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This week’s post provides some background to an exciting upcoming event in EMSP! This Thursday at 7:30 pm in the KTS Room, the Early Modern Studies Program presents a talk by Marie-France Guénette, Université de Montréal, on ‘Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko in French dress, or how the work was translated and received in France from 1745-2009’. Who was Aphra Behn (1640?-1689), and why was this 1688 novella such a strange Oroonokoncoction?
For such an important figure in English literature and early modern women’s writing—a leading playwright and novelist in Restoration England, as well as one of the first professional female English writers—the details about her early life are tantalisingly mysterious. There are conflicting stories about her origins and upbringing before she may have married (and then outlived or separated from) a Johan Behn. She seems to have travelled to the colony of Surinam and may have met an African slave leader who was the inspiration for the eponymous protagonist of Oronooko. She may have been a British spy in Surinam, in which case she continued her espionage (under the codename Astrea) on the European continent, particularly reporting on English exiles in the Netherlands who were plotting to overthrow the restored monarch. In other words, she received a Behn-efit from the Crown to engage in Behn-t dealings, and was not Aphra-id to undertake clandestine activities.
After an unsuccessful attempt to turn a double agent, Behn returned to England, fell into hard times, and may have spent time in debtors’ prison. By the end of the 1660s, she turned to playwriting to make a living in the absence of a Behn-efactor. Her plays, such as the controversial comedy The Rover, were quite successful in the 1670s and 80s. She became acquainted with some of the leading literary talents in Restoration England, including John Dryden and especially the notorious libertine, the Earl of Rochester. Her plays, poetry, and novels such as Oroonoko often reflected her Jacobite leanings, i.e., support for Charles II’s Catholic brother and heir James Duke of York and his direct heirs. In the 1680s, Parliament sought to exclude James from succession (because of his desire to restore Catholicism as the established church in Britain), and eventually supported the deposing of King James II (who reigned 1685-88) in favour of James’s Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William. If she had lived past 1689 and if the succession of William and Mary had been thwarted, she would surely be Jaco-Behn-knighted for her loyalty to the Stuarts.
Her late novella Oronooko indirectly reflects the turmoil of her times. Its oxymoronic subtitle, ‘The Royal Slave’, is a subtle reference to the nobility and deposition of James II. The protagonist, Oroonoko, is an African prince who is enslaved by an Englishman and taken to a colony in Surinam. Thus Oronooko’s name evokes the river Orinoco in South America (pictured above), given the site of his enslavement, the colonial setting of the latter half of the novella, and its association with the trade in tobacco. In the first half, Oroonoko is introduced as the grandson of the aging king of Coromantien, modern-day Ghana. Behn’s depiction of the splendour and decadence of the Coromantien court resembles Restoration England under Charles II, so it might be said that her Coromantien is less Africa than Aphra-ca (or perhaps Behn-in?).
Oroonoko is a model of nobility, a hybrid of African and European features, including skin like pure black marble (unlike the ‘rusty’ complexion of his countrymen), a Roman nose, and European learning from his French tutor. To the modern reader, he is an unsettling, exoticised figure; but for the author of Oroonoko, a true Aphra-male (nobler, stronger, faster, and also more passionate than any of his peers) whose physical abilities likely arise from much Behn-ch pressing. He is in love with the equally noble Imoinda, who has unfortunately attracted the attentions of his lecherous grandfather the king. The king makes an Imoindecent proposal to Oroonoko’s lover that she become his concubine, but Oroonoko and Imoinda manage to thwart the king’s seduction—though at the cost of her being sold into slavery. After valiantly saving the kingdom from its enemies despite his sadness over Imoinda’s fate (he’s been told she was executed), Oroonoko himself is tricked by an Englishman to whom he often sold slaves, clapped in chains, and taken to Surinam.
The enslaved Oroonoko is renamed Caesar, in recognition of his nobility (and so the ‘Royal Slave’ is presumably given a royal shave too): thus the second half of the novella is the Caesarean section of the story. His owner, Trefry, treats him differently from other slaves and becomes Caesar’s close friend; the hero regards Trefry as a Behn-ign individual. It is here that he also meets the narrator, who is supposed to be Aphra Behn herself when she (may have) lived in Surinam: thus the narrator is Behn’s Suriname-sake, though scholars have disputed how much we should regard this character as an authentic Aphra-American.
Happily, Imoinda was coincidentally taken to the same colony, and the couple is reunited. Imoinda becomes pregnant, and Caesar is determined that their future child not be born into slavery. He organises a slave rebellion, but his fellow rebels lose their nerve and surrender. Caesar tells the backsliding rebels that they are revolting. Finally, he and Imoinda are captured, but resolve on a gruesome murder-suicide pact: Caesar’s wife is Imoinda-fatigable and Imoinda-fiant in her determination that he end her life. But Caesar is too weakened by his mourning over the deceased Imoinda to kill himself; he is finally disemboweled and dismembered by the treacherous governor of the colony. The story ends, then, with a bloody Caesar in this dis-arming novella. The narrator, however, alludes to the eventual Dutch invasion of the colony, which also foreshadows the ‘Dutch invasion’ of Britain by William and Mary. Thus regardless of how effective the novella is as an anti-slavery tale (as it was for readers of both the English edition and multiple French translations), it shows Aphra Behn at her Jacobitterest.
Also on Thurs. Feb. 28, at 3:30 pm in the Wilson Common Room: the Early Modern Studies Society presents a print-making workshop. Attendees may even learn about Machiavelli’s ‘prints’.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Orinorococo Benhto Box Studies Program