[Not for distribution; comments welcome. 20 July 2000.]

Aphra Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister
Francis F. Steen, University of California at Santa Barbara
For a proposed collection, Early Women Writing, edited by Helen Ostovich
Dept. of English, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 4K1

[Facsimiles of the titlepage and page 4.]

In November of 1682, London's two theaters merged and the demand for new plays plummeted. Aphra Behn had made a good living writing a series of successful plays, but this development constrained her to look around for other work. A scandal had just broken out that provided her with the subject-matter for her first novel, the Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister: the titlepage capitalizes "noble-man" and "sister" to highlight its sensationalist theme of passionate incest among the nobility. In August, Henrietta Berkeley, the daughter of a prominent Tory, had eloped in the middle of the night from her parents' country estate to be with her lover, the Whig rebel Lord Grey. Her sister, Lord Grey's wife, was in turn engaged in an affair with the Duke of Monmouth, King Charles II's firstborn but illegitimate son. The Duke was the Whig's highly popular candidate for the royal succession (see Young Jemmy); he remained Lord Grey's close friend and political collaborator throughout the affair. These dramatic intersecting romantic and political triangles gave Behn the material she needed. [When Henrietta's father, the Earl of Berkeley, took her lover to court and charged him with abduction, Aphra Behn composed a fanciful political pamphlet, A New Vision, that used the scandal to discredit the Whig cause; around this time, she must also have started work on the novel.]

Over the following months, while her real-life hero secretly plotted with Monmouth to start a popular insurrection, Behn composed a series of fictional letters between Henrietta and her lover, lightly disguised as Silvia and Philander. This epistelary format was modeled on the Lettres Portugueses translated from French in 1678 by the Tory's chief propagandist, Roger L'Estrange. An account of intensely personal emotions, the Lettres created a genre that suited Behn: in spite of the dramatic events in which the lovers participate, her emphasis remains the tumultuous inner psychology of love.

In the eyes of the law, the affair was incestuous: Lord Grey was married to Henrietta's sister Mary and thus -- as we still say today -- her brother-in-law, a nomination that carried a considerable weight. The brash hero of the Letters, however, adoitly counters with the rebellious thrust of the Restoration libertine: "what's a Ceremony impos'd on man by custome? ... tis nonsense all" (facing page). As rakish as the royalist Wilmore in Behn's popular play The Rover, Philander appeals seductively to nature to licence his -- and vicariously, the readers' -- "mightier joys."

[Behn had frequently used her imaginative powers against the Whig opposition and may have been commissioned and paid by the government to undertake this sizeable project, but in the end, the Love Letters is not a very effective piece of propaganda. It is as if, during the act of composition, Behn becomes immersed in and captivated by her own fiction. Rather than blaming her immoral hero for seducing the heroine, she celebrates the passion of the lovers and the exceptional courage of her fallen heroine in standing up to her father, to convention, and to society.]

While she was composing the Love-Letters, in June of 1683, her dubious hero, Lord Grey, became a prime suspect in a suspected plot to kill the King and his brother. He was arrested and taken to the Tower of London, but his guard fell asleep and he walked down to the bank of the river Thames and made his escape. Henrietta joined him in the woods at his country estate, Up Park in Sussex, and together they boarded a small ship bound for France, at which point the novel ends. Only four months later, in October of 1683, it was entered in the Stationers Register, indicating that the manuscript was ready and likely already printed[ -- the date, shown on the titlepage as MDCLXXXIV (1684), may be an early example of a publisher's reluctance to make a book seem like last year's news too soon]. Its mix of politics and sexual intrigue proved so successful that Behn wrote two sequels over the coming years, loosely tracking her protagonists' fortunes from their flight to their return during the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.

[If Grey had not escaped, he may have suffered the laws' gruesome revenge for high treason: to be hanged, taken down alive, disemboweled, and cut into several pieces which were put on stakes around the city and left there for years. Behn's political sympathies lay wholly with the King, yet in this love story, it is hard not to root for the hero and the heroine as they make their escape.]

Further reading

Ballaster, Ros. Seductive Forms: Women's Amatory Fiction From 1684-1740. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

[Behn, Aphra. A New Vision of the Lady Gr----s, Concerning her Sister, the Lady Henrietta Berkeley. London: J. Smith, 1682. ESTC R39790.]

------------. Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, in The Works of Aphra Behn, edited by Janet Todd, vol. 2. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1992. The trilogy first appeared in three separate books:

Love-letters Between a Noble-man and His Sister. London, 1684. ESTC R12977.

Love Letters From a Noble Man to His Sister: Mixt With the History of Their Adventures. The Second Part by the Same Hand. London, 1685.

The Amours of Philander and Silvia: Being the Third and Last Part of the Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister. London, 1687. ESTC R209909.

Goreau, Angeline. Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. New York: Dial Press, 1980.

Greaves, Richard L. Secrets of the Kingdom: British Radicals From the Popish Plot to the Revolution of 1688-1689. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Todd, Janet M. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Warner, William Beatty. Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading In Britain, 1684-1750. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.






Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles