The Politics of Love: Propaganda and Structural Learning
in Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister

Francis Steen, Department of English, UC Santa Barbara
Revision of 22 August 2000; 14,000 words
Not for distribution -- prepublication draft
Forthcoming in Poetics Today


The Instructional Pact

"[P]ublic Pleasures and Divertisements," Aphra Behn asserts in the dedication to The Lucky Chance (1687), citing the authority of Cardinal Richelieu, are "the Schools of Vertue, where Vice is always either punish’t, or disdain’d. They are secret Instructions to the People, in things that ‘tis impossible to insinuate into them any other Way" (i). [1] The secrecy suggests a pact; unlike Lejeune’s unspoken "fictional pact" between the author and the reader (1989:14-15), Behn’s "instructional pact" must be established between the writer and the ruling elite, above the heads, as it were, or behind the backs of her audiences. Initially invoked as if it reflected a self-evident alliance between "Divertisements" and government, the proposed pact is grounded in a self-justifying effort to improve society through the moral education of its populace. Yet its payout is undisguisedly partisan: "I have my self known a Man," she brags, "whom neither Conscience nor Religion cou’d perswade to Loyalty, who with beholding in our Theatre a Modern Politician set forth in all his Colours, was converted, renounc’d his Opinion, and quitted the Party" (i-ii). If its purpose is to effect a locally contingent political conversion, such as turning Whigs into Tories, the instructional pact defines the duty of the writer to know, to discover, perhaps to be told what the government’s leaders need "the People" to believe, which political opinions and emotional attitudes they determine their subjects should embody, so that she can skillfully devise the means to "insinuate" these into her audiences through the uniquely efficacious delivery system of literature. [2]

Behn’s bold claims ring true; they articulate a relation between literature and power that in Marxist cultural studies has become axiomatic. [3] Still, I contend with her: the claim is inflated, a form of special pleading. In addressing Laurence Hyde, the Lord High Treasurer, and by extension the administration of James II, she is not simply making a factual claim about the effects of literature; she is speaking to power, currying favor with her prospective employers, and advertising the more plausible subtext that her writings are the products, as she puts it, "of a Heart and Pen, that always faithfully serv'd that Royal Cause" (ii). Her own words anticipate my objections: the non-political and unruly dimensions of imaginative fictions are tacitly acknowledged in the very phrase "publick Pleasures and Divertisements," an implausible and alarming name for a conscious educational program. We engage; are these possibilities mutually exclusive? Behn admits to holding a dual perspective: even as she openly extols the power of writers to reprogram their audiences in the service of the state, she owns that her task is largely defined by the need to please her audiences: "I value Fame," she writes, "as much as if I had been born a Hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful World, and scorn its fickle Favours" (ix). Not only are "the People" – supposedly manipulated, programmed – ignorant of her efforts to instruct them, she is entirely subject to their criteria for approving or disapproving of her craft. She cannot lecture them; they must be seduced and have ample opportunities to resist her advances. Why, then, does she flaunt her political intentions? In contrast to the wily Odysseus, whose Trojan horse deceptively concealed a murderous political interior behind its aesthetic surface, Behn openly reveals what by rights should be the secrets of her trade. Must not her common readers be kept in the dark about her proposed backhanded coalition between the author and state power? Is her openly professed loyalty tantamount to a betrayal?

Novels, John Bender argues, "are primary historical and ideological documents; the vehicles, not the reflections, of social change" (1987:1). Yet even as the claim that literature has real social effects has attained the status of a truism, the underlying reasons literature works have been left largely unexplored. What are the processes – psychological as well as cultural – through which the novel permits the reformulation of ideologies and participates in social change? It is here we need a deeper understanding to make sense of the apparent contradictions within Behn’s claims about her own work. Whatever our position on the hopeful contention that public entertainments improve morals in a way that is uniformly favorable to the authorities – Collier a decade later just as plausibly claims that "nothing has gone further in Debauching the Age than the Stage-Poets, and the Play-House" [4] – we are left with the claim of influence itself, the bare fact that literature affects people. The obverse of propaganda is absorption and learning: a strong position on the political and cultural power of literature is necessarily also a claim about the cognitive processes it enlists for constructing, interpreting, and integrating the life of fiction into the knowledge and dispositions of real agents. The challenge of a cognitive historicism is to bring an understanding of these processes to bear on literary works as they emerge from and participate in concrete historical events. In the following, I examine some of the ways in which the first volume of Aphra Behn’s epistolary novel Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister participates, in a suspended and indirect fashion, in the political turmoil of the early 1680s.

