| the ledge files
the ledge - nl - uk
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1688
refered to by:
Double Play: The Story of an Amazing World Record
Frank Martinus Arion
Annejet van der Zijl
|The novel, of course, owes equally to the romance and the history; Don Quixote, especially the second volume, can be seen as the history of a man who took romances too much to heart. Many early novels, to distinguish themselves from romances and to stake their claim to truthfulness, present themselves as histories (in several languages, notably French and Icelandic, the words for "history" and "story" are the same - histoire and saga, respectively). Aphra Behn, the first woman to make a successful career as a writer in England (1640-89), placed her short novel Oroonoko squarely in the category of a history by attesting that she herself had known Prince Oroonoko during her stay in Surinam, and that he had related the facts of his earlier life to her himself.
Various commentators over the years have used her assertions against her (there is more evidence supporting them than contradicting them), either to claim that she lied or to deny her skills as a literary artist, but claiming to be merely reporting a true story is a standard novelist's assertion. Behn had a specific polemical purpose in telling her story, which was to expose the slave trade between Africa and the New World. She could only make a splash by asserting the truthfulness of her account (many of the same issues were to come up 170 years later, with Uncle Tom's Cabin). She was well aware that her material was controversial, and it remains so, even though her novel is short, obscure, and entirely the province of academic specialists.
The history of Oroonoko is rather simple. The prince of a populous and prosperous but warlike tribe in West Africa, he falls in love with a beautiful maiden of the same tribe, Imoinda, who is also desired by his grandfather, the king, who although he is impotent designates her as his partner. For customary reasons, Imoinda cannot thereafter become the wife of Oroonoko, but they don't forget each other, and during a ceremonial dance she stumbles into his arms, arousing the suspicions of the grandfather, who later that evening discovers the two having a tryst. Imoinda is sold into slavery. Not long after, Oroonoko, too, ends up on a slave ship heading for the New World, as a result of the treachery of the English captain of the ship (who had invited Oroonoko onto the ship as his guest, then put him in chains).
Oroonoko ends up at Aphra Behn's plantation in Surinam, where he meets up with Imoinda. Behn takes an active interest in his story and his fate. He and Imoinda are married and she becomes pregnant. They now want to buy their way out of slavery before their child is born a slave, and the English slave owners agree to allow this, but repeatedly betray their word and refuse to free them. Oroonoko (renamed Caesar) leads a slave revolt. Thinking that he will surely die, he kills Imoinda (with her full cooperation) and then is captured. The uprising is put down; he is tortured, killed, and dismembered, stoic to the last.
In fact, Oroonoko owes quite a bit to the romance. Behn clearly imagines conditions in Africa, which she has never seen, to be somewhat like conditions at an elaborate European court, where power, convention, taboo and intrigue dictate the tragic outcome of romantic personal attachments, and the most worthwhile characters are the best-looking and the highest-born. Imoinda and Oroonoko conform to standard European ideals of male and female virtue - she is beautiful, loving and submissive, and he is doughty, handsome and virtuous. Conditions in Surinam are depicted with a greater sense
| of authenticity, and Behn spends some of her short narrative describing the Indian population as well as the landscape, flora and fauna. She also alludes to the cession of Surinam to the Dutch - Oroonoko's story takes place entirely within a recognisable historical context - but Oroonoko remains a romantic hero; his uniqueness is too great and his fate too dramatic for the reader to feel that she comes to know or understand him.
Behn does not use dialogue - every scene is narrated - and so Oroonoko's and Imoinda's voices are absent from the narrative (as are the voices of the English slave traders and slave owners). Behn was a dramatist and her other narratives make use of dialogue, but her technique wasn't sophisticated enough - and perhaps her polemical purpose was too great - to risk allowing Oroonoko to speak for himself (though she testifies that he speaks several languages as a result of exposure to Europeans in Africa). Undeniably, though, the tale she tells is a horrifying one; the reader doesn't have to feel for Oroonoko and Imoinda as individuals to recoil at their fate. What happens to them gains power insofar as it is shown to be representative of the way slaves are treated by their English masters in Surinam (and elsewhere, of course). The treacheries and brutalities of the English have a believable idiosyncratic cast that makes the reader nod and believe.
Behn's "The Fair Jilt" is a more traditional tale, and is in fact reminiscent of some of the darker tales of The Decameron. Miranda, a wealthy young woman who has lost her parents, is beautiful but secretly promiscuous. Her first victim is a young man who has gone into the Franciscan order because his brother has stolen his beloved and married her. Miranda throws herself at him, then accuses him of rape when he rejects her advances. He is put in prison. She then falls for Tarquin, who may or may not be the wealthy pretender to the throne of the Roman empire. He truly loves her, in spite of her evil nature, and they collude to rob her younger sister of her half of the family fortune by twice attempting to kill her so the money will revert to Miranda. Tarquin is tried and set to be beheaded, but the executioner misses his aim, and Tarquin is saved, only to demonstrate when he revives that he still loves Miranda, evil though she may be. Through various legal manoeuvres they are preserved from execution (though now impoverished) and they learn their lesson, going off to live peacefully together until they die of old age. Miranda's first victim is redeemed and released triumphantly from prison as well.
Behn doesn't fully explore the moral implications of this outcome or Miranda's transformation. Like Boccaccio, Behn accepts the existence of evil people. She is less interested in their moral improvement than she is in their adventures and their effects on those around them. She is not a psychological novelist as her near-contemporary Madame de La Fayette is, because Behn is more interested in actions than in reasons, or even in plausibility. That people act, and how these actions affect others, are as far as she goes. But Behn's work is worth reading not only for historical interest but also because she had an eye for what you might call the wonders of life. She was drawn to strong drama and didn't shrink from depicting violence and treachery, nor from expressing "feminine" feelings and thoughts about it. Her work is unusually bold and sometimes startlingly frank
- Jane Smiley, The Guardian, 15 April 2006
|BOOKS BY APHRA BEHN:|
An African slave leads a revolt in (English) Surinam.
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