Violetta Trofimova                                                                                                                                                                     # 8

           Liberated Women in Aphra Behn’s and Jane Barker’s Prose Fiction

  Abstract: The present paper discusses female characters in Aphra Behn’s (1640 – 1689) and Jane Barker’s (1652 – 1732) prose fiction. Both of them share the position of a professional woman writer in Early Modern England. Emphasis is made not on Behn’s or Barker’s ideas of women’s education, but on the heroines who aimed at self-realization in life despite the barriers set by patriarchal order.

Both Behn and Barker showed by their strong and independent women characters like Arabella, Philadelphia and Mrs. Goodwife, that even in patriarchal society a woman can manage her life, not falling victim to parents’ authority or male lust. They also used their own experience to create heroines with visible autobiographical features – fictive Aphra Behn in Oroonoko and Galesia in Bosvil and Galesia, Patchwork screen and Lining of Patchwork screen.

 Key words: Aphra Behn, Jane Barker, women’s literature, Restoration, liberty.

Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689) and Jane Barker (1652 – 1732) share the position of a professional woman writer in Early Modern England. Aphra Behn’s career of a professional playwright, poet, novelist and translator lasted for almost twenty years, from 1670 to 1689, while Barker’s publication history, starting as early as in 1688, enhanced the most intense period in the 1710’s and 1720’s, when her novellas came out. Both Behn and Barker had unique experience in dealing with the patrons and publishers and selling their works to the literary market of their times. Their activities on the literary market concerned fiction above all.

Aphra Behn turned to fiction by the end of her life, some of her prose writings being published posthumously. Jane Barker had her first original prose work published in 1713, when she was around sixty. Behn’s and Barker’s experience as independent women, political activists and women writers gave them invaluable material for their fiction. They did use this material, but not all their works were autobiographical. I am going to start with their apparently non-autobiographical novellas, where we can meet strong and independent female characters.

Of all women in Behn’s fiction I am going to concentrate on those, who are capable of decisive actions, think for themselves, but at the same time conform to the moral standards of seventeenth-century society. These female characters are those of Arabella-Peregrina in “The Wandering Beauty” and Philadelphia in “The Unfortunate Happy Lady.” I cannot agree with Germaine Greer’s hypothesis that these novellas were forgeries and were not written by Behn, moreover, there is not much evidence of such forgery (O’Donnell… 2000: 281). Depriving Aphra Behn of such vivid and original characters seems unfair. Although, we cannot say such heroines are typical for Behn’s writings, as most of them are either victims of men and patriarchal order on the whole, or vicious criminals exercising their evil inclinations. Nevertheless, even in Behn’s plays where female characters are generally more traditional than in her novels and novellas, there are examples of strong and decisive women such as Helena in The Rover and Widow Ranter in the play of the same name. As a translator Aphra Behn also paid special attention to female characters in the originals: she praised the virtuous and stoic heroine in the French anonymous novella Agnes de Castro, analyzed the character of the Marquise in Fontenelle’s Discovery of New Worlds and completely amended and rewrote the character of Iris in Bonnecorse’s Lover’s Watch. In the character of Iris Behn showed her opposition to hypocrisy and foppery, advocated artlessness and naturalness both in the way of life and in literary style. Her Iris is a woman of letters of a considerable reputation. In accordance with other “feminists” of her time, Aphra Behn wanted women to give up caring about dresses and make-up and to study sciences and other useful things. It was for this purpose that she translated Fontenelle’s book popularizing Copernican system for people who did not know Latin and did not have deep knowledge of Physics. In seventeenth-century England those were women who generally lacked classical education. It seems that Aphra Behn herself knew Latin and Greek to some degree, as we can see from her translation of Fontenelle’s History of Oracles, in which she includes the Latin and Greek quotations out the other work on this subject in Latin, but, nevertheless, she felt she did not have enough competence in scientific matters. In the present paper I am going to concentrate not on Behn’s ideas of women’s education, but on the heroines who aimed at self-realization in life despite the barriers set by patriarchal order. The learned heroines in her novellas and narratives, such as Belvidera in “Dumb Virgin,” often lack the energy and resoluteness of those less gifted for sciences, but better prepared for life.