The decade building up to the near-universal – and therefore bloodless – betrayal of James II that constituted the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 marks a turning point in modern political history. The intense and sustained political conflict between the parliament and the king, notwithstanding its bickering tone, its sordid broadside debates, its political murders and character assassinations, its relentless use of propaganda and wholesale politicization of the arts, provided the spur for working out a new political philosophy that became the template of modern democracies by radically rethinking the nature of power. After Locke, the "great question" of government is not "whether there be power in the world, nor whence it came, but who should have it" (First Treatise, 106). The political reality that this pragmatic analysis of power made possible represented an epochal break with a form of government based on blood and lineage that had ruled Britain as far back as history could reach. The transition from subject to citizen was not simply institutional; it required a new cognitive organization, a new economy of the imagination. Both for the individual and the collective, a new mode of being had to be invented and practiced and gradually integrated into a new individual and collective identity. Despite her strident royalist convictions, Behn’s fictions provided an imaginative space where certain dimensions and possibilities of this far-reaching transformation could be explored. Herself a child of the emerging market for writers, she was driven in part by the necessity to please her audiences on her own terms, but she was also developing a decidedly liberal and feminist social agenda of her own. Financially, she was torn between the reluctant largesse of the aristocracy and the increasing buying power of that maligned and fickle crowd, "the People," to which she herself belongs. The result is, I argue, that she absorbs into herself some of the deeper currents of the times and comes up with her own solutions, inadequate and contradictory on the surface, yet conveying "secret Instructions" that are clearly at odds with her overt political sympathies.

The immediate focus of the crisis was the prospect that the King’s heir, his openly Catholic brother James, Duke of York, would reintroduce "popery" by force and set up an arbitrary government – a fear that paradoxically underlined the people’s conviction they possessed the power to resist (see Marvell, 1678). The Parliamentary opposition, satirically baptized Whigs, or horse thieves, united behind the Earl of Shaftesbury in proposing to exclude James from the succession and to let the throne pass to Charles’ firstborn but illegitimate son, the popular Protestant Duke of Monmouth. A final showdown took place at Oxford in March of 1681. Unwilling to meddle with God’s appointed succession, Charles II refused Shaftesbury’s suggestion of producing a rumored "black box" containing proof of his son’s legitimacy and promptly dissolved Parliament, never to call it again. Depriving the opposition of legal venues for their concerns, however, had a dramatic radicalizing effect. Shaftesbury turned republican; his secretary John Locke, who had previously supported a strong monarchy, wrote his subversive and at the time unpublishable Two Treatises of Government. Following a broad crackdown on the people’s rights – the revocation of ancient city charters, forced elections, and packed juries (Oldmixon, 1724: 279-88; Hill 1961: 196; Plumb, 1956: 55) – the Whigs rather ineffectively began to plot an insurrection, but were soon betrayed. In the fall of 1683, Algernon Sidney was prosecuted for suggesting, in a manuscript unearthed in his closet, that the king under certain circumstances might be resisted; he faced his executioners with defiance and incredulity (Sidney, 1683: 1; Hill, 1972: 197).[5] We can only be grateful Locke had the prescience to seek refuge in the United Provinces. By the spring of 1684, Dryden stridently and with ruthless wit advised the King that "These Sons of Earth are never to be trusted in their Mother Element: They must be hoysted into the Air and Strangled" (preface to Maimbourg, 1684), as if the status quo were in principle an unsurpassable achievement. It is in this environment that Behn, an inveterate royalist, developed her own imaginative and impassioned contribution to the cultural work of staking out of the province of modernity.

The cardinal question politics posed to the literary imagination was how to reconceptualize the precarious relation between the people and their monarch. Behn’s Love-Letters, I argue, develops an unstable but imaginatively attractive response: a relation of absolute and illicit passion. I examine in some detail how the semantic domains of love and politics are brought together in an unstable suspension, drawing on Turner and Fauconnier’s model of conceptual integration networks. The rhetoric of power is applied to love, a mapping that for Behn serves several purposes: it provides her readily with striking tools to dramatize the internal conflicts of love and honor; it reduplicates in a new key the ideological preoccupations of the Exclusion Crisis; and it allows her to explore, safely ensconced in a fictive world, ways to develop inwardly and psychologically satisfactory modes of being that in reality rely less on the outward existence of an absolute monarchy. These dimensions of fiction spring from Behn’s agenda as a novelist and undercut her role as a propagandist: the overt political potential of the story is backgrounded in favor of a psychological drama. I briefly develop some conceptual tools for modeling the specifically literary within the broader context of blending theory: the construction of a virtual agent, the opening of a possibility space, and structural learning. These tools in turn provide me with a way to respond to the broader question of how a well-informed and careful contemporary reader may have learned from the Love-Letters – that is to say, I attempt a reconstruction of some aspects of how the novel may have functioned at the time, both as literature and as propaganda, a reconstruction that in turn requires a fresh act of imaginative immersion on our part today.

