restricted access Cultural Memory and the Royalist Political Aesthetic in Aphra Behn’s Later Works
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Cultural Memory and the Royalist Political Aesthetic in Aphra Behn’s Later Works

The memory of the civil wars of the 1640s, the regicide, and the reign of Cromwell was one of the strongest influences on late seventeenth-century literary and political culture. Still haunted intermittently by the specters of absolutism, religious conflict, and popular revolt in the years following the Restoration, contemporaries lamented the almost unavoidable analogies to recent traumatic historical events that the conditions of the present invited, and it was only the revolution of 1688, according to Jonathan Scott, that ultimately “released the nation from the tyranny of memory, from the need to keep repeating its own past” (Scott 26). Yet for Stuart royalists in particular, the desire to escape the past was matched by an equally strong drive to channel remembrance—culturally mediated through various forms and fictions—into a tool for political obligation. As Steven Zwicker points out, “the fixing of old forms atop new facts” was a dominant political strategy in which authors made their aesthetic choices serve highly polemical purposes (Zwicker 182). Royalist writers invoked not only the memory of past events, but also revived the cultural fictions that had once been used to represent them and re-applied such fictions to the present.

Most often, royalist writers hearkened back to the heyday of the 1660s for their analogies. During the upturn in royalist fortunes surrounding the Restoration, it had been the fictional language of heroics, providentialism, and divine right that served most clearly to represent the necessity of loyalty to the Stuarts. As the monarchy went from one crisis to the next in the ensuing decades—from Charles II’s failure to beget a legitimate heir and the Exclusion Crisis to Monmouth’s rebellion and James II’s failures leading up to 1688—such discourse was put under real strain; the Stuart monarchs could [End Page 1] no longer be made to appear with any seriousness as the glamorous heroes or national saviors they may have seemed in 1660. Yet royalist supporters continued to revive and rely upon such fictions as ideological mechanisms by which to bolster the position of the crown. In this essay, I want to examine the politics of royalist memory as they appear in a couple of selected works of Aphra Behn from the late 1680s, specifically Oroonoko; or the Royal Slave (1688) and her posthumously-produced play, The Widow Ranter (1689). A staunch supporter of the Stuart kings throughout her life, Behn produces in these two later works—both written under the short-lived rule of James II—a vision that nonetheless tempers her commitment not to the monarchy, but to the efforts of her fellow royalist writers and their dependence on this pervasive scene of memory to stimulate and sustain loyalty in their present audience.

Recent scholarship has shown that Behn’s royalism, if undeniable, is hardly uncomplicated. Her writing, for instance, often endorses feminist and progressively individualist principles that seem at odds with the patriarchal and hierarchical norms of seventeenth-century royalism; Behn appears most openly critical of her own party, it is often assumed, only when her critique is directed at the patriarchalism and the “contradictions and latent sexual oppressiveness in the Tory outlook” (Hughes 154).1 More recently, some readers—notably Al Coppola, Michael Cordner, and Anita Pacheco—have questioned whether her skepticism regarding Stuart political culture in the 1680s depends on gender politics alone or on a deeper worry about the Tories’ political virtue and wherewithal—the detrimental effect of their self-interest and disdain for statecraft upon the monarchy, or their engagement in political tactics which align them with the Whigs.2 Though both Oroonoko and The Widow Ranter have been read for their engagement with the politics at the end of James’s reign in which the last Stuart king destroyed his own base of power in the court and Anglican church, little has been said about their representation of the royalist camp itself during this time of crisis. In fact, the texts reveal a sustained interest in the trajectory of royalist activity from the Exclusion Crisis in the early 1680s to the months leading up to 1688...