The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 26 Novelist. Journalist. Spy. Wit and Sexual Liberation in Seventeenth-Century England

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Novelist. Journalist. Spy. Wit and Sexual Liberation in Seventeenth-Century England

There was a time, after the passing of Catholic supremacy and before Romanticism shaded into the idealized half-century-long fainting spell of Victorianism, when it looked like women were at last gaining for themselves a place at civilization’s table. Christina was the monarch in Sweden, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover was directing the continent’s philosophical life, Maria Merian was conducting entomological expeditions to the jungles of Surinam, and in England, a trio later known as the Fair Triumvirate of Wit was playing a complicated role in the arena of public discourse that would not be available to women for another two centuries.

AphraBehnAphra Behn (1640?-1689), Delarivier Manley (1663?-1724), and Eliza Haywood (1693?-1756) were, singly, forces of astounding ability and intricate motivation. As a whole, they represented a sustained challenge to male political, literary, and sexual supremacy that was not only intellectually forceful, but wildly popular. Three women, in three generations, each building on the work of her intellectual ancestors to produce an ultimate picture of independent and pleasurable womanhood.

As you might have guessed from the flurry of question marks in the life dates of the Triumvirate, much of their biography is lost to time. Because they were women, because records were hazily kept, and because they themselves engaged in much biographical obfuscation in their quasi-memoirs, most statements about their lives come with an appended asterisk of uncertainty. They all, however, lived highly unconventional existences. Behn was born into poverty and, to avoid debtor’s prison, decided in 1666 to work as a professional spy for the British government, playing a crucial role in infiltrating the Dutch Republic—work she was ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, never paid for.

So, to stave off bankruptcy, she turned to the theater, where the ban on female actors had just recently been lifted, and women were achieving some successes as playwrights as well. In 1677, she had a smash success with The Rover, and it’s easy to see why. The play is a bawdy, over-the-top farce crafted in the brightest and broadest colors. The central character, a drifting soldier named Wilmore, is a disaster-prone no-account, almost genetically incapable of fidelity, who always tries to do right by his friends but whose idea of helping always manages to ruin their lives. He is a scoundrel, and in a proper play, he would be caught in his scoundreliness, rejected by all virtuous company, and drubbed from society.

But Aphra Behn did not write proper plays, she wrote human plays, where people gleefully jettison societal codes to enjoy each other. Two females, one a courtesan and the other a soon-to-be-nun, find themselves falling in love with Wilmore, knowing full well that he’s an inconstant scoundrel. But Hellena, the pre-nun, doesn’t care, and is planning on a life of free inconstancy herself, to grab pleasure and dazzle and live as she can, anything to avoid the clawing monotony and libidinal insincerity of the cloister. This was the revolution of Behn’s plays—they portrayed female desire in all of its colors and manifestations, without any virginal whitewashing. The females have just as much right to sexual satisfaction as the males, without shame or damage to the fundamental goodness of their character. Behn sympathetically portrays prostitutes and courtesans and heaps not a little bit of abuse on men who clamor for virgins while allowing themselves complete sexual freedom.

Dramatic success led to a brief career in political satire, where, like her successor Delarivier Manley, she took up cudgels for the Tories against the Whigs. That might seem confusing, like if Maya Angelou hit the political circuit campaigning really energetically for Jeb Bush, but there is a sense in it. Whereas the Whigs were the champions of many progressive strains in political life, the bourgeois mindset of the party in the seventeenth century was one that kept wives as chaste homemakers, while in the nobility-leaning circles of the Tories, women were granted a much more free sexual and intellectual existence. So, if you were Aphra Behn, the Tories had a surprising amount to offer. Unfortunately, she was rather too Tory, even for the King, and Charles II ultimately put a warrant out for her arrest when she attacked the Duke of Monmouth, Charles’s illegitimate son.

She went underground until cooler heads could prevail and ultimately abandoned political writing to return to the farces that had made her success as a youth. She also took a few moments to write the first novel in the English language in 1688. (Because, apparently, she hadn’t achieved enough?) Meanwhile, Delarivier Manley, her fellow Tory, was hopping from scandal to scandal. Where Behn was a playwright who had a go at political journalism, Manley was a savage political satirist who jollied around with Jonathan Swift and used her deliciously acidic pen to write devastating satires against the Duke of Marlborough and the rest of the Whig leadership.