The general framework of the paper is cognitive rather than formalist. By ‘cognitive’ I mean the proposal that our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings can usefully be described in terms of dynamic structures of representations embodied in material systems with a primary locus in the body and the brain. This framework challenges us to examine with great care the actual mental processes that drive interpretations and make literature possible and desirable, allowing us in turn to ground these in personal, cultural, and biological history. Since any critical discussion must assume that the meaning of literary works in some basic sense can be replicated, even if idiosyncratically, it is reasonable to infer that the basic processes that make this possible are recurring cognitive structures, processes of thinking that in themselves can be described and known. Commonsense psychology, which assigns thoughts and feelings to a combination of external causes and an internal thinker, does not lend itself to such an investigation. Careful attention paid to the mental processes involved in the literary experience provides a necessary link between the text and its historical significance, the respective focal points of the New Criticism and the New Historicism. The central task of cognitive criticism is to explicate how literature works, as part of a larger enterprise to explore literary meaning.

Creating a Virtual Agent

The Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister is a lightly disguised account of the tempestuous and scandalous love-affair between Ford Grey, one of the handful of Whig lords who masterminded the abortive rebellion of 1683, and his sister-in-law Henrietta Berkeley. The setting is revealed through diaphanous veils of fiction: in the pretended French original, Ford Grey is called Philander and cast as a young and noble hero of "the Rebellion of the true Protestant Hugonots in Paris" (1684: xx), a cause that was strongly supported in England. Their leader is the Prince of Condy, or Cæsario; in a transparent reference to the duke of Monmouth, the anonymous ‘translator’ speaks of Cæsario’s ingratitude to the King and coyly confesses she has rendered him "a little more parallel to that of a modern Prince in our Age." [6] Henrietta Berkeley – or Harriet, as she was called – is lightly disguised as Silvia, the younger sister of Philander’s wife; the "soft and amorous" (iv) correspondence discovered after the lovers’ flight are of course entirely of Behn’s invention. Rather than concealing the real subject-matter of her story – a move that would only make it less interesting – this transposition serves to deflect the referential immediacy of the political content, signaling that the real world of politics is less her topic than an imaginary but structurally parallel world of love.

Cast in the form of fictional letters between the lovers Silvia and Philander, the novel uses the background of current events at home to probe the rebellious psychology of illicit love. This first volume of what was to become a trilogy chronicles the affair from its inception in April of 1681, immediately following the King’s dissolution of the third Exclusion Parliament at Oxford, to the couple’s flight to the Continent after the revelation of the planned rising in June of 1683. [7] Already in October the work was entered in the Stationers’ Register (Stationers’ Company, 1914: 203), at a time when the treason trials were still in full swing (cf. Russell, 1683; Sidney, 1683; and Walcott, 1683). Behn may have been commissioned by the King’s Tory government to write the novel, as part of an ongoing campaign to discredit Grey and his cause. Citing her debt problems in August of 1685, Janet Todd argues "it is unlikely that Behn could have devoted herself to a long prose trilogy unless she was, in the end, expecting to receive an adequate financial reward" of a kind only the government could guarantee (Behn, 1992: x). In late 1682, on the other hand, London’s two theaters had merged and Behn’s market for plays dried up; writing a novel likely represented her best option in the literary marketplace.