“The Wandering Beauty” in its structure and pace reminds of the Spanish novellas, for instance, those by Cervantes. But the problem which Arabella faced with was quite acute in Restoration period, that is, forced marriage. At the very beginning of the novella the narrator claims: “I was not above Twelve Years old, as near as I can remember, when a Lady of my Acquaintance, who was particularly concerned in many of the passages, very pleasantly Entertained me with the Relation of the Young Lady Arabella’s Adventures…” (Behn 2009: 181). If we take Behn’s most probable year of birth – 1640 – as a starting point, it makes 1652 the date when the story was told, and the events took place even earlier. Though the general tranquility of the novella does not support the idea that its events happened during English Revolution and Republic, the main female character, Arabella, has much in common with those active English women, who participated in political and religious debates in the middle of the XVII’th century, for example, political activists Katherine Chidley and Mary Cary, authors of numerous pamphlets and treatises, both of them creating a new concept of women’s involvement in English politics. They supported the removal of the king, and Cary even advocated regicide (Mendelson… 1998: 409-410). Arabella rebels in private, not public sphere: she rejects the old man, who is to be her future husband, and finally runs away from home. She is not afraid of transgressing social barriers, when she willingly undergoes a transformation from a gentlewoman into a servant. Arabella’s master Sir Christian Kindly and her lover Sir Lucius Lovewell both support the idea that woman’s personal qualities are much more important than her social position. “Thou art infinitely superior to him in all the Natural Embellishments both of Body and Mind,” says Sir Christian, comparing Arabella to Mr Prayfast, a comical priest, who gave up the idea of marrying the girl because of her “low” birth (Behn 2009: 185). Both Kindly and Lovewell oppose common prejudices and, as Svetlana Vatchenko put it rightly, advocate the idea of egalitarian nature of love (Vatchenko 1984: 83). Mutual love and affection overthrow social barriers: Sir Lucius marries Arabella as a “poor” girl, being unaware of her real family and ancestors.

Carol Lindquist and Mary Ann O’Donnell justly pointed out the elements of Cinderella story in “The Wandering Beauty” (O’Donnell… 2000: 103). Nevertheless, Behn’s Cinderella is not just a beautiful hardworking girl receiving Prince Charming as a reward for all her troubles and sufferings. Surely, she is kind and helpful: for example, she cures the eyes of the baby-girl in the house of her future masters. But Arabella is also a manipulative woman, who acts at the end of the story as a director of a play: she organizes the meeting of her husband with her parents and through this her own recognition as their daughter. Her happy marriage is in her eyes not a just reward for her sufferings, but an unusually happy present for a rebellious daughter. “Was ever Disobedience so rewarded with such a Husband!” exclaims Arabella (Behn 2009: 187). Aphra Behn does not judge her heroine, and she does not show her act was damaging for her as well.

G.A. Starr thinks that Behn’s “Wandering Beauty” “owes its charm precisely to our sense of its unreality” (Starr 1990: 370). Certainly there is a good deal of a fairy tale in this novella, but there is also an Englishwoman, independent and inventive, not afraid of travelling alone and believing in the innate goodness of human nature – a predecessor of real-life woman traveller Celia Fiennes, who published her guidebook at the very beginning of the eighteenth century. Celia Fiennes travelled alone on horse around England for almost thirty years, left her interesting impressions of different places in her travel writings, and recommended to other women to study things what improve the mind (Mendelson… 1998: 169). It is remarkable that Behn’s heroine shares common characteristics with women levellers and dissenters, while the author herself was a devoted royalist. Despite her own thoughts, Aphra Behn was open to the opinions of others: her closest friend John Hoyle was a republican, and, if we judge from her novel Oroonoko, she had some kind of admiration for Oliver Cromwell.

Another Behn’s female character who does not become a fallen woman while managing her life by her own hands is Philadelphia in “The Unfortunate Happy Lady.” In my opinion, this novella – or narrative – is one of Behn’s best pieces of short fiction, with a well-structured plot, a vivid main character, numerous topographical, cultural and political realities and a happy-end. Philadelphia starts her “career” as an orphan betrayed by her brother, but achieves the status of a rich widow free to choose the man she likes for her future husband.

It is incorrect to see Philadelphia utterly helpless and passive at the very beginning of the story. She is a practical and reasonable young lady, who does not want her father’s estate to be completely wasted by her brother, so, she asks him to pay her portion. The money she has a right to becomes a very important aspect of her self-identification as an independent and wealthy gentlewoman. Nevertheless, she cannot get this money from her brother, who eventually loses all their estate.

Jacqueline Pearson paid attention to the paradoxes of power and powerlessness in “The Unfortunate Happy Lady” (Pearson 1991: 179-180). These categories remain unstable throughout the novella. A victim of patriarchal society and strict notions of reputation at the beginning of the novella, by the end of the story Philadelphia gains the power of manipulating the lives of the men around her, including her lover and her villain brother. It is money that helps her exercise her power.

Money is everywhere in this novella, from the very beginning to the end. The most original episode where money is concerned is that of Gracelove’s proposal to Philadelphia and her wish to postpone their marriage by the time she gets her portion, “without which, she told him, she could not consent to marry him, who had so plentiful a fortune, and she nothing but her person and innocence” (Behn 2009: 23). This is an extraordinary vision of financial barriers between lovers by a woman. If it had been a man who expressed such ideas of Gracelove’s and Philadelphia’s financial inequality, it would have been just a characteristic feature of seventeenth-century mentality. We have already met such example in “The Wandering Beauty,” when Prayfast gave up his plans of proposing to Arabella. But when a woman character perceives her inequality with her lover, whom she considers superior to her, as a problem, it is a testimony of something completely different. It means that this woman aims at power and independence, and she does not want to be just a servant to her husband. Philadelphia wants partnership based on husband’s and wife’s equality. She is not a Cinderella dreaming of her Prince Charming – she is an almost modern woman, who wants to have her own means of support. When G.A. Starr says that the subtitle of “The Unfortunate Happy Lady” should be “Patriarchy Supplanted,” this reference is probably best applied to this change in female mentality (Starr 1990: 370). But I must admit Philadelphia is the only female character in Behn’s fiction with such a way of thinking.

As for Philadelphia’s behavior in the second part of the novel, there has been much misunderstanding of her reasons to assist her villain brother. On the one hand, her actions fit into the concept of magnanimity as found in La Rochefoucaud’s Maxims, admired and translated into English by Aphra Behn, such as “magnanimity despises all to gain all” (maxim 195 in Behn’s translation), “magnanimity is defined by its name, and one may say ‘tis the best sense of Pride, and the most noble way of gaining Praises” (maxim 228 in Behn’s translation) (Behn 1993: 39, 44). On the other hand, Philadelphia’s behavior is that of a true Christian, who aims at reformation of the worst sinners.

As well as in “The Wandering Beauty,” there is a good deal of theatricality at the end of “The Unfortunate Happy Lady.” Philadelphia “directs” the play and performs as a leading actress. Her choice of Gracelove as her husband as well as her forgiveness of her brother is made in public. Behn uses a folklore motif of a ring: Philadelphia sends it in the glass to her lover. The spectators are not disappointed at her performance.

Both “Wandering Beauty” and “Unfortunate Happy Lady” witness Behn’s experience as a professional playwright. Arabella and Philadelphia not only want to control the situation, they also direct the denouements of their stories. Both novellas are optimistic about the notion of human nature: as Philadelphia says to Gracelove, when he understood his error, “I love you dearly now, because I see you are going to be good again; that is, you are going to be yourself again” (Behn 2009: 22). Aphra Behn seems to believe in original goodness of people. The heroes of “The Wandering Beauty” and “The Unfortunate Happy Lady” value personal innate qualities more than social position. These two Behn’s novellas may be called “pro feminist utopias.” But despite the strong and resourceful women characters, “Unfortunate Happy Lady” and “Wandering Beauty” anticipate traditional, non-feminist novels not only with their focus on individual fate, but also with their motif of “returning home” and their endings with happy marriages. The novellas of Jane Barker, Behn’s successor and disciple in novella-writing, are often much more feminist in their harsh criticism of marriage and family relationships.

