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Aphra Behn, Poetry, ed. Janet Todd. The Works of Aphra Behn, Vol. 1
Todd's edition of The Works of Aphra Behn is not yet complete, but already it has made the study of Behn notably more convenient, banishing the aura of eccentricity and esotericism generated by grappling with Montague Summers' limited 1915 edition of Behn's works (and to a lesser extent, the 1967 reprint of this edition). When I open the ragged-edged, carelessly-cut copy of Summers' 1915 edition before me (no. 308 of 760), I feel I am battling the gender-bias of the canon with such admirers of Behn as Virginia Woolf. With Todd's edition, readers can enter both Behn's world and the sophisticated world of twentieth-century literary studies without needing to negotiate over the years of neglect.
Behn's most studied and well-edited work has been her drama, and a full evaluation of this edition must wait until we can compare Todd's work on the drama with the high standards set by such critical editions as Frederick M. Link's The Rover, Jean A. Coakley's The Lucky Chance, and Aaron R. Waldon's The Widow Ranter. However, the current volumes of Todd's edition indicate we have no reason to anticipate any disappointment ahead. Behn's poetry has never been showcased so coherently and accurately in its entirety, and the prose works are now supplemented by extensive notes accurately detailing literary, political, mythological, and topical references. The translations are enriched by the introduction, notes, and appendixes' careful comparisons to the originals and other contemporary translations.
In 1989, Germaine Greer passionately argued in her introduction to The Uncollected Verse of Aphra Behn "that Behn is too important a figure to be allowed to exist in the distorted guise of Summers' edition" (p. 9). Greer is one of the few Behn scholars to have attacked rather than thanked Summers. Her outraged account of the vices of that previously standard edition details its many problems, including false biographical information, inadequate collating and commentary, inaccurately attributed works, unnecessarily repeated works, and, most damning of all, having "left out almost half of her life's work" (p. 4). Todd's edition corrects these faults, and, for simply remedying the last one alone, it is to be valued.
Todd's edition does have some stylistic inconsistencies: Volumes 1 and 3 use endnotes for editorial commentary, while Volumes 2 and 4 are formatted more conveniently with footnotes. The minor inconvenience of flipping to the back of the book to consult the notes of Volumes 1 and 3 is magnified by the notes' lack of page references. Volume I's use of poem numbers alone in both the notes and indexes slows readers down further. Locating a favorite poem in Volume I is not a rapid process: the title and first line indexes are not alphabetized. Thus, the inaccurate listings in the first-line index for poems 71 to 86 are doubly vexing. Yet the luxury of merely having to hunt in one volume containing precise biographical, literary, and historical notes is still a fresh enough experience to hush one's complaints.
Behn's reputation in the Romantic era ranged, Holly Hunter asserts, from "unfit to be read" to "important" but marred by "moral depravity" ("Introduction," Rereading Aphra Behn, ed. Holly Hunter, p. 2). The responses to her work by William Blake, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Hays, and Leigh Hunt indicate how sexual codes influenced Behn's role in literary history (see respectively George Woodcock, The English Sappho, p. 116; J. G. Lockhart, Life of Sir Walter Scott, p. 412; Holly Hunter, Rereading Aphra Behn, p. 2, 11; and Leigh Hunt, The Companion, p. 268). Todd's edition already has made available some of Behn's representations of her complex position as both woman and literary artist. In her translation of Abraham Cowley's Latin "Of Plants. Book VI. Sylva," Behn interjects a plea for fame both as a women and a poet (Vol. 1, no. 88, ll. 590-4). Behn's introduction to her translation of Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur La Pluralité des Mondes, entitled A Discovery of New Worlds, shows her not only negotiating between her role as woman and as translator/artist but also securing for herself a speaking role in the male-dominated discourse of the scientific enlightenment (Vol. 4, pp. 73-86).
Today, the affinities between Behn's work and that of Romantic writers seem more pronounced than the different level of publicly acceptable discussion of sexuality. Mary Hays, who in print advocated the "unfit to be read" perspective on Behn's work, produced in her Emma Courtney a novel that echoes the narrative techniques and themes of both Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister and her posthumous short story Love-Letters. Reading Behn's epistolary works along with Mary A. Favret's Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters (1993) reminds us that, however much Richardson and Rousseau associated the genre with "sentimental heroines, seductive villains, and long, tortuous romances" (Favret, Romantic Correspondence, p. 4), the early English epistolary novel involved a fusion of romance, politics, and even revolution similar to what we find in Helen Maria William's Letters From France and Mary Wollstonecraft's A Short Residence in Sweden.
