Eighteenth-Century Life 25.3 (2001) 1-19
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The Protestant Cause and a Protestant Whore:
Aphra Behn's Love-letters
Critics have often commented on Aphra Behn's identification with the figure of the whore, especially in relation to her work as a playwright. "The author-whore persona is the central figure in a dark comedy Behn played throughout her career," Catherine Gallagher observes, "a comedy in which she exposes the bond between the liberty the stage offered women and their confinement behind both literal and metaphorical vizards." 1 Less frequently remarked is the possibility that England's first professional woman writer identified not only with her dramatic characters, but also with the most notorious whore in her collected works--Lady Henrietta Berkeley, the model for Silvia, heroine of Love-letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister. 2 While some critics have noted particular character traits in Silvia that Love-letters seems to admire (her independence and resilience, for example), most read her narrative in an allegorical relation to the political story that Love-letters tells: as an analogue to the Duke of Monmouth, Silvia represents the feminine version of the duke's treasonous personality, bereft of honor and integrity.3 Her story, within this frame of reference, intensifies the feelings of personal loss and corruption associated with the threat of civil unrest figured in the duke.
Silvia's narrative as a story challenges, rather than supports, the political saga that unfolds in Love-letters. In pursuing this reading, I shall describe Love-letters as a courtesan narrative, a formal innovation in English prose fiction that constitutes a particular species of writing within the emergent tradition of scandal narrative and amatory fiction. Two courtesan narratives appeared in the decade before Behn wrote Love-letters: César Vichard de St.-Réal's Memoires de Mme. la Duchesse de Mazarin (1675; translated into English in 1676) and Gabriel de Brémond's Hattigé ou Les Amours de Roy de Tamaran (1676; translated in 1680). In St.-Réal's epistolary fiction, the "Duchess" writes an account of her marriage to an unknown correspondent, whom readers could have imagined as the real-life duchess' most recent conquest, Charles II: "Since the Obligations I owe you are of that Nature, that I ought to conceal nothing from you, wherein I may testifie my Acknowledgements of them, I am willing to gratifie you with the true Relation of my Life, being you desire it: Not that I am ignorant, how hard it is to speak discreetly of ones self."4 The narrative provides [End Page 1] us with an intimate account of a marriage's decline and of the French king's involvement in the domestic dispute between the duchess and the duke. It ends at the moment before the duchess leaves for England with an appended letter from an unidentified acquaintance, who testifies to the duchess' domestic expertise and economy in her retirement at Chambery; a further commentary on the reasons for the duchess' choice of England as a place of refuge completes the work. As a whole, Memoires renders sympathetically the duchess' plight as a woman unable to secure a workable separation from her husband. By contrast, Brémond's Hattigé creates a salacious portrait of the English court in its description of the affairs of Barbara Castlemaine, the Duchess of Cleveland and lover of Charles II. Describing the willing surrender of Charles II to the charms of Castlemaine, the story's interlocutor remarks, "Such, Sir, is the fortune of Monarchs in love; when they are with their Mistresses they commonly lay aside that Majesty which dazzles the Eyes, and affects the Hearts of Mankind; they go undressed into their Chambers, and make themselves so familiar with their Mistresses, they afterward use them as ordinary Men." 5 The story dwells on the king's emotional commitment to the women he loves, allowing the reader, like the mistress, to imagine Charles II as an ordinary man, and a not-so-extraordinary monarch.
Behn's Love-letters marks...