CHAPTER V. THE RESTORATION. ROGER BOYLE. MRS. MANLEY. MRS. BEHN.
The Puritans had overthrown the political tyranny of Charles, but in attempting to build up by force a kingdom of the saints on earth, they had established a spiritual tyranny, quite as irksome and quite as perishable, of their own. Meanwhile they had failed to preserve the reputation for sanctity which formed the chief basis of their authority. As soon as they had attained power, they were joined by men who professed their principles merely for selfish purposes; who vied with each other in presenting to the world the outward signs of Puritanism, and remained notoriously profligate in life and character. The kingdom of the saints, objectionable as a tyranny, and finally identified in the popular mind with a hated hypocrisy, came to its inevitable end in the reaction of the Restoration. But when the first fury of this reaction had passed away, it was evident that Puritanism survived it: no longer a political power, but a moral influence which controlled the great body of the people, and gave to English habits and literature their distinctive tone of serious morality.
But for the time, all sight of this was lost. The entry of Charles II into Whitehall was the sign for unlimited indulgence in all that had lately been forbidden. “Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop.” The Puritans had pent up for so long the natural cravings for pleasure and gaiety, that, when the barriers were withdrawn, license and debauchery were necessary to satisfy appetites which a long-enforced abstinence had made abnormal. In Vanburgh's “Provoked Wife,” a comedy, like so many others of the time, at once very immoral and very entertaining, Sir John Brute thus excuses the virtues of his early life: “I was afraid of being damned in those days; for I kept sneaking, cowardly company, fellows that went to church, said grace to their meat, and had not the least tincture of quality about them.” Heartfree: “But I think you have got into a better gang now.” Sir John: “Zoons, sir, my Lord Rake and I are hand in glove.” In the country, people were generally satisfied with getting back their May-poles and Sunday games. But in London, where the rule of Puritanism had been the strictest, and above all among the courtiers, the new liberty resulted in a license and shamelessness unequalled in English history.
In the general proscription of Puritan ideas, the good were involved in the same destruction as the bad. Religion was mocked at as a cloak for hypocrisy, self-restraint was thrown aside as an obstacle to enjoyment. It was thought that emancipation from Puritan tyranny could not be attained more effectually than by a life of open licentiousness; by gambling and drunkenness. Such, under the Restoration, were the occupations most attractive to the gentlemen of fashion. Buckingham, Rochester, and the troop of courtiers who looked to them for an example, spent their lives in sinking into an ever deeper depravity. Their thoughts and mouths were never clean. The verses they wrote are too foul to transcribe as an illustration of the taste of their composers. The orgies in which they indulged were not scenes of gaiety, in which buoyant spirits and lively wit might excuse excess, but were serious, bestial, and premeditated. The dealings of these men with the female sex were but a succession of low intrigues, which destroyed all sentiment and left nothing but disgust behind them. We hear a great deal about “love” in the literature of the time, but it is the same kind of love that might be found among a herd of cattle. It would be difficult to mention any man about the court of Charles II who could have appreciated the pure and enduring passion which in the century before had breathed through the noble lines of Spenser's “Epithalamion,” and in the century that followed inspired “John Anderson, my jo' John.” Charles himself, “the old goat,” set an example which hardly needed the authority of the Lord's anointed to become attractive. Without honor or virtue himself, and denying their existence in others, he made a fitting leader of the society about him. His mistresses insulted the queen by their splendor and arrogance, and insulted him by amours with servants and mountebanks. So destitute of dignity or principle as to share the Duchess of Cleveland with the world, he coolly asked a courtier who was reputed to be on too intimate terms with the queen, how his “mistress” did. While the gaming-tables at court were nightly covered with gold, and Lady Castlemaine gambled away thousands of pounds at a sitting, the exchequer was closed amid a widespread ruin, and the menial servants about the court were in want of bread. So openly was the king's coarse licentiousness pursued, that “the very sentrys speak of it,” that the queen rarely entered her dressing-rooms without first being assured that the king was not there with one of his women. Such an example had a powerful influence upon all the rank and fashion of the time, already predisposed to a similar course. The extent of the prevailing reverence for royalty is admirably illustrated by the scene in which the Earl of Arlington advised Miss Stewart concerning her conduct as mistress of the king, to which position “it had pleased God and her virtue to raise her.” Thus from the popular dislike of Puritanism, and the example of a profligate court, began that reign of social and political corruption which for a hundred years demoralized the manners and sullied the literature of the English people. The vice which became so engrafted on the habits of private life as to make decency seem an affectation, invaded religion and politics. To religion it brought about a general indifference, which in the higher ranks of the clergy took effect in disregard of their duties and in a shameless scramble for lucrative posts, and in the lower ranks produced poverty and social degradation. In politics are to be dated from this reign the gross corruption which enabled every public officer, however high or however low, to use his position for the purpose of private plunder, and the habit of bribing members of Parliament which soon converted them into tools of the crown's ministers.
While the men found their greatest enjoyment and most congenial occupation in drunkenness, duelling, and seduction, it is not to be expected that women should have retained an unappreciated refinement. Half-naked and ornamented with a profusion of jewels, they look out from the portraits of the time with a sleepy, voluptuous expression, which suggests a lack of intelligence and too great a susceptibility to physical impressions. Women as we find them in contemporary memoirs, and these most often deal with such as are about the court, are not unfit companions for the men. We see not a few the willing victims of coarse intrigues, and some even assisting in the degradation of others of their sex. Many of them swore “good mouth filling oaths,” and the scandal they talked would have shocked the taste as well as the principles of Elizabeth's time. In the eighteenth century much coarseness is to be seen in literature and society, but we are constantly meeting with the words “delicacy” and “indelicacy” in their application to social refinement, and it is evident that the ideas of that time on this subject differ from ours only in degree. Under the Restoration, these words, or the thoughts they represent, had a very insignificant existence. Public taste inclined to the gross and the sensual, and welcomed as enjoyable, what the present discards as disgusting. Ladies of the highest rank sat through plays of which the purpose and effect was to degrade their own womanhood, to remove from the minds of the men who sat about and watched their countenances at each new obscenity, whatever respect for the sex might have lingered there. Some wore masks to hide the blushes which might have been looked for as a drama proceeded, which represented every female character on the stage as little better than an animal, using such reason as she possessed only to further the gratification of her appetites. Under such conditions there could be no encouragement for maiden modesty, and for old age no crown.
It is usually unfair to judge a community by its theatre, to which an exceptional liberty must always be allowed. But the drama of the Restoration may be said to reflect with much truth the popular taste. For the noblest efforts of dramatic genius the student turns by preference to the age of Elizabeth. There he finds art, beauty, and poetry; there he finds human nature, with its nobility and its littleness, with its virtues and its vices. The time of Charles II was as narrow in its way as the Puritans had been in theirs, and was as little capable of forming broad and just views of mankind. The Puritans, if they had had a stage, would have represented man as an embodiment of moral qualities. The dramatists of the Restoration made him merely a creature subject to animal desires and brutish instincts, which he made no effort to regulate. “It might, not be easy perhaps,” says Hallam, “to find a scene in any comedy of Charles II's reign, where one character has the behavior of a gentleman, in the sense we attach to the word.” The stage was in perfect accord with its audience. Morality was outraged by a constant association of virtue with all that is contemptible and of vice with all that is attractive. Taste was outraged by a perpetual choice of degraded subjects and disgusting scenes. Nature was outraged by the representation of man, not as a complex being, worthy of deep and skilful investigation, but as a creature influenced by two or three passions always apparent on the surface. Thus the dramatists, notwithstanding their very exceptional abilities, produced little of enduring value, and nothing which could outlive a change in the popular taste. They did, however, produce what was greatly admired by their contemporaries: and the fact that the men and the women of the time enjoyed the plays provided for them, shows that they preferred to noble and elevating subjects, the literary reproduction of their own corrupt lives. The theatre no doubt represented men as worse than they were. But the friends of Buckingham and Rochester, both male and female, found in its long list of unprincipled men, of married women debauched, and of young girls anxious to be debauched, the reflection and justification of their own careers.
Posterity remembers little of the reign or the theatre of Charles II beyond their corruption. Yet there is much that is worthy of remembrance, without which any remarks on the social condition of the time would be one-sided. There are to be referred to that period many legislative enactments in the highest degree conducive to civil and religious liberty. The foundation of the Royal Society marked the inauguration of a new interest in speculative enquiry, of a great activity in scientific research, and of a broader and more liberal habit of thought on questions connected with government and education. These advantages were attained in spite of a worthless king, of corrupt ministers, and a licentious court, and they are due to the earnestness and vigor of the great body of the English people, qualities which have remained unchanged through every national vicissitude or success. While Pepys and Grammont supply full details of the moral degeneration which weakened and debased the highest ranks of society, the sound morality, steady industry, and progressive nature of the nation are to be seen in the journal of the good Evelyn. His character and occupations, as well as those of his friends, offset the coarse tastes and worthless lives which brought the time into discredit. To the prevailing disregard of the marriage tie may well be contrasted the happiness of Evelyn's domestic life. His daughter, of whom he has left a beautiful description, was endowed with an elevation of character, a charm of disposition, and a purity of thought admirable in any age, and it cannot be doubted that she had many contemporary parallels.
[Footnote 84: Destouches, “Glorieux,” v. 3.]
[Footnote 85: Act ii, sc. 1.]
[Footnote 86: “Literature of Europe,” vol. 4, chap. 6, sec. 2-47.]
With the pensions and fashions which were sent across the Channel from the court of Louis XIV, came a curious species of fiction which had a temporary vogue in England. Gomberville, Scuderi, and Calprenede had created the school of Heroic Romance by the publication of those monumental works which the French not inaptly termed “les romans de longue haleine.” This was the bulky but enervated descendant of chivalric and pastoral romance. The tales of chivalry and of pastoral life had their raison d'etre. The feudal knighthood found in the tournaments, in the adventures of knight-errantry, and in the supernatural agencies which filled their volumes of romance, the reflection of their own aspirations and beliefs. They admired in the ideal characters of Charlemagne and Arthur the qualities most valued among themselves. Martial glory was to them the chief object of life; love was simply the reward of valor. The pastoral romance followed in less warlike times. Its subject was love; and that passion was usually described amidst humble and peaceful shepherds, where its strength and charm could develop more fully than amidst scenes of war and tumult. Both the chivalric and the pastoral romance were the embodiment of ideals which in turn represented contemporary tastes. But heroic romance, although it shared some of the characteristics of its predecessors, had not the same claim to interest. It was unnatural and artificial, rather than ideal. It imitated the martial character of the tales of chivalry, but subordinated that character to love. It imitated the devoted strain of adoration which ran through the fanciful phrases of pastoral fiction; but that artificial passion which seemed appropriate to ideal shepherds tuning their pipes under a perpetual sunshine, became absurd when applied to Greek or Carthaginian soldiers.
Gomberville's “Polexander,” complete-in six thousand pages, and Calprenede's “Cassandra,” “the fam'd romance,” are now before me. Greeks, Romans, Turks, Parthians, Scythians, Babylonians are mingled together in a truly heroic structure of absurdity and anachronism. Artaxerxes appears on one page, the queen of the Amazons on the next, then the king of Lacedaemon, Alexander the Great, even a prince of Mexico, and comparatively private persons beyond computation. This crowd of names represent personages who imitate the deeds of chivalry, and converse in the affected style of the French court, while their ancient bosoms are distracted by a pure, all-absorbing, and never-dying love as foreign to their nature as to that of the readers of heroic romance. That this species of fiction should have met with any success, is largely due to the circumstance, that under the disguise of Greek warriors or Parthian princesses, there were really described contemporary beauties and courtiers, who fondly believed that they had attained, through the genius of Calprenede and Scuderi, an enviable immortality. Unhappily for them, the characters of heroic romance have found in that endless desert of phraseology at once their birthplace and their tomb.
The works of Gomberville, Calprenede, and Scuderi, although little adapted to the English taste, shared the favor which was extended to every thing French, and were both translated and imitated. The “Eliana,” published in 1661; although a bona-fide imitation, would have served much better as a caricature. To the absurdity of incident is added an absurdity of language which gives the book almost a comic aspect. The beauty of flowers growing in the fields is disguised under the statement that Flora “spreads her fragrant mantle on the superficies of the earth, and bespangles the verdant grass with her beauteous adornments.” A lover “enters a grove free from the frequentations of any besides the ranging beasts and pleasing birds, whose dulcet notes exulsecrate him out of his melancholy contemplations.”
Dunlop considered the best work of this description to be the “Parthenissa,” published in 1664, by Roger Boyle, afterward Earl of Orrery. This romance, although marked by the faults of prolixity and incongruity characteristic of the heroic style, is not without narrative interest or literary merit. The hero is Artabanes, a Median prince, as usual “richly attired, and proportionately blessed with all the gifts of nature and education.” At the Parthian court he becomes enamored of the beautiful Parthenissa, and in her honor performs many distinguished deeds of arms. Distracted, however, at the suspicion of Parthenissa's preference for a rival, he leaves the Parthian court with the determination to spend the remainder of his life on the summit of the Alps. This intention is frustrated by pirates, who take him prisoner and bestow him as a slave upon their chief. Artabanes soon escapes from bondage, suddenly turns out to be the historic Spartacus, and returns to Asia. There he finds that Parthenissa, to avoid the importunities of an objectionable lover, has swallowed a potion which gives her the appearance of death. In this dilemma he journeys to “the Temple of Hieropolis in Syria, where the Queen of Love had settled an oracle as famous as the Deity to whom it was consecrated.” The priest of this temple, after listening patiently to the long account of Artabanes' misfortunes, tells the story of his own remarkable career, by which it appears that he is Nicomedes, king of Bythinia, the father of Julius Caesar's Nicomedes. While Artabanes is listening to this narrative, he sees two persons land upon the shore, and enter a neighboring wood. One is a young knight, and the other the exact counterpart of Parthenissa. At this apparition Artabanes is thrown into the greatest confusion. The lady he has seen presents every outward appearance of his mistress, and yet he believes her dead, and is unable to conceive that if living, she should so far forget her duty to him and the rules of propriety, as to place herself in so suspicions a position. Here the romance comes to an abrupt end, leaving Artabanes in the condition of painful uncertainty in which he has ever since remained.
Heroic romance proved as ephemeral in England as the cloaks and feathers with which it had crossed the Channel, and we may pass over such trivial literary attempts as those of the Duchess of Newcastle to the writings of Mrs. Manley and Mrs. Behn. These two novelists, if such they may still be called, represent, in narrative fiction, the period which extends from the Restoration to the opening of the eighteenth century. They have left us little, and that of very indifferent merit. But their stories have a certain importance, inasmuch as with them begins the tendency, in English fiction, to deal with the actual, instead of the imaginary, to describe characters and scenes meant to represent real life.
The daughter of Sir Roger Manley, at one time Governor of Guernsey, Mrs. Manley was seduced, when quite a young woman, and passed the remainder of her life in a licentiousness which has evidently inspired her literary productions. Having picked up a few stories from current report, she worked them into what she called “The Power of Love, in Seven Novels.” The “love” here described is an unregulated animal passion, and its “power” is the natural effect of such a passion upon men and women who have no idea of self-restraint or refinement. The result is a series of licentious scenes, unredeemed by any literary merit. Mrs. Manley's most prominent work was the “Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes. From the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediterranean.” This book is a scandalous chronicle of crimes reputed to have been committed by persons of high rank, and the names are so thinly disguised as to be easily identified. Mrs. Manley was arrested and prosecuted for the publication, but escaped without serious punishment. The work itself had a wide circulation, and Pope adopted the endurance of its fame as a measure of time in his shortsighted line, “As long as Atalantis shall be read.”
In the beginning of this book a female personage named Astraea resolves to revisit the earth, which she had long before abandoned in disgust. She alights upon an island in the Mediterranean, named Atalantis, which is meant to signify England, and a female form immediately rises up before her.
Her habit obsolete and torn, almost degenerated into tatters;
But her Native Charms, that needed not the Help of Art, gave to
Astraea's returning Remembrance that it could be no other than her
beautiful Mother Vertue. But oh! how despicable her Garments! how
neglected her flowing Hair! How languid her formally animated Eyes!
How pale, how withered the Roses of her lovely Cheeks and Lips! How
useless her snowy arms and polished Fingers! they hung in a
melancholy Decline, and seemed out of other Employment, but
sometimes to support the Head of the dejected Fair One! Her limbs
enervated and supine, wanting of that Energy which should bear her
from a Solitude so affrighting!
From this very accurate description of the condition of virtue at the end of the seventeenth century, it might be supposed that Mrs. Manley deplored her neglected state. But such is far from being the case. Astraea and Virtue meet with a personage called Intelligence, who furnishes them with a detailed account of current scandal calculated to still further depress the dejected Virtue. The trio are soon joined by Mrs. Nightwork, a midwife, who never breaks an oath of secrecy unless it be to her interest, and the character of whose contributions to the general fund of gossip may be easily imagined. This semi-allegorical method of narration is kept up during the first two volumes; in the third and fourth Mrs. Manley tells her story in her own way. In the course of these four volumes is unrolled an extraordinary series of crimes, some unnatural, and all gross in highest degree. The details which Mrs. Manley could not obtain from authentic sources are supplied by her vivid and heated imagination. She gloats over each incident with a horrible relish, and adds, with no unsparing brush, a heightened color to each picture. Only a society whose conduct could afford material for this composition could possibly have read it. Mrs. Manley no doubt invented and exaggerated without scruple, but the fact that her work was widely read and even popular is a sufficient commentary on the taste of the time. The reader of to-day is sickened by the multiplication of repulsive scenes, and the absence from the book of any good qualities or actions whatever. The style in which the “Atalantis” is written is so mean, that no person could have derived any pleasure from its pages other than the gratification of a depraved taste.
A writer of fiction of much greater importance appeared in the person of Aphra Johnson, more generally known as Mrs. Behn, or “the divine Astraea”; “a gentlewoman by birth, of a good family in the city of Canterbury.” Her father was appointed to a colonial office in the West Indies, where he took his family while Mrs. Behn was yet a young girl. There the future authoress began a chequered life by living on a plantation among rough and lawless colonists, and there she made the acquaintance of the slave Oroonoko, whose sad story she afterward made known to the world. On her return to England, she married Behn, a merchant of Dutch extraction, and went to live in the Netherlands, where she acted as a British spy. By working upon the feelings of her lovers, she was able to convey information to the English government of the intention of the Dutch to enter the Thames to destroy the English fleet. Her warnings were disregarded, and giving up her patriotic occupation, she returned to London, and devoted herself to literature. She died in 1689, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey:—“Covered only with a marble stone, with two wretched verses on it.” Although Mrs. Behn is now almost forgotten, her position in her own time was not inconsiderable. Besides a number of letters and poems, her literary productions include a translation of Fontenelle's “Plurality of Worlds,” and a paraphrase on Van Dale's “De Oraculis Ethnicorum.” Her plays met with some success, but were characterized by a licentiousness which won for her the title of “the female Wycherley,” a fact, which, on account of her sex, called down upon her a general and well-deserved condemnation. Two other productions, of which the nature is sufficiently indicated by their titles, were “The Lover's Watch; or the Art of making Love: being Rules for Courtship for every Hour of the Day and Night”; and “The Ladies Looking Glass to dress themselves by; or the whole Art of charming all Mankind.”
It was on Mrs. Behn's return from the West Indies that, being introduced at court, she related to Charles the Second the terrible fate of the noble slave Oroonoko. At the solicitation of the king, she put her narrative into the form of a novel, which obtained a large circulation, and was dramatized by Southern in his tragedy of the same name. “Oroonoko” is worthy of notice as one of the earliest attempts on the part of an English novelist to deal with characters which had come under the writer's observation in actual life. It is still more important on account of the presence within it of a didactic purpose; a characteristic which for good or for evil has been a prominent feature of the English novel. Sir Thomas More had made use of fiction in the sixteenth century to urge his ideas of political and social reforms. Bunyan, more than a century later, used the same means to promulgate his conception of Christian life. While English narrative fiction was still in its first youth, Mrs. Behn protested against the evils of the slave trade through the medium of a story which may be considered a forerunner of “Uncle Tom's Cabin.”
To interest the public in a distant country or an abstract principle, the novel is the most effective literary means. A treatise on the slave trade by Mrs. Behn, however strong and truthful, would have met with the little attention which is accorded to the sufferings of a distant and unknown people. But the novel has the advantage over the treatise, that it deals with the particular and not the general, with the individual and not the nation. It can place before the reader a limited number of persons; it can interest his mind and heart in their characters, lives, and fate; and by subjecting them to the horrors of the evil to be depicted, excite through commiseration for their sufferings a hatred of the cause which inflicted them. To such a use the novel has often been put, at too frequent a sacrifice of its artistic merit. To excite indignation against the results of the slave trade, Mrs. Behn took the special instance of Oroonoko. She endowed the African slave with beauty of person and nobility of character. She gave him tastes and qualities of a kind to attract the interest of a European reader. She added a description of his wife Imoinda, dwelling on the details of her beauty and charms. By a passionate relation of the amatory scenes which occurred between Oroonoko and his wife, she touched a key particularly calculated to excite contemporary English sympathy. Finally, by telling the story of the cruel wrongs inflicted on the slaves, she aroused a natural indignation against the system which could entail such evil results.
The story itself is briefly as follows. Oroonoko was a brave young chief, the grandson of a king whose dominions lay on the coast of Africa. He had distinguished himself in war, and already commanded all the forces of his grandfather's kingdom. Hitherto rather unsusceptible to female charms, he became deeply enamored of Imoinda, on returning victorious from a great war. Unfortunately the king noticed Imoinda at the same time, and had her brought to his palace as his concubine. According to the rules of the court, this would separate the lovers forever. Oroonoko in desperation made his way to Imoinda's chamber in the palace at night, where he was discovered by the king's servants. Imoinda was immediately sold as a slave. Oroonoko made his way down to the seashore, and was there allured, under false pretenses of hospitality, on board an English ship. He was carried to the West Indies, and sold to a planter of Surinam, the colony in which Mrs. Behn was living, and where by a remarkable chance Imoinda had already been sold. The beauty of Imoinda had brought about her a large number of suitors, all of whom met with a cold repulse. The tenderness of the meeting between Oroonoko and Imoinda prevailed upon their master to allow them to live together. But Oroonoko longed for liberty. He plotted a revolt among his fellow-slaves, and on its suppression was brutally flogged. Enraged by this, he escaped into the woods with Imoinda, who was then pregnant. Fearing that she might fall into the hands of the whites, and unwilling to be the father of a slave, he killed her, and remained by her dead body several days, half insensible with grief and without food. Again taken by the colonists, he was tied to a post, hacked to pieces and burned. The story, simple in itself, becomes striking in the hands of Mrs. Behn. The hut of the old negro king is given the brilliancy of an Eastern court, and his harem is copied after that of a Turkish potentate. When Oroonoko is induced to board the English slaver, it is in no common style, but “the Captain in his Boat richly adorned with Carpets and velvet Cushions went to the Shore to receive the Prince, with another Long Boat where was placed all his Music and Trumpets.” Mrs. Behn's methods of adorning her tale are best shown by her description of Oroonoko himself, which is a good example of the tone in which the story is written.
I have often seen and conversed with this Great Man, and been a
Witness to many of his mighty Actions: and do assure my Reader, the
most illustrious Courts could not have produced a braver Man, both
for Greatness of Courage and Mind, a Judgment more solid, a Wit
more quick, and a Conversation more sweet and diverting. He knew
almost as much as if he had read much; he had heard of and admired
the Romans; he had heard of the late Civil Wars in England, and the
deplorable Death of our great Monarch; and would discourse of it
with all the Sense and abhorrence of the Injustice imaginable. He
had an extremely good and graceful Mien, and all the civility of a
well bred Great Man. He had nothing of Barbarity in his Nature, but
in all Points addressed himself as if his Education had been in
some European Court.
This great and just character of Oroonoko gave me an extreme
Curiosity to see him, especially when I knew he spoke French and
English, and that I could talk with him. But though I had heard so
much of him, I was as greatly surprised when I saw him, as if I had
heard nothing of him; so beyond all Report I found him. He came
into the Room, and addressed himself to me and some other Women
with the best Grace in the World. He was pretty tall, but of a
Shape the most exact that can be fancyed: The most famous Statuary
could not form the figure of a Man more admirably turned from Head
to Foot. His face was not of that brown lusty Black which most of
that Nation are, but a perfect Ebony or polished Jet. His Eyes were
the most aweful that could be seen, and very piercing; the White of
'em being like Snow, as were his teeth. His Nose was rising and
Roman, instead of African and flat. His Mouth the finest Shape that
could be seen; far from those great turn'd Lips which are so
natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole Proportion and Air of
his Face was nobly and exactly form'd, that bating his Colour,
there would be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and
handsome. There was no one Grace wanting that bears the Standard of
true Beauty. His Hair came down to his Shoulders, by the aids of
Art, which was by pulling it out with a quill, and keeping it
comb'd; of which he took particular care. Nor did the perfections
of his Mind come short of those of his Person; for his Discourse
was admirable upon almost any Subject; and whoever had heard him
speak, would have been convinced of their Errors, that all fine Wit
is confined to the white Men, especially to those of Christendom;
and would have confessed that Oroonoko was as capable even of
reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a Soul, as
politick Maxims, and was as sensible of Power, as any Prince
civilized in the most refined Schools of Humanity and Learning, or
the most illustrious Courts.
“Oroonoko” is the only one of Mrs Behn's stories which has a didactic aim or a special interest of any kind. Her other works of fiction are short tales, usually founded on fact, which describe in unrestrained language the passion and adventures of a pair of very ardent lovers. They show the prevailing inclination in narrative fiction toward characters and scenes taken from actual life. But they have no interest apart from the slender thread of the story itself. They contain no studies of character, and no information of importance concerning contemporary manners. Their heroes and heroines differ from each other only in the intensity or the circumstances of their love. The best in narrative interest, and the most attractive in tone, is the “Lucky Mistake.” It is without the grossness characteristic of Mrs. Behn's works, and gives quite a pretty account of the loves of a young French nobleman and an unusually modest young woman named Atlante. Mrs. Behn's notion of love is contained in the opening lines of the “Fair Jilt,” the most licentious of her tales. “As Love is the most noble and divine Passion of the Soul, so it is that to which we may justly attribute all the real Satisfactions of Life; and without it Man is Unfinished and unhappy. There are a thousand Things to be said of the Advantages this generous Passion brings to those whose Hearts are capable of receiving its soft Impressions; for 'tis not Every one that can be sensible of its tender Touches. How many Examples from History and Observation could I give of its wondrous Power; nay, even to a degree of Transmigration! How many Idiots has it made wise! How many Fools eloquent! How many home-bred Squires accomplished! How many cowards brave!” There is no doubt that Mrs. Behn was fully alive to the strength of the passion she describes, but as Sir Richard Steele said, she “understood the practic part of love better than the speculative.” In accordance with the views general amidst the society of her own time, she represented love merely as a physical passion, and made the interest of her stories depend on its gratification, and not on the ennobling effects or subtle manifestations of which it is capable.
There is a great deal in that well-known anecdote of Sir Walter Scott's, in which he relates that he “was acquainted with an old lady of family, who assured him that, in her younger days, Mrs. Behn's novels were as currently upon the toilette as the works of Miss Edgeworth at present; and described with some humor her own surprise, when the book falling into her hands after a long interval of years, and when its contents were quite forgotten, she found it impossible to endure, at the age of fourscore, what at fifteen, she, like all the fashionable world of the time, had perused without an idea of impropriety.” This is a striking illustration of the mere relativeness of such words as “morality,” “refinement,” and their opposites. If this old lady could have lived over her early youth embued with the refinement of taste which surrounded her declining years, she would have been still more shocked at the coarseness of language, and the looseness of conduct and morals which prevailed among the highest ranks. At the same time she would have observed, that the society which appeared to her coarse and corrupt was far from so considering itself. What is gross to one age may have been the refinement of the last. A young girl considered modest and discreet at the end of the seventeenth century, if transferred unchanged to the end of the eighteenth, would have shocked the women she met with by talking of subjects unmentioned in society with a freedom and broadness unusual among the men. In judging a literary work from the point of view of morality or refinement, we must compare it with the standard of the age to which it belongs, and not with our own. Pope's graphic lines, in which he describes Mrs. Behn's position as a dramatist,
“The stage how loosely doth Astraea tread,
Who fairly puts all characters to bed.”
apply almost equally well to her novels. But still the contemporary reader found nothing in their pages to offend his sense of propriety. And Mrs. Behn, who simply put into a literary form ideas and scenes which were common in the society about her, cannot with justice be accused of an intention to pander to the lowest tastes of her readers. She said herself, when reproved for the tone of her plays, which was much inferior to that of her novels: “I make challenge to any person of common sense and reason, that is not wilfully bent on ill nature, and will, in spite of sense, wrest a double entendre from everything * * * but any unprejudiced person that knows not the author—to read one of my comedies and compare it with others of this age, and if they can find one word which can offend the chastest ear, I will submit to all their pevish cavills.” All this is worthy of note, if we are to follow the course of English fiction without prejudice. For it will be shown that the nineteenth century, with all its well-deserved pride in an advanced refinement and morality, has produced a large number of novelists, both male and female, whose works are as immoral as those of Mrs. Behn, without her excuse. Who, with all the advantages accruing from life in a refined age, with every encouragement to pursue a better course, have deliberately chosen to court an infamous notoriety by making vice familiar and attractive. And this too, at a time when a general confidence in the purity of contemporary literary works has practically done away with parental censorship; when books of evil tendency are as likely to fall into the hands of the young and susceptible as those of elevating tendency—a circumstance which adds a new responsibility to the duties of the conscientious writer.
[Footnote 87: Dunlop's “History of Fiction,” chap. iv.]
[Footnote 88: “The Fair Hypocrite,” “The Physician's Stratagem,” “The Wife's Resentment,” “The Husband's Resentment,” in two parts; “The Happy Fugitive,” “The Perjured Beauty.”]
[Footnote 89: “History of Oroonoko,” Mrs. Behn's “Collected plays and novels.”]