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Aphra Behn – Gender Economics in the Rover
TERM PAPER Gender Economics of Restoration and Aphra Behn INTRODUCTION The Restoration era allowed women to step into what was historically an essentially masculine space, that of literary and theatrical production. As women stepped on stage, they entered a market- they were commodities displayed to attract a larger crowd towards the theatre.
Thus even though through writing or acting a woman could gain financial independence, unlike men they weren’t selling their work, they were ostensibly selling a part of themselves. A woman could not escape commodification even if she didn’t enter this particular market – matrimony and the nunnery were also means of buying and selling of women’s ‘wares’. The hymen itself was a commodity, as a woman could only marry if she was a virgin.
In fact arguably in Restoration Comedy no witty unmarried was without ‘property and a maidenhead’. Thus, arguably, a woman could not escape being a prostitute in the Restoration Period. As a woman author who thus reflected the trend of women actors entering the world of theatrical production, Aphra Behn was continually negotiating the dichotomy of economic freedom and control of women in this market-space. Thus her work would be the ideal case study to understand the gender economics of the Restoration Period.
In this context, I would like to position Aphra Behn’s works, The Rover Part I and II, The Feign’d Curtizans, The Luckey Chance, The Forced Marriage: or The Jealous Bridegroom and ‘The Golden Age” to understand the place of women in the economics of the Restoration Era and how they negotiated in the market-space they were now stepping into. WOMEN’S PROBLEMATIZED INTRODUCTION IN THE MARKET The restoration of Charles II to the throne brought a almost deliberate reversal of the previously prevalent Puritan ethic. There was a new kind of apparent sexual freedom.
He introduced the practice of actresses playing female roles. However, actresses earned far less than actors, thus had to resort to being mistresses. Also, publishing by the women was tantamount to prostitution. Typically, the Restoration comedies portrayed the lives of hedonistic young men who filled their leisure hours with drinking, whoring, theatre and “wit”. They needed money but had no inclination to actually earn it and preferred procuring it through marriage to an heiress. As in the typical Restoration comedy, men seek sex and money, the girls want a say in the choice of a marriage partner.
Thus evidently the heroine is allowed freedom of thought but her freedom of action is confined to ensuring that she is a virgin when she gets married to the man of her choice. As a successful professional playwright, Aphra Behn definitely wrote plays which are typical of the Restoration, yet she manages to comment on a topic which touched her very closely: the true status of women in the society as they begin to participate a little more actively in the constructs of gender economics. POSITIONING APHRA BEHN The prologue of The Rover, claimed to be written by “A person of quality”, states: As for the author of this coming play
I asked him what he thought fit I should say (pp 4) It was only in the third issue of the first edition in 1677 that Aphra Behn authorship. This was because she was always attacked for poaching on the territory of male playwrights. In fact, as quoted in Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra (New York: The Dial Press, 1980) Aphra Behn once famously said: The Woman damns the poet Indeed, the fact that Aphra Behn could earn a living writing for the theatre was precisely what condemned her. The muckraking satirist Robert Gould wrote ypical stander in a short piece addressed to Behn that concluded with this couplet: For Punk and poetess agree so Par, You cannot be This and not be That. Robert Gould’s verse, with its equation of ‘poetess’ and ‘punk’, provides some evidence of the culture of gender in Restoration England. In her case, however, the status of professional writer indicated immodesty: the author, like her texts, became a commodity. Thus one notices that she stages this relationship between female creativity and public realm or between what Robert Gould, in euphemisms, refers to as ‘this’ and ‘that’, in her works. THE VIRGINAL COMMODITY AND FETISH
Dowry system among propertied classes had been in place since 16th century, but by the end of the 17th century the women to men ratio was 13:10, thus cash portions had to grow to attract worthy suitors. The value of women fell by almost 50%, marriage by choice, became almost unthinkable. Thus in economic terms, women through marriage had evident exchange value; that is, the virgin became a commodity not only as breeder of the legal heir but for her portion. Women in the seventeenth-century marriage market took on the phantasmagoric destiny of commodities: they seemed no more than objects or things.
The issue arises repeatedly in plays and verse of the period: not only are marriages loveless, but, once married, women lose both independent identity and control of their fortunes. Women’s lack of access to institutions of knowledge spurred protest from writers as it reduced them to things, rather than educated individuals. Also the cultural narrative of portion, jointure, and legal dependency in which the women of this time is written about is clearly not as subject but as object of exchange.
