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By River, Needle, Axe, and Sword: Aphra Behn’s Mariticides

By Lillian Frances Simons

There are scarcely more important questions for an Early Modern woman than how best to kill her lover. At a minimum, this is the impression one gets from reading certain texts by Aphra Behn. The method one employs may be terribly consequential, having resulted in the death of Isabella in “The History of the Nun” and the—admittedly temporary—shame of Miranda in “The Fair Jilt,” and so should not be undertaken without care. Thankfully, these two texts provide a wealth of insights into what violent methods work best. The indirect and direct expressions of violence by women in these stories represent a range of positions in relation to the state, marriage, and religion. They also take on variable social meanings, whether being sanctioned, forgiven, or condemned. The instances in which women put men’s lives at risk in “The Fair Jilt” and “The History of the Nun,” at times subtle and at times bafflingly overt, draw these social and institutional factors into a commentary on women’s violence. Women’s sadistic aggression is depicted by Behn as promoted both institutionally and by public opinion, whether the two intend to condone or condemn it.

In “The Fair Jilt” and “The History of the Nun,” women survive through two highly gendered institutions, one female and one male: nunneries and militaries. Behn is inclined to send women to the cloister, and she is equally disposed to send their lovers to the front. Isabella’s first significant suitor, Villenoys, is a soldier “going to the siege of Candia […] but, overtaken by his fate, surprised in his way to glory” (145). Villenoys falls deathly ill due to his unrequited love for the thirteen-year-old Isabella, and to not be blamed for his death, she is forced to decide for the first time how to risk the life of a suitor. Isabella urges Villenoys to pursue his intended life as a soldier so that “she might see he […] deserved this esteem she had for him” (147). Upon eventually hearing Isabella had become a nun, Villenoys took her advice and “departed immediately” to the siege of Candia (148). The two enter gendered institutions—the soldiery and nunnery—together as parallels of each other. In “The Fair Jilt,” these two institutions constitute the limits of the narrative, which begins with Miranda in the nunnery and ends with Tarquin in the army. The story begins with Miranda as part of a convent of “galloping nuns,” a position bound by temporary vows “taken up by the best persons of the town, young maids of fortune” (78). It comes to a close with her lover Tarquin “put[ting] himself into the French army, where he did wonders” (119). By doing so, he acquires an estate to support Miranda which allows for her moral reform and acquisition of “as perfect a state of happiness as this troublesome world can afford” (119). In both cases, Miranda and Isabella’s well-beings are staked on men’s entrance into combat, and the two concern themselves with these military commitments as much as with their religious vows. Miranda lives first by the nunnery and last by the military; Isabella, in the end, is left with neither and ceases to live at all.

Though Miranda only comes into contact with war through Tarquin’s enlistment at the end of her narrative, Isabella exposes multiple people to the risks of a soldier’s life. When Henault, the husband for whom she abandoned the convent, suggests he become a soldier, the prospect “possessed her with so entire a grief that she miscarried,” obliging him to “promise not to go” (173). However, having “weighed the advantages,” she eventually “suffered him to resolve upon going” (173). That she “suffered him” to do so is a very odd statement because, at this point, Henault has not resolved to go and does not do so until some time after she promises not to enter a nunnery again. Consequently, it is really Isabella who makes the stated resolution, despite the grief which her miscarriage evidences. There are two oddities in this situation which must be worked through: Isabella’s ambivalent mixture of grief with economic calculation, and her framing of an active resolution as a passive imposition.

Freud comments on this topic in his Reflections on War and Death, wherein he claims that “we owe the fairest flowerings of our love to the reaction against the hostile impulse which we sense within us” (299). For Freud, the human willingness to be “heedless of the prohibition against murder” for personal benefit is so disturbing when applied to a loved one that the counter-effect can produce “the symptom of an exaggerated worry” (298). This reaction does not replace the original willingness to kill but rather renders one “divided (that is, ambivalent) towards those we love” (299). This assessment applies cuttingly to Isabella. It would not be well founded to dismiss her grief as superficial. In fact, Isabella mourns extravagantly: she “almost fainted in [Henault’s] arms while he was speaking” of his plans, she miscarried out of grief, she took “a month’s time” to permit him to go, and she grieved so intensely for his apparent death that she “lived without the light of day” (Behn 173, 175). However, after already sending one suitor to war and subtly re-opening the possibility of doing so again in this case, Isabella seems willing enough to benefit from a lover’s death, just as Freud asserts the average person would be.

It is worth contrasting this case of Isabella’s grief with her earlier instance of grieving. In her essay, “Reworking Male Models,” which plots the progression of the “‘once fallen, forever fallen'” theme in “The History of the Nun,” Catherine A. Craft notes that an early sign of Isabella’s moral degradation is that she “fails to offer sufficient heartfelt mourning for her father’s death” (822, 823). Comparable to the case of Henault, whose potential death opens the possibility for “honour and fortune”, Isabella’s “father’s death had removed one obstacle and secured her from his reproaches” (Behn 173, 167). The display of Isabella’s willingness to “suffer” the death of a loved one for personal benefit is the common factor. In Henault’s case, it is more explicit—it is never specifically said that the convenience of her father’s death is what quenches her grief, whereas this is openly the case in Isabella’s reconsideration of Henault’s prospects. Paradoxically, Henault is also the loved one who is more intensely grieved. It may be more accurate, then, to say that Isabella’s overtness in being willing to benefit from death indexes her “fall” better than insufficient grieving. In fact, this overtness is positively correlated with her grieving becoming more intense.

Turning back to the two oddities, there remains the question of how Isabella renders passive her resolution that Henault will enter the army. It is noteworthy that Isabella is described as having “suffered him to resolve” to go to war, a wording which projects onto herself the pains of war that she imagines he will suffer. Such a process coincides very neatly with Freud’s analysis in “Instincts and their Vicissitudes,” wherein he describes the “turning round of an instinct upon the subject’s own self” in the case of masochism (124). Beginning with the urge to impose violence on another person, as sending Henault to war inevitably entails, masochism arises by substituting the object at risk of harm with one’s self. This inversion effectuates “the change from an active to a passive instinctual aim” (127). In her passive positioning of herself relative to the harm of her own proposition, Isabella neatly fits this description.

Isabella’s masochistic tendencies are well established before this point in her habits as a nun. After becoming attracted to Henault, “in cold winter nights of frost and snow she would be up at all hours and lying upon the cold stones before the altar prostrate at prayers” (Behn 150). Her actions are so extreme that the abbess unsuccessfully attempts to order her to stop—she goes beyond the already severe austerity expected of a nun. It is later revealed that during these exercises she is disrupted by constant thoughts of Henault, a presence which “ruins all the glory I have achieved” (153). Here, too, Isabella is masochistic, and is so even to a higher degree. Again in “Instincts and their Vicissitudes,” Freud claims that a masochistic attitude culminates in seeking an “extraneous person” as its object; for its passivity, the attitude then necessitates that the object “take over the role of the subject” (127). In the convent, it is Henault who, as an object of Isabella’s thoughts, is the supposed agent of her mortification. He is the imagined person who, because he “meets me at my very midnight devotions and interrupts my prayers,” is the cause of both her ruination and her asceticism (Behn 153).

Having become a nun at thirteen years old, Isabella has been trained in self-mortification; indeed, it is said of her torturous practices of prayer that she has “redoubled her austerity,” not begun it (150). That her actions now exceed expectations is because of the force of her intensified instinct—which, if Freud’s understanding of secondary masochism holds true, is based on a kind of sadism. By the time of Henault’s death, such a violent motivation is apparent, and, in addition, Isabella’s masochism has to some extent unwound. There is no longer an identified object-agent of her suffering: Henault certainly cannot fulfill this role because he has already promised not to go to war. Instead, she simply suffers from no apparent subject but herself. As her ambivalence and violent propensity toward her loved one becomes increasingly apparent, the masochistic attitude into which she has been conditioned becomes increasingly tenuous, slipping backward from the summit of the progression which Freud describes.

