This essay reads the short romances of Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn as complex responses to contract-based theories of obligation and the model of the political subject who enters into relationships of willing submission. Cavendish and Behn take up the subject of women’s contracts and obligations within the generic constraints of romance, but their romances belie the fiction of women freely and happily contracting with their romance heroes. Far from instancing willing submission, Cavendish’s heroines actively engage with law and go to war to subdue men who prove bad contractors and to model new forms of obligation. Behn’s romances, in contrast, teem with women who are bad contractors and whose flagrant violations of propriety and conjugality pose a sardonic challenge to conventional definitions of women’s obligations. Together, their works trouble the fiction of the willingly bound woman and attest to the diminishing power of romance to model women’s obligations in a time of continuing political crisis.


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pp. 245-269
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