Also, as discussed earlier, when Aphra Behn wrote her seventeen play (1670-1689), the theatrical hierarchy, like all cultural institutions, was patriarchal in control and participation. Aristocratic or upper-class males generally wrote the plays, purchased tickets, and formed the coteries of critics and ‘witlings’ whose disruptive presence is remarked on in countless play prologues and epilogues. Also, in its machinery and properties, the Restoration stage was now arguably more dreamlike, seductive, and commodity intensive. Here the idea of a fetish becomes important.
A fetish, by Freud’s description is the male impulse to eroticize objects or female body parts, which derives from a disavowal of a material lack (of the penis on the mother’s body). The second understanding of the word is through Marx’s account of the felicitation of the commodity: at the moment of exchange, the commodity appears to be separate from the workers who product it; the ‘special social character of private labours’ disavowed. This idea is relevant because on the stage, the Restoration actress, is nothing but an ornament in the male gaze.
This attitude is apparent as Thomas Shadwell links the new phenomenon of female performers with painted theatrical scenes, both innovative commodities for audience consumption: Had we not for yr pleasure found new wayes You still had rusty Arras had, and thredbare playes: Not Scenes nor Woomen had they had their will, But some with grizl’d Beards had acted Woomen still. What this actually meant in the culture’s sexual economy is perhaps more accurately suggested by meta-theatrical references in plays’ prologues and epilogues.
The actress playing Flirt in Wycheley’s The Gentleman Dancing master satirically invited the “good men o’ th’ Exchange’ from the pit into the backstage tiring-room You we would rather see between our Scenes” Thus rather than producing a performance, the actress emerges as a spectacle unto herself, a painted representation to lure the male spectator. In her professional duplicity, in her desirability, in her often public status of kept mistress, she is frequently equated with a prostitute, thus acquiring the definite status of a commodity.
APHRA BEHN’S PARTICIPATION IN COMMODIFICATION AND FETISHISATION The Rover (1677) and The Second Part of The Rover (1681) are Behn’s only plays to label a character a courtesan. In her wholly original The Feigned Curtezans (1679), virgins impersonate famous Roman courtesans and near-debauches occur, but marriages settle the confusion of plots and the financial stink of prostitution is hastily cleared away. However it is germane note that even if courtesans figure by name in only three plays, the commodification of women in the marriage market is Aphra Behn’s first and most persistent theme.
Beginning appropriately enough with The Forced Marriage: or The Jealous Bridegrom (1670), all of Behn’s seventeen known plays deal to some extent with women backed by dowries or portions who are forced by their fathers into marriage in exchange for jointure, an agreed-upon income to be settled on the wife should she be widowed. Aphra Behn concentrated on exposing the exploitation of women in the exchange economy, adding vividly to contemporary discourse on the oppressions of marriage. ‘Who would marry,’ asks Behn’s Ariadne (The Second Part of the Rover), ‘who wou’d be chaffer’d thus, and sold to Slavery? In the context of fetishization, it is easy to note the metonymic connection between the painted actress and the painted scenes in the theatre, therefore it is not surprising that the first woman to earn money circulating her own representations had a (somewhat combative) relationship with the theatre apparatus. Aphra Behn, more than any other Restoration playwright, explores the fetish/commodity status. She utilizes the conventional objects of Restoration plays – the marriage market, sexual intrigue, masquerade, flamboyance – even as she signals their contradictory meanings for women.
It is ostensibly a contradiction of all feminist expectation to discover that Aphra Behn contributed to that visual pleasure by choosing to exploit the fetish/commodity status of the actress. The stage offered two playing spaces, the forestage used especially for comedy, where actor and audience were in intimate proximity, and the upstage or scenic stage, with wing-and-shutter settings, producing the exotic effects needed for ‘discovery scenes’ of heroic tragedy.
Writing mostly comedies, Aphra Behn might be expected to follow comic convention and use the forestage area, but as Peter Holland notes, she was ‘positively obsessive’ about discovery scenes. Holland counts 31 discoveries in ten comedies, most of which are bedroom scenes featuring a female character ‘in undress’. Thus displayed, the female performer becomes a fetish object, affording the male spectator the pleasure of being seduced by and, simultaneously, of being protected from the effects of sexual difference.
Thus, in Behn’s texts, the conflict between (as she puts it) her ‘defenceless’ woman’s body and her ‘masculine part’(of being a writer), is staged in her insistence, in play after play, on the equation between female body and fetish, fetish and commodity-the body in her ‘scenes’. Like the actress, the woman dramatist is sexualized, circulated, denied a “subject position” in the theatre hierarchy. This unstable, contradictory image of authority emerges in as early as Behn’s first play’s prologue (to The Forced Marriage, or The Jealous Bridegroom, 1670).
In this, an actress who, pointing to the Ladies’ praises both them and presumably the woman author: Can any see that glorious sight and say A woman shall not prove Victor today? The ‘glorious sight’, is, once again, the fetishised representation of the female, standing on the forestage, sitting in the pit, and soon to be inscribed as author of a printed play. THE ROVER The Rover is a fascinating study in the context of this paper as it not only thematises the marketing of women in marriage and prostitution, it demonstrates (quite literally) the ideological contradictions of the apparatus Behn inherited and the society for which she wrote.
Prostitution of both genders In Angellica, Hellena, Florinda and Lucetta – Behn shows the fate and inescapable commodification of all women. However the idea is also problematized and even turned on its head. The man is also equated to a commodity in this carnival world. Angellica equates dowry to prostitution money, thus saying that a man sells his own self in the marriage market, for a woman’s “fortune”: Pray tell me, sir, are you not guilty of the same mercenary crime?
When a lady is proposed to you for a wife, you never ask, how fair-discreet-or virtuous she is; but what’s her Fortune-which, if but small, you cry-she will not do my business-and basely leave her, thou she languish for you-say, is not this as poor. (pp 38) Thus we see that Angellica’s prostitution image is cross gendered, for men are designated “mercenary” in negotiating sexual contracts between husband and wife. Indeed, Willmore himself appears prostituted in accepting five hundred crowns from Angellica, and in the subplot, Blunt’s barbarous treatment by Lucetta parallels Angellica’s by Willmore.
The Portrait of Angellica The first references to Angellica situate her beyond the market in which we expect her to function. She is not behind an exotic vizard, or ‘discovered’ in her bedchamber after the parting of the scenes, but is first seen as a portrait. She is introduced by Belvile, as: A famous courtesan, that’s to be sold’ (p. 23). For a mindful audience, this immediately raises a question, to be sold by whom? Released by the earlier keeper’s death, Angellica and Moretta are two women who seem to be in business for themselves.
At this point, however, Blunt reminds us again of the object status of the woman, as of her painted signs: I’m sure we’re no chapmen for the commodity (p. 28). On the other hand, Angellica’s self portrait has been compared to that of a Petrarchan mistress who attempts to turn her sexuality into an alternative form of power, since she has been excluded from the marital marketplace. Wilmore’s “appeal of love” attracts her and not unlike ladies in marital market, she gives up herself and her gold. If one analyzes this situation, it can be said that this was an inescapable fate.
As Angellica watches men gaze upon her portrait, she is, first and foremost, a sight, an object to be claimed. Only in Behn’s text is this phenomenon made so evident, the paintings here function as fetishes, as substitute objects for the female body. Indeed, the portrait which advertises her charms is arguably a sign of submission to the male spectator, offering up the female figure as an eroticized object which exists to serve his pleasure. Thus evidently Wilmore can reduce Angellica’s representation from an icon of authority to a pornographic image (a fetish) and claim the right “of possession, which I will maintain”.
He is responding to something very real in the portrait. The same sense of power of a transcendent male authority is also registered by Willmore’s gaze and the stealing of the potrait. In effect Angellica is then doubly commodified-first because she puts her body into exchange, and second because this body is equated with, indeed interchangeable with, the art object. Thus then the woman “that’s to be sold” is then even sold by theatre itself, which, like the portrait equates woman with an art object to be displayed and attract an audience. Like Willmore, the theatre operates with the king’s patent and authorization.
The masquerade of portraits and ‘discovery scenes’, do not demonstrate freedom, but to flaunt the charms that guarantee and uphold male power. In fact in the wooing/bargaining scene with Wilmore it becomes clear that Angellica wants to step out of the exchange economy symbolized by the painting: Canst thou believe [these yielding joys] will be entirely time, / without considering they were mercenary? (p. 39) By eliminating her value-form, Angellica attempts to return her body to a state of nature, to take herself out of circulation in the market. However, s Aphra Behn poignantly points out through her texts, Angellica will fail due to the ecomonic structure which circulates all women as marketable objects. The Virgins This brings us to the other two “leading women” in the play, both virgins and of high birth, Hellena and Florinda. Ironically, the virgins’ first costume, the gypsy masquerade, represents their actual standing in the marriage market – exotic retailers of fortunes (dowry and ‘maidenhead’). Their masquerade defers but does not alter the structure of gender economics which sold a woman’s body.
On this level, as often discussed by critics, the play presents a dramatic world dominated by the two principal patriarchal definitions of women, the whore and the virgin, but in which the boundary separating one category from the other has become blurred. First there is the elder born, Florinda. The properties which sustain Florinda’s status as an autonomous subject free to choose her own marriage partner are largely those for which the men in her family want to “protect” her; it is her beauty, rank and fortune that make her such a prized asset on the marriage market.
It is Florida’s rebellion against the commodification of forced marriage that destabilizes her position within patriarchy, for a while. However, she seeks to maintain this position as it gives her the agency to somewhat choose her husband. This is why Florinda remains inscribed within male discourse and chides her sister for being “curious in a discourse of love” despite being a maid “designed for a nun”. At the same time, she is degraded to the level of an object, a commodity, however precious, in a coercive structure of exchange.
Because her self-esteem derives entirely from her status as a lady, she is able to measure her human value only by patriarchal standards. Her near rapes show this predicament. Men (Wilmore, Blunt, her own brother) seem to be chronically incapable of accepting the Florinda’s “No” as something which means “No”. On this level, the scenes are written with Behn’s male spectators in mind and accommodate the most complacent of responses to Florinda’s predicament. Then there is Hellena.
The idea of Hellena being a female Rover is highly problematized as she is a woman and can be a Rover only in her words and not actual action. In fact all Behn attempts to do through her is minimize the difference between the status of the virgin and the whore as both Hellena and Angellica as advertise themselves in a way. According to the critic Nancy Copeland, Hellena’s self-blazon in the first scene functions like Angellica’s pictures hung out of lure buyers of her body (“Angellica advertises herself publicly; Hellena’s self advertisement… takes place within the privacy of her home”).
This difference is eroded, however, when Hellena is blazoned at the beginning of Act V. Also, We learn that Hellena’s portion derives from her uncle, the old man who kept Angellica Bianca; thus the gold Willmore receives from the courtesan has the same source as that which he will earn by marrying the virgin. It is not only through Hellena and Angellica that similarity between virgin and whore develops. For instance, both Florinda and Lucetta also advertise themselves publicly.
Florinda passes a jeweled miniature of herself (another portrait) to Belvile, who then circulates it among his companions. Lucetta, the cunning whore, parades herself provocatively before her propective new dupe: This is Stranger, I know by his gazing; if he be brisk, he’I venture to follow me; and then if I understand my Trade, he’s mine. Also at night in the garden ‘in undress’, Florinda, carrying a little box of jewels-a double metonym for dowry and maidenhead, is also clearly reducing herself to an object of exchange.
Thus while Angellica attempts to step out of the surface, material and exchange connotations of a painting, the virgins of the marriage plot are talking ‘business’ and learning the powers of deferral and unveiling. CONCLUSION A woman then, arguably, was nothing more than an object. She seemingly couldn’t escape being bought, sold, bargained for, fantasized about, fetishized and gazed at. However, contradictorily, even though her unbroken hymen (or “virgin heart”), “portion” (or “gold”) made her a valuable commodity-it made the man a commodity too as he sold himself for dowry or generally money and sex.
Yet somehow the Restoration man remained in the subject position, in both the marriage market and the world of literary and theatrical production. This is what puts a woman in a no-win situation in both the private and the public sphere and Aphra Behn brings out this very discrepancy of norms and attitudes in her texts. Her texts expose the ugly bias in the celebration of new found sexual liberty in her time. Here she shows that the gender economics of the Restoration era are complicated but they definitely squarely position the woman as a commodity.
Aphra Behn’s women may, to a limited extend, try to escape this fate she does not gloss over the fact that these women will fail to do so till the entire market is restructured. BIBLIOGRAPHY Behn, Aphra. “The Rover. ” Prakash, Asha S Kanwar & Anand. The Rover : Worldview Critical Edition. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2000. 6-108. Diamond, Elin. “Gestus and Signature in Aphra Behn’s Rover. ” (1989). JSTOR. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. Gallagher, Catherine. “Who was that Masked Woman? The Prostitute and the Playwight in the Comedies of Aphra Behn. ” Women’s Studies (1988). Pancheco, Anita. Rape and The Female Subject in Aphra Behn’s The Rover” (1998). JSTOR. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. Prakash, Anand. “Designing Women Socially and Market-Wise : Glimpses of the Restoration Strategy in The Rover. ” Prakash, Asha S Kanwar & Anand. The Rover. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2000. 162-177. Spencer, Jane, ‘The Rover and the Eighteenth Century’, Aphra Behn Studies, ed. Janet Todd, (Cambridge, 1996). Stephen, Szilagyi. “The Sexual Politics of Behn’s Rover: After Patriarchy” (1998). JSTOR. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. Naina Thirani B. A. (Hons) in English, II Year (4th Semester) 2013.