Both Isabella’s masochistic disposition toward her drive and its unravelling over time are socially conditioned. Freud discusses, in “Instincts and their Vicissitudes,” the “coupling of […] passivity with femininity” which is commonly assumed to be “a biological fact” (134). In the context of a nunnery within a broader society where “a woman must never own her passion for a man,” it is no surprise that Isabella acts accordingly (Craft 826). Craft notes that, as the story progresses, living within “a society that offers no work for upper-class women” ensures that Isabella must act self-servingly—through bigamy, murder, and encouraging Henault’s enlistment—in order to survive (827). Craft sees Behn as strongly suggesting this reading through Isabella’s murder of Villenoys. Here, Isabella “takes her domestic labour, the only labour allowed women, and uses that male-sanctioned endeavour of sewing literally to overthrow the two men who would attempt to limit and control her” (828). Pressured to turn from a masochistic to a sadistic disposition through restrictions on her ability to live by her labour, her murder both confirms her sadism and metaphorically condenses, through her choice of weapon, its causes.

Yet to claim that Isabella’s final acts of violence against Henault and Villenoys follow unproblematically from preexisting pressures, whether from the narrative logic of ‘once fallen, forever fallen’ or from material pressures, is somewhat insufficient. Isabella’s violent outburst is often seen as shocking. That Isabella ultimately dies is not surprising, considering the prefatory warnings of how vow-breaking is always redressed, but, as Susan Gouldring claims, “we expect Isabella to break her vows, not to murder once, and certainly not murder twice” (47). Despite the demonstrated psychological, material, and thematic buildup to the climax of “The History of the Nun,” the murders remain surprising. To understand how this sense of shock persists, “The Fair Jilt” serves as a useful contrast.

Unlike Isabella, Miranda is openly sadistic from the narrative’s beginning. From very early on, her conduct indicates a complete disregard for the dichotomy of male activity and female passivity. Gouldring argues that the moment which first “suggests a greater inversion of expectations to come” regarding gender is when Henrik waits to receive money from Miranda, Miranda leveraging the traditionally male power of money to gain access to Henrik. Their gendered positions are then “‘wholly reversed'” when Miranda attempts to force Henrik into sex as he insists on his vows and virtue, and ultimately “‘ruins’ [him] not through sexual contact, but by claiming rape” (43, 44). By openly subverting gender roles from the beginning, it is impossible for “The Fair Jilt” to surprise its readers in the manner which “The History of the Nun” accomplishes. Miranda is overtly and unapologetically sadistic and very clearly pursues the benefits of a loved one’s death in the case of her sister Alcidiana.

Rather than surprise its readers with a descent into depravity, “The Fair Jilt” dramatizes the inability of a society to restrain Miranda. Gouldring theorizes that “The Fair Jilt” should be understood as portraying “only failures, a series of failures,” beginning with Miranda’s impermanent vows and ending with Tarquin’s survival: “The failure that begins in the convent culminates in a failed execution” (44). From this perspective, these failures indicate a failed moral system: the total inadequacy of the standards of propriety and feminine submission expected of Miranda. Yet this analysis is fully compatible with the reading of Craft, in which the material impossibility of feminine submission results in its unsurprising failure. Why Gouldring, and not Craft, is surprised by Isabella’s actions is not immediately clear.

