56). Coding the literary public sphere as potentially female, however, generates some confusion as to whether this sphere constituted an integral part of rational political debate, or whether it was merely a tangential step-sister to the political sphere, responsible for humanizing the fraternity of brothers actively involved in public affairs.

One difficulty in Habermas's paradigm is that he does not consistently develop or maintain the distinction between the literary and political public spheres. …

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