This 17th Century Text is a Must Read for Every Feminist

Aphra Behn, one of the first major woman playwrights, cleverly rewrites the masculine-dominated Restoration comedy into a drama of female empowerment in ‘The Rover,’ subjecting masculine figures to a female gaze.

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Aphra Behn’s ‘The Rover or The Banish’d Cavaliers’ is a dark comedy highlighting the status of women in the Restoration period. While comprising various important female characters from different social strata, what makes The Rover’ truly unique is the blurring of lines that differentiate them.

Critics have often remarked that in the play, ladies act like whores and whores like ladies (Pacheco). The women in the play can be categorized into two patriarchally defined roles: the ‘woman of quality’ or the prostitute. However, each of them makes decisions that destabilize their position in society—whether it is Florinda’s refusal of the arranged marriage set up by her father and brother or Angelica’s use of her beauty as power despite being a prostitute. The ways in which gender, money, and status define a woman in society, while recognizing that this definition is subjective in different cases, form the source of humor in this play. 

One would expect that as a leading female playwright of the 17th century, Aphra Behn would vividly discuss the theme of love in her writings, however her unusual handling of it is what makes the text particularly appropriate for feminist readings. She is known for her strong female characters who break through societal constraints placed on them, yet before the obligatory happy ending, characters face the daunting reality of being at the mercy of the men around them.

The characters are from different social backgrounds, classified according to the amount of sexual liberty they are allowed, which further decides the amount of sexual liberty men can take with them (Dasgupta). The play revolves around the common overarching theme of the Carnival, where everyone can let loose their inner desires and be free from societal customs. 

We first encounter the character of Florinda, a ‘woman of quality’ from a Spanish noble family who is being forced into a marriage by her father and brother. Her father wants to marry her to a rich old man called Don Vincentio, who for Florinda is simply an object of hatred and disgust. Her brother, Don Pedro, instead wants her to marry his friend Don Antonio, another nobleman, but of a more appropriate age to marry his sister. Though Pedro is ‘providing his sister a better choice’ he still fails to consider her own opinion on the subject of her own marriage. Florinda, on the other hand, has fallen in love at first sight with an Englishman by the name of Belville, who saved her at the siege of Pamplona. 

The second major character is the younger sister in the family Hellena, who is being forced to be a nun, a common tactic used by families to avoid giving dowry. Hellena is lively, strong, witty, and brave and has no plans to go through with whatever her family has ‘designed’ for her future. She is vocal about her interest and curiosity for sexual activities, since a ‘woman of her birth’ is not allowed to even think of such things, more so since she has to be a nun. Along with two major women from noble birth, we have two harlots- Angellica, a famous courtesan known for her beauty and wits and Lucetta, not famous, but no less witty and smart. 

The major feminist themes in the text are those of sexuality, marriage, virginity, rape, and autonomy – or rather, the lack of the latter. Rebellion against forced marriage is, of course, an age-old comical theme; but the terms in which Florinda articulates her defiance of paternal authority – her condemnation of the ‘ill customs’ which make a woman the ‘slave’ of her male relations – presents this comic motif as a clash between the absolutist concept of marriage, in which women function as ‘objects of exchange and the guarantee of dynastic continuity,’ and the liberal concept, which invests them with the autonomous subject’s right to choose. The commodification of women under the guise of marriage was a prevailing consensus of the times. Whether granted authority as a ‘joint governor’ of the household, where she remained subject to her husband, or dignified by her position at the center of the family, she was still confined to that domestic space (Pacheco). The liberal concept of marriage, in this sense, merely granted women the ‘chance’ of becoming a subject.

Another central theme in The Rover is that of rape. While Medieval Rape Laws judged the act as a crime against male-owned property, Early Modern Laws viewed it as a crime against a woman against her will. It’s important to note that these laws were barely effective, especially for cases involving women of lower birth, profession, and prostitutes, as they were not treated as serious crimes. In the cases of prostitutes, giving up ‘living as modest women and freely engaging in sexual activities just for petty money’ seemed to provide a freeway for men to have their way with them.”

The text starts with Florinda seeking independence in decision making, breaking free from patriarchal customs, and defining her ‘individuality’. She highlights her value, with high noble birth, beauty and ‘soul’, and her defiance to being reduced to a mere object for exchange, but ironically these are the same values that make her so sought after in the marriage market. No matter what Florinda says, she is still left inscribed within the male discourse. 