Jane Barker did not attempt to rewrite Aphra Behn’s “Unfortunate Happy Lady,” but she presented her own version of “The Wandering Beauty.” She keeps the key aspects of the story unchanged: the motif of travelling, changing of a name and getting a place of a servant at a rich house. But the reasons why the girl left home are quite different from Arabella’s. Arabella rebelled against forced marriage to an old man she disgusted. Barker’s young lady is only a capricious girl who feels bored in the country and wants to enjoy all the entertainments of London. Her opposition to marrying a “country bred,” still young widower seems much more artificial in comparison to Arabella’s dilemma. Barker makes her “young lady” join the gypsies – the “others,” very different from English people. She also includes the story of another pseudo-gypsy, Tangerine, unfortunate both in his family life and his military service. Barker’s “lady gypsy” is not a director of her own recognition – it happens accidentally. The son of the Lady whom the girl works for happens to be the one designed for her as her future husband – another one, not that widowed “country bred gentleman.” This novella, as well as “The Wandering Beauty,” ends up with a happy marriage.

W.H. McBurney pointed out that “the histories of ‘The Lady Gypsie’ and of the ‘Gentleman Gypsie’ have elements of the Spanish picaresque tradition” (McBurney 1958: 396). It might be true, but the conclusion that is made after telling the story refers to another Spanish literary work – Don Quixote by Cervantes. McBurney also paid attention to Barker’s acquaintance with Cervantes’ works (McBurney 1958: 396). Barker is very critical on women’s infatuation with unreal adventures and perfect heroes they find in fiction. She proposed it as the reason for “lady gypsy’s” behavior: “Surely she had been reading some ridiculous Romance, or Novel, that inspired her with such a vile undertaking” (Barker 2006: 92). Barker expands on this topic in her next novella “The History of Dorinda,” much praised by the critics (McBurney 1958: 394; Schofield 1990: 67). M.A. Schofield calls Dorinda “one of Barker’s most vocal, rational heroines” (Schofield 1990: 67). “The History of Dorinda” is a bitter story of a woman who tried to model her life on the patterns of romances. The Lining of a Patchwork Screen has a lot of such stories, exploring, as Schofield put it, “the real fate of the seduced and harassed woman. Taken together, the women present a cavalcade of exploitation and disruption” (Schofield 1990: 78). Despite the general gloom of Barker’s novellas composing The Lining of a Patchwork Screen, there are a few of them showing sound optimism and proposing extraordinary models of woman’s behavior in dramatic situations. The most interesting if them is a very short – unfortunately for the readers – novella “The Story of Mrs. Goodwife.” McBurney calls it “a well-sketched vignette of an impoverished but worthy Irish couple in London” (McBurney 1958: 394). Barker relates the story of an English gentlewoman from Ireland, married with two children, reduced to utmost poverty during the Glorious Revolution. After receiving a “half-crown piece” from “a good Baker’s wife” this woman decides to start her own business “for a Livelihood.” She succeeds first in selling boiled wheat, then in buying and selling second-hand clothes, and finally in running a shop, where her son is a “Book-keeper.” Mrs. Goodwife honestly describes her problems in crossing the boundaries between the lifestyle of a gentlewoman and an entrepreneur: “I had confusion to knock at Doors and ask if they wanted a Bowl of Wheat; and what was an additional Mortification, when I took off my Gloves to deliver my Merchandize, my Hands discover’d that I was not brought to such Business” (Barker 2006: 65). But she goes on, establishing contacts with the female servants (cook maid, housemaid, chamber-maid) and expanding her business.

Barker presents a very interesting and unusual model of a family in this novella, reminding of modern families in Scandinavian countries. The wife here is apparently the head of the family, making money for living, while the husband sits at home, looking after their children. Nothing is said about their servants or nurses – apparently they cannot afford them. Barker does not show the point of view of Mrs. Goodwife’s husband – we can only wonder how he bore this situation. All in all, this novella finishes with an optimistic proverb “Something doing, something coming.”