Todd's The Works of Aphra Behn presents Behn's fiction with the full apparatus it deserves, hitherto found only in editions of her drama or her most famous novel, Oroonoko. Todd compliments her critical introductions with detailed critical and textual notes, reproductions of original title pages and other relevant contemporary images, and, in the case of Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, extensive appendixes containing source material and variants. Todd's guidance to Behn's coded account of Monmouth's rebellion in this latter work highlights some parallels between Behn's use of revolution and that of Romantic women writers. For example, in such fictions about courtship such as Sophia Lee's "Pembroke" in the Lee sisters' Canterbury Tales, Charlotte Smith's The Old Manor House, Jane Porter's Thaddeus of Warsaw, and Anna Marie Porter's The Hungarian Brothers, the vivid accounts of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century battles never simply glorify one particular army. Instead these accounts focus, as Behn's representation does, on the emotional experiences of a few soldiers, often from both sides of the conflict. These accounts not only offer political critiques but, by their juxtaposition and entanglements with domestic romances, comment on the similar power dynamics between the social and the marital contract.
In this decade we are redefining Romanticism by reevaluating
female achievements in poetry, prose, and the novel and their relationship to
the traditional male-dominated canon (see for example, Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism
and Gender and Julie Shaffer, "Non-Canonical Women's Novels of the Romantic
Era: Romantic Ideologies and the Problematics of Gender and Genre," forthcoming
in Studies in the Novel). We can be aided in this reassessment process
by the available volumes of Todd's edition. These volumes detail Behn's explorations
of some of the key issues in Romantic studies: the role of incestuous and homosocial
bonding in romance, the correlations between racial and gender oppression, female
subjectivity, and, more specifically, female political and sexual agency. To
judge Behn on these four volumes of Todd's edition alone, however, is to do
Behn an injustice. Her dramas, particularly Abdelazar, The Rover,
and The Lucky Chance, also tackle feminist and racial issues. Her
dramatic forewords--epistles, dedications, and prefaces--offer defenses of women's
capacity to write and glimpses into her own theoretical stances on drama and
literature. The volumes to come of The Works of Aphra Behn will make
even clearer Behn's importance to literary history as a dramatist and a feminist.
The key role of incest in Romantic literature has been widely studied, even for purposes beyond literary criticism, as is attested by the continued international interest in Otto Rank's Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage (1912). A comparison of the treatment of incest in Romantic literature, particularly Gothic texts, with Behn's own complex linking of incest and rebellion in Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister would not only more precisely track the literary history of the incest theme but perhaps further illuminate the political dimensions of its use. The political significance of how desire affects gender roles in the Romantic period is demonstrated in Claudia L. Johnson's Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s: Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (1995). The instability of gender roles in the 1790s, which Johnson's book maps, is mirrored by the labyrinthine relationships of homosocial, homosexual, and heterosexual desire in Behn's writing. Behn unveils the homosocial role of male rivalry in stimulating heterosexual desire for women and explores the ways in which cross dressing and masquerade complicate and destabilize gender relations. Behn also analyzes female friendships and, more rarely, lesbianism (for the latter see "To the fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin'd more than Woman" Vol. 1, no. 80).
The importance of Behn to studies of the role of race in literature, and her continued relevance to racial issues in the Romantic period, needs no elaborate justification. Southerne's dramatic version of Behn's novel about colonial slavery, Oroonoko, was reprinted in the Romantic period. Moira Ferguson's Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670 1834 (1992) reveals the rich rewards of examining Behn and other Restoration women's texts that tackle racial issues in conjunction with the extensive writing produced on the same topic at the turn of the eighteenth century. Other studies such as Paula R. Backscheider's Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early Modern England (1993) and Catherine Craft Fairchild's Masquerade and Gender: Disguise and Female Identity in Eighteenth-Century Fictions by Women (1993) also have demonstrated the power of conjoined analyses of Behn's texts and Romantic texts on other topics. I hope this new, superior edition of Behn's work will stimulate more studies of this type.
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