Further in the story, Belville, her lover, will fight for her ‘hand’ against Antonio, the prospective marriage candidate her brother has chosen for her. Despite Florinda’s efforts at self-conception, she still measures her value according to patriarchal values. She even indulges in sexual policing with her sister Hellena, who is highly curious about erotic acts, deeming them unfit thoughts for a woman destined to a nunnery. Florinda contradicts her own sexual impulses towards Belville by framing their feelings within a narrative of chivalric courtesy and nobility. Unlike her ‘chaste and reserved’ sister, Hellena is more indulgent in sexual thoughts.

Under the theme of the Carnival, the sisters along with their cousin Valeria, mask themselves and escape into the streets of Naples. There, they encounter Belville and his companions, including Willmore, a wandering Rover, after whom the text is named. Hellena falls in love at first sight with Willmore, who is open to their flirtatious exchange, but seems to have no thoughts of ever settling down. The reader is also met with the scheming wench Lucetta, who has planned to rob the wealthy Englishman Ned Blunt. The other harlot in the text is the famous Angellica who traps both Antonio and Willmore with her beauty but ends up falling in love with Willmore. 

Amid a series of misconceptions, stolen identities (and clothes), and chaotic running around, the characters can’t seem to catch a break. Florinda faces three attempted rapes that are called not rape, but seduction, retaliation, or “ruffling a harlot”; in presuming to make her own sexual choices, she enters a world where the word “rape” has no meaning (Pacheco). As the play progresses, the thin divide of rhetoric which made the virgins different from the whores is ruptured with the attempted rapes on Florinda. Just as the ladies are brought closer to the situation of the whores, the whores too are off cue, and are seen making attempts to transcend the strictly commercial nature of their sexual dealings.

Angellica’s naivety towards Willmore’s appeal to her feelings leads her to believe that this offer will allow her to transition from ‘mistress’ to ‘beloved’ (Dasgupta). Meanwhile, Hellena finds herself disguising as various characters—a gypsy girl, a pageboy for a mysterious noblewoman—in order to entice Willmore and capture his interest. A noblewoman resorting to cross-dressing just to catch the attention of a foreign wanderer is an idea of great disapproval amongst aristocratic spaces. Yet Aphra Behn seems to get away with such extreme acts through her writings. 

Feminist readings have no one single authoritative subject since feminism itself keeps evolving according to the gender relations of a given society, the implicit assumption being that the gender politics within a text is aligned to that of the culture which has produced it. The basic aim of all feminist positions is to identify and challenge exploitative masculinist assumptions behind patriarchy, which undermine the position of women. The Rover reflects the unconventionality of Aphra Behn’s writings, especially since Restoration society was not a space that tolerated deviations easily. Her openness about sexuality and the way her female characters unabashedly embrace it, differed from the ‘sexual intrigue’ present in Restoration comedies, which were mostly initiated by men. 

The theme of the ‘Carnival’ allows the play to subvert patriarchy, as meanings and roles are reversed, and signs become estranged from their regular signification, albeit only for the duration of the carnival. Behn’s conventional way of ending the play may render the feminist angle and implications feeble (Dasgupta). Yet, Aphra Behn remains relevant and is discussed because of the resonance her works found in the feminism of the 1980s and 1990s. During this era, women were challenging the institutions of marriage, virginity, and the patriarchal notions surrounding their origins. Aphra Behn, especially ‘The Rover,’ became particularly apt. ‘The Rover’ cleverly rewrites the masculine-dominated Restoration comedy into a drama of female empowerment that subjects masculine figures to a female gaze. This female gaze, authored by one of the first major woman playwrights, extends the range and possibilities of drama.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Pacheco, Anita. “Rape and the Female Subject in Aphra Behn’s ‘The Rover.” ELH, vol. 65, no. 2, 1998, pp. 323–45. JSTOR.
  2. Dasgupta, Anannya. “‘Whether She Be of Quality or for Your Diversion’: The Harlots and Ladies in The Rover.” The Rover, Worldview Publishers, 2018. 

Mouli Joshi

Mouli is a third year English literature major at Delhi University.

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(1) In junior school, they would give us ‘holiday homework’ for the summer, so that the iced lollies and sliced

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