The story of Mrs. Goodwife is a kind of an answer to narrator’s rhetorical question, if there are any moral virtues left in the world, if any examples of piety, mercy and kindness can still be found in the early eighteenth-century England. The character of Mrs. Goodwife reminds of women entrepreneurs living in the middle of the seventeenth century, for example, the abovementioned Katherine Chidley, who supplied textiles to Cromwell’s army. Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford wrote a lot about businesswomen in seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (Mendelson… 1998: 327-336). By the end of the seventeenth century women sometimes combined paid work with child-bearing and child-rearing, being engaged in various crafts and trades, ranging from carpenting to weaving. As for the early eighteenth century, Barker’s novella reflects women’s involvement in trade, especially, retail trades and second-hand clothing business.

The majority of Barker’s women do not possess Mrs. Goodwife’s entrepreneurial skills. But the author found another opportunity for women to succeed in life. As M.L. Williamson points out, “for Barker the celibate life of single blessedness was a realistic alternative for women” (Williamson 1990: 105). Barker creates Galesia, an independent single woman of an excellent reputation and exemplary chaste life. Galesia is not a boring and hypocritical old maid. She is capable of love and passion.

We first meet Galesia in Jane Barker’s first published novel Love’s Intrigues; or The History of the Amours of Bosvil and Galesia (1713). The novel itself is very different from other pieces of fiction of that time. There are no exceptional adventures here, no seducers, and no violence. It is a subtle psychological drama of a virtuous young girl, caught up in a dead circle of customs and notions of honour, too reserved and restrained. It is also a novel about concealed passion, perpetual misunderstanding between the lovers, and jealousy. Galesia is fond of poetry and medicine; she finds consolation in writing verses and studying sciences. The heroine bitterly admits that “Learning being neither of Use nor Ornament to our Sex… many count a studious woman as ridiculous as an effeminate Man, and learned books as Unfit for our Apartment, as Paint, Washes and Patches for his” (Barker 2004a): 25). Nevertheless, studying becomes a very important part of Galesia’s life and brings her a position of a semi-professional doctor. Barker herself was a practicing herbalist; she learned anatomy and the use of herbs from her brother, and was extremely serious about her own medical practice. In Galesia’s character she creates one of the first women physicians in English fiction. By the way, we have already met some herbalists in Aphra Behn’s novellas, even her Arabella practiced medicine. As for Galesia, we witness her career as a doctor in A Patchwork Screen: “Several people came to me for Advice in divers sorts of Maladies, and having tolerable good Luck, I began to be pretty much known… I was got to such a Pitch of helping the Sick, that I wrote my Bills in Latin, with the same manner of Cyphers and Directions as Doctors do; which Bills and Recipes the Apothecaries fil’d amongst those of the Doctors” (Barker 2004b) : 52-53). Galesia is explicitly proud of her achievements in medicine.

Another Galesia’s employment is poetry. It is in Patchwork Screen where Barker with the help of her persona Galesia writes herself into the tradition of women’s literature in England. She explains how she came to writing poetry: “I began to emulate [Mrs. Phillips’ – V.T.] wit, and aspired to imitate her Writings… Her Poetry I found so interwoven with Vertue and Honour, that each line was like a Ladder to climb, not only to Parnassus, but to Heaven: which I… had the Boldness to try to imitate ‘till I was dropp’d into a Labyrinth of Poetry, which has ever since interlac’d all the Actions of my Life” (Barker 2004a): 22). Some modern scholars, for example, Marilyn Williamson, follow the thread given by Barker and speak about her as a creator and a part of “Orinda tradition” (Williamson 1990: 103). Nevertheless, her indebtness to Aphra Behn in prose fiction was as great as to Katherine Philips in poetry, as I have already shown while discussing her rewriting of Behn’s “Wandering Beauty,” though she tended not to admit it explicitly. Moreover, Aphra Behn considered herself a kind of Orinda’s disciple too: she had a great admiration for Katherine Philips’ poetry.

Actually, Jane Barker follows Aphra Behn in depicting her own experience of a woman writer in her fiction. One of Behn’s best women characters is the author-narrator in Oroonoko, a tolerant and educated Englishwoman interested in other cultures, among them African and South American Indian, but unable to save her African friend Oroonoko. Barker’s Galesia is portrayed not in the exotic environment of Surinam, but in London, leading her everyday life. We also see Barker’s heroine travelling alone, communicating with people of different social status, and dreaming of Orinda’s coronation as the queen of all female writers. This focus on woman’s everyday activities is probably Barker’s greatest achievement in prose fiction.