Everything Manley did, she did audaciously. She lived in a bigamous marriage for many years, was repeatedly under threat of arrest, participated somewhat shadily in complicated Bleak House-esque inheritance schemes, and wrote purely political pamphlets that shaped public opinion and thence governmental policy. Just think about that—a woman, writing in the seventeenth century, about party politics and public policy, and accepted as the equal of Swift in those realms. Her masterwork was The New Atlantis (1709), in which Virtue and Justice personified travel a thinly disguised England looking for honorable humans and instead find various members of the Whig party engaged in every manner of possible debauchery and dishonesty. Unlike The Rover, it’s quite a challenging book for a modern reader, as most of the issues and personalities described have been lost in the recesses of time and history, but for pure savage-destructive political glee, it’s unrivaled, and as a monument of women participating in political life, there’s nothing like it until the twentieth century.

But it’s hard to serve two masters. Manley wanted to show that female sexuality was a positive thing, and ought to be celebrated, but at the same time wanted to score points against the Whigs by showing them engaged in sexual excesses. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century political pamphleteering was all about lurid tales of orgies and prostitution, and Manley couldn’t resist the temptation to do likewise, even as her shaming of loose women ran counter to her sympathetic portrayals of prostitutes in fiction and her own amour-filled private life.

Eliza Haywood, the last of the triumvirate, idolized Aphra Behn every bit as much as Manley, but again that idolization took an odd turn that tended to undermine Behn’s literary mission. Haywood’s first novel, Love in Excess, was a hulk of a bestseller, the most popular novel of the early eighteenth century next to Robinson Crusoe. Like Behn, Haywood rails at the strictures of a society that doesn’t permit women to voice their romantic preferences and that only gives them death or the nunnery as alternatives to an arranged marriage. However, in the grand eighteenth-century tradition, love undergoes an idealization in the work every bit as rigid in its boundaries as Behn’s freewheeling erotic fancy was fluid.

Haywood’s cult of ideal love, which makes sex a kind of secular sacrament, is very romantic and totally joyless. Haywood is as willing to heap scorn on a female character who wants sex for pure physical satisfaction as she is to pile praise and reward on a male character who nearly rapes a succession of women because he is such a noble slave of his ideal passion. It’s a hard shift to go from the world of Behn’s flatulent and happy fornicators to Haywood’s violent and demented lovers, to see open and free humanity replaced by a dangerous because abstract zeal. Commentators on Haywood point out that her heroines make choices for themselves and have definite erotic desires, but both are so circumscribed by the author’s particular notion of what does and does not count as honorable passion that the gates are rather more thrown open to Victorian sexual rarefaction than Behnian freedom.

There were but forty years between The Rover and Love in Excess, with Manley’s virulent The New Atlantis placed firmly in the middle, and a starker tale of hero worship gone wrong you’ll be hard pressed to find. Manley, by means of wit and scorn, clawed her way impressively to an unprecedented amount of political infamy and power, and while she kept Behn’s raucous Toryism, she was inconstant in its application. Haywood took passion as her watchword, pumping out sometimes three novels a year in its glorification, but put terms and conditions on it that Behn would have laughed off, yet which survived through the British Enlightenment to become the touchstone of overwrought and underhuman Romanticism.

But don’t worry, any day now we’ll catch up to the sexual openness and liberality of 1677. Any day now.


Further Reading

There’s a nice edition of four of Aphra Behn’s plays in the Oxford English Drama series edited by Jane Spencer. The notes are endnotes, which are an abomination generally, but are full of useful points on seventeenth-century linguistic usage, plus there’s a great glossary in the back of period colloquialisms. For instance, did you know that cap-a-pie means “head to foot”? You do now! The two main books available for Manley are The New Atlantis, which is well nigh indecipherable without extensive notes, and is available in a Penguin Classics edition, and her autobiographical and delightfully self-puffing Adventures of Rivella, which goes into bewilderingly dense detail about the inheritance case she entangled herself in, available from Broadview Literary Texts with some nice appendices of various Manley bits. Eliza Haywood wrote so many novels that most of them are still unavailable to but the hardiest of collectors. Love in Excess is put out by Broadview with its notes mercifully in footnote format, and if, after that, you still want more Haywood instead of re-reading Behn (which is what you should be doing), Broadview has also put out Fantomina and Anti-Pamela, her response to Samuel Richardson’s massively successful innocent waif novel Pamela (1740).