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  • Rape and the Female Subject in Aphra Behn’s The Rover
  • Anita Pacheco

Critics have often remarked that in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, ladies act like whores and whores like ladies. 1 On this level, the play presents a dramatic world dominated by the two principal patriarchal definitions of women, but in which the boundary separating one category from the other has become blurred. In the case of both Florinda, the play’s quintessential “maid of quality,” and the prostitute Angellica Bianca, the role reversals arise out of contrasting bids to move from subjection into subjectivity. It is Florinda’s rebellion against the commodification of forced marriage that destabilizes her position within patriarchy, while Angellica Bianca’s self-construction as Petrarchan mistress charts the attempt of a woman excluded from the marital marketplace to turn her beauty into an alternative form of power. This essay will examine the central role which rape plays in both these struggles to escape patriarchal devaluation. Before the obligatory happy ending, Florinda faces three attempted rapes that are called not rape, but seduction, retaliation, or “ruffling a harlot” (228); in presuming to make her own sexual choices, she enters a world where the word “rape” has no meaning. Angellica Bianca’s subject position is shown to involve a complex complicity in the same cultural legitimation of male sexual aggression. This paper will suggest that the presence of rape in the experiences of these two characters works to interrogate and problematize different modes of female subjectivity by situating them within a patriarchal dramatic world in which the psychology of rape is endemic. 2

Rebellion against forced marriage is, of course, an age-old comic theme; but the terms in which Florinda articulates her defiance of paternal authority—her condemnation of the “ill customs” which make a woman the “slave” of her male relations (160)—presents this comic motif as a clash between the absolutist concept of marriage, in which women function as “objects of exchange and the guarantee of dynastic continuity,” and the liberal concept, which invests them with the [End Page 323] autonomous subject’s right to choose. 3 However, the relationship between these two ideas of marriage during the early modern period was not one of simple opposition. The consensus view of marriage as an affective union may have led to general disapproval of aristocratic arranged marriage, but the woman’s allotted role within the companionate ideal modified without seriously challenging patriarchal interests. If she was granted authority as “joint governor” of the household, she remained subject to her husband; and if she was dignified by her position at the center of the family, she was also confined to that domestic space. 4 Women’s essential inequality in the liberal model of marriage seems to have extended as well to their right to choose their partners. That freedom appears to have been granted more readily to men than to women, who had to make do, as Mary Astell complained in 1706, with the right of veto: “a woman, indeed, can’t properly be said to choose, all that is allowed her is to refuse or accept what is offered.” 5 The liberal concept of marriage, therefore, offered women at best a tentative entry into the order of subjectivity.

The history of Early Modern rape law reveals a similarly uncertain transition from patriarchal to liberal attitudes towards women. While medieval rape law perceived rape as a crime against male-owned property, the legal focus shifted in the late sixteenth century from property to person. It was the female victim rather than her male relations who was the injured party in a case of rape, and the crime itself came to be seen not as a property violation but as the ravishment of a woman against her will. 6

However, when it came to the law’s practical application, it appears that patriarchal definitions of rape continued to hold sway. The evidence, admittedly, is immensely difficult to interpret; but Nazife Bashar, in her study of the records of the home counties Assizes from 1558 to 1700, detects a pattern of few prosecutions and a tendency to convict only when the victim was a young girl...

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pp. 323-345
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