Both Behn and Barker showed by their strong and independent women characters like Arabella, Philadelphia and Mrs. Goodwife, that even in patriarchal society a woman can manage her life, not falling victim to parents’ authority or male lust. They also used their own experience to create heroines with visible autobiographical features – fictive Aphra Behn in Oroonoko and Galesia in Bosvil and Galesia, Patchwork screen and Lining of Patchwork screen. But the reception of Behn’s and Barker’s works in eighteenth-century England was quite different. Behn’s Histories and Novels were among the most popular books in England in the first four decades of the eighteenth century. According to Louis Gondebeaud’s research in the catalogues of private libraries, in 1700-1719 Behn’s Novels were as popular as Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and in 1720-1739 her books were even more widely read and appeared among the ten most frequently held items in English private libraries (Gondebeaud 1979: 230-232, 246-247). Behn’s readers included not only women, but men too - representatives of liberal professions and priests. Some of her works were turned into plays. As for Jane Barker’s novellas, they do not appear in Gondebeaud’s list at all. Barker herself addressed her books mainly to women, and her gender separatism apparently affected her popularity, which was incomparably lower than Aphra Behn’s. While Behn’s novels and novellas influenced such eighteenth-century writers, as Defoe, Fielding and Richardson, her “Wandering Beauty” being considered a predecessor of Pamela, Jane Barker had a limited reading audience. On the other hand, it was Barker who proposed, “an alternate pattern for the novel, with the creation of an unmarried heroine who achieved her identity through study, the practice of medicine, and writing” (Schofield 1990: 77). Barker’s unhappy wives and mothers, women fancying themselves the heroines of romances, servants and maids ending up in prostitution will find their ways not only to the later eighteenth-century, but also to nineteenth-century realistic novels.



Barker 2004a): Barker, Jane. Bosvil and Galesia. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Barker1 2004b): Barker, Jane. A Patch Work Screen. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Barker 2006: Barker, Jane. The Lining of the Patchwork Screen: Easyread Comfort Edition. Sydney:, 2006.

Behn 1993: Behn, Aphra. The Works of Aphra Behn. Seneca Unmasqued and Other Prose Translations. Ed. Janet Todd. Vol.4. London: Picketing and Chatto, 1993.

Behn 2009: Behn, Aphra. The Works of Aphra Behn. Ed. M. Summers. Vol.5. [book-on-line]. London: A.H. Bullen,1915, electronic version 2009, accessed 20 December 2010; available from; Internet.

Gondebeaud 1979: Gondebeaud, Louis. Le Roman “Picaresque” Anglais 1650-1730. Lille, Paris: Atelier Reproduction des theses, Universite de Lille III, 1979.

McBurney 1958: McBurney, William H.. Edmund Curll, Mrs. Jane Barker, and the English Novel. Philological Quarterly. Vol. 37, n. 4, Oct. 1958.

Mendelson… 1998: Mendelson, Sara, Crawford, Patricia. Women in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

O’Donnell… 2000: O’Donnell, Mary Ann, Dhuicq, Bernard, Leduc, Guyonne (Editors). Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689): Identity, Alterity, Ambiguity. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000.

Pearson 1991: Pearson, Jacqueline. Gender and Narrative in the Fiction of Aphra Behn, part II. Review of English Studies, Vol.42, N 166, 1991.

Schofield 1990: Schofield, Mary Anne. Masking and Unmasking the Female Mind: Disguising Romances in Feminine Fiction 1713-1799. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990.

Starr 1990: Starr G.A. Aphra Behn and the Genealogy of the Man of Feeling. Modern Philology. Vol. 87, Number 4, May 1990.

Vatchenko 1984: Vatchenko S.A. U istokov angliiskogo antikolonialistskogo romana (tvorcheskije poiski Aphri Behn v romanicheskoj proze). Kiev: Naukova dumka, 1984.

Williamson 1990: Williamson, Marilyn L. Raising Their Voices: British Women Writers, 1650-1750. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.



Volume 5, Issue 1


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature