Aphra Behn's The Rover: Evaluating Women's Social and Sexual Options
Following the collapse of the Puritan Protectorate in 1660, the halls of court seemed to buzz with a festive attitude: “Out with the old and in with the… older.” Cavalier revelries under Charles II regained the notoriety of their pre-Cromwellian counterparts. Britain’s king led his noblemen by example with a hedonistic lifestyle of parties, sex, and extravagant spending. The social and sexual freedom of this “libertinism,” however, did not extend to ladies. Although women might crave higher degrees of autonomy and sexual expression, their lives still fit within the boundaries of three roles: nun, prostitute, or wife. Between the categories of “virgin” and “whore” lay a void, not a spectrum; one could give “the whole cargo or nothing” (Behn 164).
Performed in 1677, Aphra Behn’s play, The Rover, speaks to this double standard, which limited her female peers’ sexual desires to the realm of convent, brothel, or home. Set loose in the topsy-turvy world of Carnival, her characters demonstrate the active, complicated game required of women seeking to secure personal happiness. The dangers of the chase and the play’s tidy conclusion, on the other hand, suggest at how ladies neither could nor should stray too far into the masculine roles of wooer and possessor. Late Stuart society, Behn seems to lament, offered no place to the sexually free, libertine woman.
The fall of the Puritan Commonwealth did little to dispel the political and religious tensions that affected the early Modern British conception of womanhood. Even after the Protectorate’s end, Roundhead beliefs dictated “the necessity for female subordination and obedience” to her husband, as ordained by several Bible verses (Hughes 295). Eve’s role in the division of mankind from God “fuelled…[a cultural] conviction of the weakness and sinfulness of women” (295). Thus female sexuality was perceived as a spiritual flaw to manage. Male governance of the female body, once responsible for Adam’s downfall, led to a Puritan “masculinization of desire—the creation of woman as other and as object—that [was] crucial to a sexual ideology that insists on the indivisibility of feminine chastity from feminine identity” (Hutner 104). By appropriating sexuality, Roundhead men narrowed the confines of women’s acceptable roles in society to one alone: the wife, family-oriented and sexually pure. Neither Catholic nun nor transgressive prostitute met Puritan expectations for women.
Written seventeen years after Richard Cromwell left England, The Rover responds to these vestiges of Puritan belief in English society. In her epilogue, Behn mocks the strait-laced prudishness that would turn humor into a form of sinful self-pleasure: “The devil’s in’t if this [play] will please the nation / in these our blessed times of reformation” (Behn 242). She disparages judgmental leaders, who “damn everything that maggot disapproves,” want to censor theatre, “and to dull method all our sense confine” (242). Her derision places under public scrutiny the validity of Puritan disapproval. If an audience member doubts the sect’s condemnation of one aspect of society, other frowned-upon practices might be thrown into question. Accusing the Puritan voice of restricting the audience’s sense encourages the public’s examination of normative understandings of the English culture, specifically in regards to gender.
Royalist libertinism seemed to offer the sexual liberation for which Behn hoped to attract support. The movement romanticized the image of the wealthy court rogue as passionate womanizer and at least allowed for “women’s free enjoyment of sexual pleasure” (Staves 21). As one scholar wryly remarked, however, “the idea that late Stuart ideology created a liberating space for women is as false as a school child’s notion of the jolly cavalier” (Owen 15). The transition back into the loose, showy world of the monarchy merely removed “the insolence of commonwealths” from executive, not social, power (Behn 242). For women, both cultural expectations, influenced by Puritan beliefs, and reality problematized any desire for sexual freedom. Where the hedonistic ideology encouraged passion outside of marriage, few ladies could not support themselves without stable male support (Staves 21). Breaking from the exalted vision of the lovely maiden, young women risked public judgment and scorn, loss of reputation, disease, and pregnancy—all of which would be detrimental to maintaining the libertine lifestyle from which they originated. Prostitution could achieve this sexual freedom by trading reputation for money, but such work failed to attain the devil-may-care passion associated with Charles II’s court.
Behn’s female characters strive for independence within the limitations of the English system of courtship and marriage. In The Rover, the three leading ladies are all capable and proactive young women who exhibit “the initiative and daring reserved for cavaliers” (Burke 122). Over the course of the play, each takes upon herself the position of active wooer. Maidenly Hellena openly vows to do “not as my wise brother imagines [for her future], …but to love and to be beloved” by reeling in a husband (Behn 170). Her virginal sister, Florinda, and the sexually liberated courtesan, Angellica Bianca, adopt similar goals in pursuit of passion. They are nothing like the subordinate females of Puritan propriety, but witty, competent matches for the men they meet. Through their strong personalities, Behn suggests at early British women’s potential to feel and act confidently on sexual feelings, thus “[demasculinizing] desire” and “[subverting] the construction of woman as a self-policing and passive commodity” (Hutner 104).
The foppish Cavaliers of The Rover are juxtaposed as foils against these women to further emphasize feminine ability and power. The romantic heroes, Willmore and Belvile, do win Hellena and Florinda, as well as their bounteous dowries, in matrimony; however, their actions are nearly their undoing along the way. Belvile’s well-intentioned efforts to woo his lady bring him close to her several times, but backfire without fail. One Samaritan act lands him in prison. Willmore ruins his friend’s secret rendezvous with Florinda by drunkenly accosting her and raising a commotion. Later, as a disguised Belvile prepares to marry his love, Willmore reveals his identity with a hug, knocking “Belvile’s vizard… out on’s hand” and effectively destroying hopes for the wedding (Behn 198). A common prostitute dupes the comic figure, Ned Blunt, despite his comrades warning of possible deception. Florinda’s brother Pedro, along with the English band, becomes so absorbed in the libertine hunt for sexual conquest that he nearly rapes his own sister. The blundering behavior of the English cavaliers speaks to the reason and abilities of women and encourages late Stuart Britain to respect the female libertine as a strong, capable lady, not a whore.
Each woman begins the play bound one of the three fates: Florinda to marriage, Hellena to the nunnery, and Angellica Bianca to well-paid prostitution. Through Carnival, however, these women abandon their prescribed positions with disguises to “be mad as the rest, and take all innocent freedoms,” including to “outwit twenty brothers” (Behn 138-139). The masquerade serves multiple purposes. First, disguise equalizes the class distinctions, “[blurring, criticizing] and…even [satirizing] the difference between the categories available to women” (Kreis-Schinck 160). When lost in the festivities, the ladies join all that “are, or would have you think they’re courtesans,” the most sexually liberated women (Behn 142). Their initial costumes as gypsies allow them to approach men in a feminized, desirous way. Gypsies already occupy the role of outcast on the liminal edge of society; by taking on their looks, Florinda and Hellena put themselves and their sexuality outside the confines of cultural expectation. Their decision implies Behn’s opinion that her peers should seek to escape the restrictions that define them.
Hellena and Angellica also take on the appearances of men during the play. Such costumes permit them to alter their lovers’ choices and lives. “Dressed in man’s clothes,” Hellena can punish Willmore for his infidelity with “something [she’ll] do to vex him” (Behn 202). She interferes in a meeting of Willmore and Angellica by informing the courtesan of “a young English gentleman” who wooed another woman and then “paid his broken vows to you” (Behn 204). Seeking revenge an act later, Angellica Bianca dons “a masking habit and vizard” and threatens Willmore with a pistol (Behn 228). Her choice of weapon—guns were used almost exclusively by men during Behn’s time—is “symbolic of her attempt to usurp phallic control” of her own sexual desires (Hutner 108). Instead of feminizing her lust, Angellica masculinizes herself. By masquerading as men, both women demonstrate how ladies may take ownership of rights associated only male Cavaliers, romance, justice, and sexuality.
The “obligatory happy ending” of The Rover reveals the unfairness of the libertine system and the demand—indeed, the unquestioned assumption—that women would fit into the socially set role of prostitute or wife. Florinda and Hellena’s attempts to challenge their brother’s arrangements are successful; the former marries her lover and the latter escapes a future as “handmaid to lazars and cripples” in the nunnery (Behn 137). However, their enterprising boldness in chasing men leads them into the same wifely duties of most women. Their challenge to “the repression of their autonomy and …desires” still leads to the hierarchical man-woman relationship of Puritan wedlock (Hutner 111).
Angellica’s attempt to unite her sexuality with true love fails. She is initially immune to “the general disease of [the female] sex…that of being in love” (Behn 157). She can sleep with whomever she wants and has found a way around Behn’s observation that women need reliable male support. However, her life lacks the romantic passion of the hedonistic lifestyle. Moreover, Angellica’s sexual liberation, for which lovers must pay to experience, contributes to her inability to snag Willmore’s long-term affection. His lust could have been satiated with her portrait since someone else would “have the thousand crowns to give for the original” (Behn 160). Her relegation back to courtesan shows how transgressive, premarital sex and proper marriage cannot mix. As a sexual female, Angellica has no place in world when in the throes of libertine love: she can be neither indifferent courtesan nor devoted wife.
The actions and treatment of women in Aphra Behn’s play expose the narrow social limitations within which early Modern British women found themselves. Hellena and Florinda have the potential to explore their sexual freedom at Carnival, but they focus instead on securing financial futures with men they like. Sex may be used, as Hellena shows, as a bartering chip to obtain a promise of marriage; when loosed for a young woman’s pleasure, however, sexuality keeps her from happiness. Through Angellica, Hellena, and Florinda, Behn reveals that the libertine female has no place in late Stuart society. The playwright’s observation comes as a wistful warning at a time when women seemed to push the limits of tradition. Actresses appearing on stage might feel they had found a career of bodily expression, but from Behn’s experience as a woman with male colleagues, the freedom is a façade. Women on stage faced fetishization and loss of status. Behn’s commentary on women’s position in the late Stuart period serves to point out the double standard of libertinism in court life and the public sphere. By exposing and mocking the Puritanical and Cavalier restraints imposed on ladies, she encourages viewers to reevaluate women’s limited roles in the new age.
Behn, Aphra. The Rover. Restoration Comedy. Ed. Trevor Griffiths and Simon Trussler. London: New Hern Books, 2005. 129–224.
Burke, Helen M. “The Cavalier Myth in The Rover.” The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. Eds. Derek Hughes and Janet Todd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 118–134.
Hughes, Ann. “Puritanism and Gender.” The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism. Eds. John Coffey and Paul C. H. Lim. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 294–308.
Hunter, Heidi. “Revisioning the Female Body: Aphra Behn’s The Rover, Parts I and II.” Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. Ed. Heidi Hunter. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. 102–120.
Kreis-Shinck, Annette. Women, Writing, and the Theater in the Early Modern Period. Madison: Associated University Presses, 2001.
Owen, Susan J. “Sexual Politics and Party Politics in Behn’s Drama, 1678-83.” Aphra Behn Studies. Ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 15–29.
Pacheco, Anita. “Rape and the Female Subject in Aphra Behn’s The Rover.” EHL 65.2 (Summer 1998): 323–345.
Staves, Susan. “Behn, Women, and Society.” The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. Eds. Derek Hughes and Janet Todd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 12–28.