There is a difference between “The Fair Jilt” and “The History of the Nun” which is rather independent of the specific demeanours or vows of their female protagonists: “The Fair Jilt” has an overtly political aspect, one demonstrated in the public conversation around Prince Tarquin. Upon his initial appearance, Tarquin becomes “the discourse of the town; some laughing at his title, others reverencing it; some cried that he was an imposter, others that he had made his title as plain as if Tarquin had reigned but a year ago” (98). The division of opinions reflects Behn’s own life, in which she advocated contentiously for monarchism and the reign of the Stuarts. It is this debate which attracts Miranda to Tarquin: before meeting him, “she doted on the title, and had not cared whether the rest had been man or monkey almost” (98).

By the end of the story, Miranda has gotten good use out of the title she initially desired. When Tarquin is apprehended after having been sent by Miranda to kill Alcidiana, the debate with which he is introduced disappears in favour of, confoundingly, universal acclaim. Behn writes that of all people, “not one but had a real sorrow and compassion for him” (111). Even the men “who had assisted at his being seized, now repented from the bottom of their hearts their having any hand in the ruin of so gallant a man” (111). When Miranda employs her page, Van Brune, and he is, like Tarquin, sentenced to death, the public reaction is only that Miranda herself “deserved death equal to that of Van Brune” (106). That Tarquin is a prince and Van Brune is a page necessarily puts a political inflection on this difference. Tarquin’s violence is associated with a claim to royal legitimacy, though possessed of no actual chance of enthronement; moreover, his claim becomes reinforced and popularized through his violence.

As a supporter of the Stuarts, it is not surprising that Behn herself might be sympathetic to a defeated monarch. That said, there are broader theoretical reasons why Tarquin’s criminal actions might win him approval. In his “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin notes “how often the figure of the ‘great’ criminal, however repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public” (281). Benjamin puts down this phenomenon to popular unease with the consolidation of violent power within the state, unease which “arouses even in defeat the sympathy of the mass against the law” (281). Van Brune is a minor figure, possessed of no real ability to expropriate violence from the state. Tarquin, however, bears a title and a claim to legitimacy which contradicts the current reigning powers, and his violence can easily be understood to “confront the law with the threat of declaring a new law” (283). Acting in crime by a law which is not the state’s law, Tarquin demonstrates his royal credentials more convincingly than any pomp and splendour achieves, and he accordingly surges in popular esteem. To use Freud’s terminology in Reflections on War and Death, Tarquin’s actions are heroic. Freud argues that war “compels us once more to be heroes who cannot believe in their own death” (299), having already established the inability to believe in death as the defining feature of heroism. Asserting the invulnerability of a title—Prince of Rome—presumed dead and risking his life in a public altercation, Tarquin acts with the sense of invulnerability which Freud describes. In the eyes of the public, Tarquin’s actions constitute something like a war by possessing what Benjamin terms the “lawmaking character” that war entails (283).

But the public’s utter adoration of Tarquin fails to soften their loathing of Miranda whatsoever. Miranda is despised on the day of Tarquin’s beheading, with the clergymen campaigning to save Tarquin “all joined with one common voice in this, that he ought to abandon a woman as wicked as the princess” (Behn 112). Van Brune at least manages to effect “as much pity as […] the princess did disdain” (106) on the day of his hanging, but here too Miranda is an object of public ire. Twice Miranda is the hated party at her lover’s execution, even as she herself avoids death. If there is no sympathy for Miranda, that may be the case because of her domestic quality. Although Miranda motivates Van Brune and Tarquin to action in the public sphere, she does so not through political incitement but through seduction. Tarquin’s invulnerability is limited by Miranda: though he might by abandoning her receive aid from “those that would employ their utmost interest to save his life, who else would not in his affair,” he is unable to do so (112). To preserve Miranda’s affection for him, Tarquin must submit to her sadistic instinct to threaten his life for personal benefit, however detrimental that may be to his political appeal.

In her prose writing more generally, Behn has a tendency to portray laudable political figures as disgraced by their personal familial lives. According to Rachel K. Carnell in her essay, “Subverting Tragic Conventions: Aphra Behn’s Turn to the Novel,” Aphra Behn’s work displays an unwillingness to attribute to political life the structure of domestic life. For example, her play The Young King, which dramatizes the restoration of a prince, refuses to assert the prince’s “right to govern as a potential father figure for his country” (138). He is instead painted as “buffoon-like and ill-prepared to perform as husband, father, or king,” and “is chosen to govern, rather, out of the people’s inherent desire for an uninterrupted monarchical line, not out of an ideological parallel between fatherhood and meritorious sovereignty” (138). This dynamic largely explains the contradictions of Tarquin in “The Fair Jilt.” In submitting to Miranda’s sadism, Tarquin is buffoonish and unheroic; his crime is sympathetic to the public in spite of his marital dynamic, which hampers what makes it heroic. The incompatibility of the sadistic domestic sphere with heroism also provides a reason as to why Isabella’s murders come as such a shock. Carnell describes “The History of the Nun” as a tragedy which chooses to “evoke bewilderment over pathos” through its focus on a character who “is not a ‘serious’ public figure” (138). Had Henault really died in battle, had he “fell fighting for the holy cross” among the “four hundred men” who killed “fifteen hundred of the enemy,” his death could have been politically meaningful (Behn 175). Even in death, to have fought so valiantly could be taken to imply his being unafraid of and unbelieving in his own death—in a word, to be heroic. As a victim of Isabella’s sadism, however, his death is baffling; however established the thematic, material, and psychological process of getting there, it is a death too submissive to be heroic. Isabella’s murder of Villenoys using the instruments of domestic labour further compounds this effect; the narrative reduces both supposedly heroic soldiers to deaths outside the realm of political significance.

In “The Fair Jilt,” nothing of quite this kind is established for Tarquin. In joining the army, Tarquin loses his status as a great criminal and enters into the role of heroism under the rubric of the state. On a superficial level, he is useful in consolidating violent power in the political establishment and bringing legitimacy back to the law which Miranda’s flimsy vows had failed to safeguard. Overtly, this is the impression which Behn’s narrator seems to impart, with Tarquin’s entry into the army having the purpose to “redeem his credit and gain himself a new fame” (119). However, the credibility of the state’s control of violence has already been undermined by the series of failures that Gouldring discusses, the law having failed to execute Tarquin or even to sentence Miranda—the cause of all the text’s crimes—to death. Suffering no consequences for the ruination of Henrik—who is released “in great triumph and with much honour,” but entirely without revenge for the lie which nearly killed him—Miranda demonstrates her ability to pull off the conventionally male role of active, self-interested sadism (113). The narrator’s account of Miranda’s eventual reform is unsettled by the prefatory words “They say” which leave its credibility up in the air (119). Regardless, she continues to benefit from Tarquin endangering himself in the army, and the text comes to a close by declaring his death, which implies Miranda outlived him. The political sphere is maintained, but there is every indication it is hollow and powerless.

The reform of Isabella also appears suspect, though not for the same reasons. In contrast with the death of her father and the supposed death of Henault, Isabella is never described as experiencing any grief for the (actual) deaths of Henault and Villenoys. Her acceptance of execution as “too merciful for her” (190) appears to return to a masochistic attitude, yet it is accompanied by none of the feelings of distress and abasement which Isabella experiences in the convent (190). Instead, “she alone was the only person that was not afflicted for herself” (190). Were Isabella acting masochistically, she would seek to be the passive audience of affliction; instead, it is the public which is afflicted, which is mortified, in the face of which she remains “cheerful as a bride” (190). To maintain the demeanour of a bride, and not a widow, after murdering two husbands does not indicate a setting aside of old ways. On the contrary, it implies the maintenance of her sadism—which the misery of everyone but her is sure to gratify.

If, for Craft, Isabella’s two husbands are the “the two men who would attempt to limit and control her,” the general public is the ultimate basis for that control, directly causing the pressures which conditioned her desires and life course from the get-go. While Isabella claims that “she never since prospered, do whatever other good deeds she could” (190) after breaking a vow, she says nothing to lay the blame for this enduring suffering on her own character rather than on the lack of opportunities provided to her (190). Her pre-execution speech in “warning to the vow-breakers” (190) might thus be read as a warning to women like her about the unforgiving and restrictive qualities of their society. Her resolute cheeriness in the face of public grief likewise signals a final, sadistic revenge against a community which condemned her.

Both Miranda’s and Isabella’s arcs, ultimately, are toward a sadistic instinct under the guise of legitimacy. Miranda is possessed from the beginning of an aggression not rightfully hers under the gendered schema of her time, one which she deploys so masterfully against Henrik that she avoids any consequence. What she does not have in the beginning is Tarquin, whose political appeal she deploys to legitimize her acts of violence, ultimately doing so by profiting off the French soldiery under a dubious pretense of moral betterment. Isabella, on the other hand, possesses full legitimacy from the start, using the state’s valorization of the siege of Candia to shift the apparent cause of Villenoys’s endangerment from herself, due to his lovesickness for her, to a hostile foreign power. However, she is conditioned by the masochistic self-denial expected of her by her father; her endangerment of Villenoys is justified by her penchant for monastic asceticism, and she uses her attraction to Henault as a tool of self-torture. Pushed by material necessity to adopt a more aggressive approach, she maintains her legitimacy in sending Henault to war but loses it in committing double homicide. However, by adopting a masochistic semblance, she is capable of acting out aggression on the society which condemned her before her death.

Under the conditions of female domesticity, submission, and lack of opportunity which Behn describes, it is best for a woman to kill her lover with a legitimate pretense and maximal aggression. This general takeaway from Aphra Behn is agnostic as to morality but fully comprehensible on a practical level. It is this amoral quality of Behn’s female killers which is so bewildering, a result of being unable to participate in the lawmaking violence of Tarquin, the soldiery, and the general public. Behn asserts the political instincts of the public, the lawmaking effects of crime and war, and the investments instinctually made in political leaders, especially those without thrones. But as long as women are confined to the private sphere, these public laws can only serve them as a cover for pursuing individual drives. For Freud, the disillusionment of war is in discovering that one has been “misled by [their] optimism into grossly exaggerating the number of human beings who have been transformed in a cultural sense” (284). For Behn, the social transformation of women is likewise shown to be hollow by the exigencies of women’s survival. Morality, legality, and the valour of war exist as ideals, but these ideals fail to sublimate self-interested female aggression in the absence of the possibility of genuine political participation. In practice, they serve only to shield it from rebuke.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko and Other Writings. Edited by Paul Salzman, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Benjamin, Walter. “Critique of Violence.” Reflections, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Schocken Books, 1978, pp. 277–300.

Carnell, Rachel K. “Subverting Tragic Conventions: Aphra Behn’s Turn to the Novel.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 31, no. 2, 1999, pp. 133–151.

Craft, Catherine A. “Reworking Male Models: Aphra Behn’s ‘Fair Vow-Breaker,’ Eliza Haywood’s ‘Fantomina,’ and Charlotte Lennox’s ‘Female Quixote.'” The Modern Language Review, vol. 86, no. 4, 1991, pp. 821–838.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, 1914–1916. Translated by James Strachey. Hogarth Press, 1957. Gouldring, Susan. “Aphra Behn’s ‘Stories of Nuns’: Narrative Diversion and ‘Sister Books.'” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 2008, pp. 38–55.

About the Author: Lillian Frances Simons is a literature student at McGill, for which she blames Walter Benjamin, Lee Edelman, and Andrea Dworkin. She loves writing on the political-affective commitments of literature, especially modernist poetry. She also loves “Deus, sive Natura” (intellectually), “le temps des cerises” (toujours), “Uttunul” (utterly), and “ah, Mephistophilis!”