From the opening dedication and argument, Behn deftly deflects the infected political issues of the day onto the attractive domain of love. The Love-Letters adopts a strategy of seduction, a move so effective that it threatens to swamp the very agenda it sets out to conceal. The dedication, addressed to James Condon, a supporter of the Duke of York, transposes the "tender passion" (iv) of the letters onto the author’s relationship to her patron through her fiction. Condon is explicitly compared to the fictive hero in an attempt to clear away objections to an imaginative immersion: she wants him to be like Philander, specifically "that part of his Soul that was possest with Love." Since Philander, anachronistically labeled a "French Whigg" and now clearly standing in for the contemporary Whig Ford Grey, was "a most apparent Traytor," they are of course very different, "for sure no man was ever so incorrigible so hardened in Torism as your self" (ix). Yet in spite of this, Behn writes, "at least for my own satisfaction, and that I may believe Silvia truly happy, give me leave to fancie him such a person as yourself" (xi). In order to access the fictive world of the novel, Condon must not only set his own identity aside, but must be willing to adopt the personal memories of the imagined character as if they were his own, just as Behn imagines herself in Silvia’s place. The circumstances of Philander’s situation, his past history, his projected desires and goals, and the obstacles he faces in reaching those goals – in short, his memories and dispositions as an agent, which define his identity – must be allowed to take the place of Condon’s own. Adopting the deictic center of the protagonist means, in cognitive terms, the creation of a virtual agent that inherits the structure of his own executive agent while it remains suspended. It is the use of this immensely powerful cognitive system that enables the embodied and personal intensity of the literary experience. [8] Condon – and through him, the reader – is invited to become Philander, who in turn stands in for Grey, even as it is taken for granted he will not lose track of who he really is. Behn’s innocent "fancie" forestalls the reader’s objections to identifying with a libertine rebel: this is the moment of easing the Trojan Horse through the city gates, an event that requires a partial dismantling of the defensive wall. [9]

In a eulogy to love, "that soft, that noble passion" (xvii), Behn extends the mapping to insinuate, in William Warner’s words, that Condon "can only realize his full loyalty to the king by becoming an impassioned lover" (Warner, 1998: 51). But how can the transgressive love affair of a rebel lord and his Tory sister-in-law provide paradigms of patriotism to a sworn royalist? Warner replies that "the Stuart monarchy seeks a certain liberation of desire;" the task of "Tory cultural mythographers" is thus "to seek to sustain a politically correct and personally satisfying synthesis of desire and loyalty, pleasure and royalism." Because of the flagrant lawlessness of the passion she celebrates, however, "Behn’s text reproduces rather than overcomes the contradiction between libertinism and the institution of political orders" (ibid.: 51-2). Since this contradiction is what makes the story attractive as Tory propaganda in the first place, however, what is puzzling is that Behn should even think of using it to create such a synthesis. She cannot hope to achieve political correctness; on the contrary, the scandalous nature of Silvia and Philander’s love must be precisely what makes it an interesting paradigm for the relation between a monarch and his people. In seeking a resolution at the other side of respectability, Behn extends the symbolic logic of the libertine reign of King Charles II, which defined itself in contrast with the failed and morally tight-laced Puritan regime. His court, Gilbert Burnet wrote, "was a Scene of Adultery, Drunkenness, and Irreligion, appearing more like Stews, or the Feasts of Bacchus, than the Family of a Chief Magistrate; and in a little Time the Contagion spread through the whole Nation, so that it was out of the Fashion not to be lewd, and scandalous not to be a publick Enemy" (qtd. in Oldmixon, 1724: 248). It is this ideology of rebellious desire that Behn articulates and develops, creating a daring warrant for the reader’s enjoyment.

Thus primed, we begin to open ourselves to the "secret Instructions" of fiction. Literary transactions, Hernadi writes, "should be viewed not so much as production leading to consumption but as seduction leading to consummation – to gratifying intercourse with the imagination of other people" (Hernadi, 2001). Concretely this means that before we can immerse ourselves into the imaginary world that the author proposes to us, we must leave our real-world identity and its concerns behind. The memories that constitute our selves as agents – who we are, whose coalition we belong to, what we have accomplished, what needs to be done, what obstacles face us, and so on – all of this must be put aside, filed away, written to disk. Not only don’t we have the working memory capacity to deal effectively with two entire worlds simultaneously; the very structure of our agency must be made available to a fictive self. To undergo this transformation, we must feel confident we won’t be led astray, since the gate through which we pass into the fictive world temporarily closes behind us. Once we submit to the world of the novel, we lose a certain amount of control to the author, as the internal logic of the story takes over. Learning from fiction will be most effective if the author can succeed in assuring the reader that he is in a protected space, a space where he can leisurely let his mind wander, where he can confidently adopt a novel deictic center and be possessed by a new self while his real self is suspended. The claim that literature is an extension of politics must necessarily be disruptive of this act of immersion; it requires the reader to track at once the author’s real-world hidden agenda and the fictive world she proposes. In this dedication, Behn wisely moves in the other direction: she disavows a political intent, disassociates the real world from the fictive, and playfully enjoins the dedicatee – and thus the reader – to relax and enjoy the story. The explicit moral of the dedication is not a political message, but "live then and love." Addressed as "you, who know no other want, no other blessing" (xix), Condon functions as a gateway for the reader to identify with the novel’s Philander. While the political resonates in the background, it is ridiculed and overmastered by love, which is proclaimed more important, more interesting, more valuable, and more conducive to happiness. Above all, love can be found vicariously in a story; all you need to do is forget yourself and open your heart to fiction.

The Absolute Monarch of the Soul

In the amorous correspondence between Silvia and Philander, serious obstacles – incest, honor, marriage – block the path to love. By asserting the supremacy of natural passion against arbitrary conventional morality, these barriers are slowly broken down and breached. Analogically, it justifies the king’s power as natural, hampered by the conventions of laws passed by Parliament. The most sensational dimension of this struggle is incest, signaled already in the novel’s title. Philander is Silvia’s brother – but only by convention, through his marriage to her sister. "What Kin my charming Silvia are you to me?" he pointedly asks; "No tyes of blood forbid my Passion" (5). Ellen Pollak rejects his argument as spurious:

Philander uses the fact that his relation to Sylvia is affinal (a legal relation created through his marriage to her sister) as opposed to consanguineal (a blood relation) to further question the natural basis for the rules that prohibit his having sex with her… In point of fact, as Sybil Wolfram’s work has shown, because the English concept of marriage in the seventeenth-century was based on the legal and religious doctrine of unity of husband and wife, "intercourse between affinal relations was … on a footing with and as much incest as intercourse between close blood relations." (Pollak, 1993: 153-4)

If Philander’s argument could be faulted simply by referring to establishment doctrine, however, such doctrines would remain permanently unassailable. Yet it is clearly not incoherent to construe incest in the way Philander does, as a biologically significant category that excludes individuals not related by immediate descent. [10] The hero’s straightforward case for challenging convention suggests Behn’s audience was fully able to appreciate his subversive reasoning. The strength of Philander’s argument, in turn, determines in part the degree of sympathy we as readers have for Silvia for accepting it: his eloquent appeal to nature serves to undermine conventional objections to their love.

The soft letters of the lovers moves the struggle between the King and his opposition into an interior psychomachia or civil war of the soul. "Traytor Honour heads the mutiners within," Silvia proclaims, and "makes War against almighty Love!" (57-8). Speaking of the objections of morality facing the lovers in terms of an insurrection against the King reverses the expected figuration: rather than occupying the place of the establishment, of honor and convention, the King stands for illicit love. "After a Thousand conflicts between Love and Honour," Philander writes, echoing both the prolonged Civil War and the more recent struggles between court and Parliament, Love emerges "absolute Monarch in my Soul" (2) Honour is no more than an "Idol," a "Tyrant" sent packing by "mighty" and god-like Love: "’tis vain to prescribe me measures" (4). The logic of absolute power presupposes the suppression of another’s will, the fulfillment of one set of desires at the expense of another. In this sense, an insurrection can take place squarely within the framework of royalism and even be justified by the ideology of absolute rule. During the persecutions of the Popish Plot, Charles was widely thought to be surrounded by evil counselors; as Holloway tells the story, the central purpose of the plans to seize the King was to disabuse him of their self-serving and delusory advice and return him to his own judgment, in a pious conviction that his untrammeled will would be benign (Holloway, 1684: 12). When Silvia’s hesitations are similarly attributed to "that cruel Councellor that would suggest to you a Thousand fond Arguments to hinder my noble pursute," the implied argument is that she is being diverted from the supremacy of the rightful reign of love, which properly should mould her will.

Philander’s lusty struggle with the constraints posed by convention is mirrored in the King’s impatience with the charters and laws which seemed designed to bind and fetter him. The prerogative of the King of England, Andrew Marvell noted with pride in Amsterdam on the eve of the Exclusion Crisis, "is no more than what the Law has determined," making him "the only intelligent Ruler over a Rational people" (Marvell 1677: 3). "Magna Farta," Cromwell had cursed (Hyde 1888 [1702-4]: 93); Charles looked at the absolutist states in Europe – above all, the highly successful centralized power of France – and felt himself entitled to more power. In the 1680s, the simmering conflict between Parliament and the King erupted repeatedly. Charles bitterly resented Parliament’s attempts to control him, repeatedly acting behind their backs. From the Dover Treaty of 1670, in which he broke the Protestant Triple Alliance in a secret deal with France, the King largely avoided Parliamentary accountability by accepting money from Louis XIV. The infamous Money Treaty of 1678, as Swift recounts in a note to Sir William Temple’s letters, aimed to fund a standing army and make the King "absolute master" of his realm (Temple, 1703: 355-56). The political opposition of the early 80s, as the Tory historian Echard later admitted, provided the King with "an Opportunity for the Remainder of his Reign to act more like an absolute Monarch" (qtd. in Oldmixon, 1724: 279). He initiated what Hill calls a "reign of legal terror against Whigs and dissenters" (Hill, 1972: 197), moving to suppress conventicles (Greaves, 1992: 91), pushing through the surrender of the corporate charters that protected the rights of Parliamentary boroughs (Plumb, 1967: 55), and replacing the London sheriffs through a "violent and farcical" election (Jones, 1961: 204), which gave him control of the courts through hand-picked juries. An organized insurrection seemed the only way to avoid the establishment of an absolutist state on the model of France.

In the Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, Behn explores the extension of the conceptual space of passionate and transgressive love into that of politics. She relies in part on the simultaneous activation of the conceptual domains of sexual love and social dominance hierarchies, each characterized by a distinct set of memories and patterns of inferences. Their coactivation makes possible what Turner and Fauconnier (1995) have called a conceptual blend. A blend is a creative mental simulation guided by a specific purpose at hand – say, entertaining her readers and at the same time fostering popular support for Charles II – that draws on at least two distinct conceptual spaces shared by writer and readers. Striking blends such as Behn’s are typically unstable; depending on point of view, some implications of a particular inference appear inappropriate or undesirable, while others seem fitting and attractive. Blending theory specifies that the mapping between domains is always selective; in the case of complex literary blends, however, the selection itself is not always firmly determined. There is often some looseness in the coupling of domains, which permits the kind of ambiguity or play of meaning noted alike by New Critics (Empson, 1930) and Structuralists (Culler, 1975) as characteristic of literature. The resulting tension creates an energy in the mind that allows it to strike out in new and unpredictable directions (for a discussion, see Bohm and Peat, 1987: 33). A novel may explore such contradictory implications by allowing them to slowly unfold, by attempting to contain them, or by proposing a novel and unexpected solution. In the Love-Letters, it is these open-ended potentials that engage the reader’s imagination.

The Law of the Father

Ford and Henrietta’s illicit affair provided an embarrassingly easy target for royalist propaganda. In the rhetoric of real-life seduction, Grey has abused the trust the Earl of Berkeley vested in him as his son-in-law to debauch his young and vulnerable daughter. The Tory regime deliberately cultivated a patriarchal ideology, bringing out Filmer’s Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings at the height of the Exclusion Crisis and turning it into the textbook of divine-right royalism. Within this context, the political mapping closest at hand is to assert that Grey has betrayed the King’s trust in a similar manner, seducing his child-like subjects through his rousing campaign speeches and pageants, or less specifically by challenging his authority. Behn shows no sign of adopting this point of view, although some of her readers have done so. "On the basis of her known Tory political allegiances," Ros Ballaster plausibly argues, "… it is safe to assume that she would have been unwilling to imply anything good could come out of a Whig rebel absconding with a Tory heiress" (Ballaster, 1992: 107). That this seemingly safe assumption so clearly fails – from the dedication onwards, the affair is celebrated rather than deplored – forms the interpretive crux of the Love-Letters.

The perspective Ballaster voices, however, is fully brought out by Harriet’s own father, prominent Tory, member of the Privy Council, and author of a frequently reprinted edifying moral tract. The Earl of Berkeley’s emotional and proprietary interest in his daughter is backed up by legal rights, and when she sneaks away from home in August of 1682 to be with her lover, under cover of darkness and wearing nothing but a light night-gown, he fights hard to get her back. When personal pleas prove to no avail, he enlists the aid of Dr. John Tillotson, the future Archbishop of Canterbury. The doctor impresses on her the "wicked & wretched condition" she is in and urges her to "think of reconciling yr self to God & to your best friends under him yr parents" (reprinted in Behn, 1992: 465-6). Harriet ignores him. Her father proposes to Grey that her inheritance of 6,000 be used to secure her a respectable husband; the lovers decline any solution that will separate them. In exasperation the Earl sues him, claiming Grey "did tempt, invite, and solicit" his daughter to "desert" him, while she was "under the Custody, Government and Education" of her father (Tankerville 1716: 4-5). "Hussey," he tells her repeatedly in court, "you shall go with me home" (ibid.: 91 [11]). She defies him. Through a pro-forma marriage to a servant of Grey’s, she has deprived her father of his legal title to her. After a brief scuffle with swords at the end of the trial, she is let go. "Take from me, good Lord," the Earl writes in his devout meditations, "both in my health and sickness, all that sinful, mis-becoming Impatience which so much prevails over me" (Berkeley 1680: prayer). Although Grey is found guilty, the suit is dropped.

It is in the perspective of the father, then, that Grey can be said to be "absconding with a Tory heiress," as if she had no legitimate agency of her own. The tension in Behn’s dramatization of the story relies on the conjunction of a patriarchal perspective on power and a feminist perspective on love. Clearly, adopting the father’s point of view would have provided a topical and ideologically correct mapping of the scandal onto the political debate: the King is the father of his child-like subjects. The attempts to base the monarchy on the god-given and aboriginal authority of the father over his children had a long precedent (Sweetser and Descamp, in preparation). It allows us to draw the line, as Tillotson does, from God through the parents to the child: our singular and irreplaceable father provides the ideal source domain for the loyal figuration of the king, who can be safely placed "immediate under God" along this vertical line (Mocket, 1663). It therefore comes as quite a surprise – and, for the authorities, perhaps a rather unpleasant one – that Behn does not situate her epistolary drama within this conventional and well-established paternalism. Instead, she elects to do something far more risky: to model the relationship between the king and his subjects on that of lovers.

It would of course be a mistake to conclude from this that Behn would advocate such an arrangement in real life: it is a problematic conjunction, one that is not sustained in the sequels to the Love-Letters, and the inferences that can be drawn from it are powerful, disruptive, and not easily contained. The attempt to read literature historically exposes us to the fallacy of failing to distinguish between executive action in the world and pretend action in a novel. Behn’s fictive world represents a cognitively distinct enterprise from that of practical politics, although the results may feed powerfully back into real life. The act of mapping politics onto the domain of love opens up a possibility space where the significance of political relations can be transformed, yet this transformation typically remains as it were suspended, subject to further elaborations, restrained by a lack of confidence in one’s own ability to carry it out or by assigning to it more generally a low probability of success. The advantage of fiction is that hypotheses can be tested without in any sense claiming that they are factually correct or even that they really would work in practice: the Love-Letters is in no sense social policy. Rather, the novel opens up an abstract topology that is the sum total of what could in theory be done, given the resources, skills, and capacities available in the actual situation. In practice, much of this space is out of bounds; it is far too expensive to test in real life all possible configurations of power and human relationships. Fiction, however, builds new structures of information in a playful manner, creating – long before postmodernism – a postmodern space of uncertainty, suspension, transgression, and unstable categories.

The mapping onto contemporary politics is thus both precarious and counterintuitive. While we might have expected Philander to be censured in parallel for sexually wooing a woman and politically wooing a people he has no natural right to, Behn subtly turns the tables on her audience. Far from moralizing, she transforms the illicit lovers into delightfully dubious champions of Stuart absolutism. These resonances between the Love-Letters and contemporary politics formulate an unstable and counterintuitive ideology of spontaneous and all-encompassing but also beneficent desire. The protestations of Honour are "banish’t"; in the court of love, there are no negotiations, no compromise, no binding customs, inconvenient laws, or nagging parliaments (2).

Not-So-Secret Instructions

The immediate purpose of the Love-Letters’ seductiveness is to ensure the reader’s imaginative immersion; once that has been accomplished, it may be possible to sneak in some propaganda. While Behn from the beginning speaks of love as an absolute monarch and honor as staging an illegitimate rebellion against him, she coquettishly confuses the initially straightforward mappings onto contemporary political realities, as if skirting an anticipated imaginative resistance. In sharp contrast to Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a devastatingly effective attack on the Whigs, the Love-Letters do not simply transpose partisan politics into a new key. Just as Silvia must be passionately courted, so the reader must be laboriously seduced into adopting the virtual identities of the protagonists. Through Condon and indeed through Behn’s expressions of explicit delight in her own fiction, the reader is asked to imagine that Philander has the potential to make Silvia "truly happy" (ix) – suggesting a prototypical and entirely apolitical narrative (cf. Hogan, this volume). Politics will intrude, but only as a supplement; the great theme will be love.

The first explicit intrusion of the topically political occurs just after the lovers have agreed on their first tryst and come wrapped in protestations that subordinate social ambition to love. In response to his own surmises that Silvia might be concerned, Philander affirms in this fifth letter that his lover "knows no business cou’d divert me" (34). "No," he avows in characteristic hyperbole, "were the Nation sinking, the great Senate of the world confounded, our Glorious Designs betray'd and ruin'd, and the vast City all in flame; like Nero unconcern'd I'd sing my everlasting Song of Love" (34-5). Silvia is alarmed. She imagines him "hudled up confusedly with [his] graver business of State, and almost lost in the ambitious crowd" (1684:114) – incidentally, a nonsensical charge, as she (and her creator) should know that at that movement he is alone at the neighbor’s cottage and not in London. Their rendezvous planned for that night, she places "this fatal Interest you espouse" and his love for her in opposition, yet the contrast at first remains on a purely personal level, as jealousy of "that haughty Tyrant Mistress" (114). As the intensity increases and she imagines the moment when "I give a loose to Love," the real-world consequences of his politics finally intrude: "I have a fatal prophetick fear, that gives a check to my soft pursuit, and tells me that thy unhappy ingagement in this League, this accursed Association, will one day undo us both" (114-15). The involved reader, set up to look forward to the secret tryst, is now compelled to deal with this obstacle on the writer’s terms. This reproduces the momentary dynamic between Silvia and Philander. Like the reader, he is limited to reading while he waits for night to approach; both are thus cajoled into entertaining her political views.

In a single letter, Silvia finally talks straight politics. Appealing to reason, she begins by arguing the risks outweigh all possible rewards. "Consider my Lord you are born Noble" (119-20); the glory he can hope to win "is but a glittering light that flashes for a moment," leaving him with "an eternal blemish upon your honest fame and house" (120). This parallels the line of attack Behn utilized in Young Jemmy: the motive for rebelling is reduced to a personal desire for glory, the project should obviously be rejected on moral grounds, and the chances of long-term success are null. Whether intentionally or not, the portrayal of the Whigs’ agenda reveals an abject failure of the political imagination: a constitutional monarchy, much less a liberal democracy, is simply not thinkable; there is no credible alternative to a line of strong kings and thus no need or room for politics. By default, the only remaining comprehensible motive for rebellion is the personal ambition to replace the King, a quest that faces impossible odds. Charles "holds his Crown by right of Nature, by right of Law, by right of Heav’n it self;" his reign has secured "Peace, plenty, ease and luxurious happiness" (128-9). Monmouth, to her mind, is no match: he would be "a King without Law, without right, without consent, without Title, and indeed without even competent parts for so vast a trust" (129). Renounce him, she urges, drawing the decision back into the personal sphere: "remember Mertilla, and then renounce him" (132).

Philander’s damning defense confirms Silvia’s analysis. Conjuring up an implausible Queen Silvia, he attempts to deflect the promised glory towards her, as an expression of his love. He will deliver "Crowns and Scepters at her feet" and seductively paints "the lovely Virgin" into a theatrically feminized fantasy of power: "her Chariot slowly driving through the multitude that press to gaze upon her, she drest like Venus richly gay and loose, her Hair and Robe blown by the flying Winds" (140-1). No infamy will adhere to his name, as "that cause is always good that’s prosperous" (143). The characterization of the struggle is in an important sense pre-political: there is no conception of a social order, legal system, or collective decision making. There is no hint of the actual political ideas that animated the Whigs; in Philander’s vision, nothing is at stake beyond the relative advantage of individuals in a social hierarchy. In spite of the flourishes, the tone is desperate: "’tis already too far to put a stop" to the "great design," yet nothing appears to be designed (142-3). Edging towards a Hobbesian vision of "a warre, as is of every man, against every man" (Hobbes, 1997 [1651]: 70), Philander argues the simple object is power, and "Cæsario has no more right to it than Philander" (145). A vicious diatribe against his own collaborators implausibly follows.

Behn’s direct propaganda is nasty and not particularly subtle. The integration of the partisan perspective into the narrative is awkward, though not entirely incongruous. It is swiftly left behind: while the careful construction of the drama of the lovers creates an opportunity for the propagandistic moment, the event has no narrative consequences. Silvia threatens that "Silvia or Cæsario must be abandon’d" (134) only to add, "Two hours hence I shall expect you" (135); Philander swear he is in it too deep to pull out safely, yet assures his love, "I will sacrifice all to her repose" (151). Leaving the level of manifest politics behind, Behn returns to is the libidinal economy of love as an analog of the symbolic significance of the king, an area where her dramatization is richly suggestive.

Obtaining the Father’s Power

After protesting his politics, Silvia has exhausted her objections. She admits him to her room at night, begging him not to "ruin her honor" in terms that make it clear there is nothing she desires more. Yet Philander, inconstant to his name, fails to achieve the anticipated perfect enjoyment. Recapitulating the minimal narrative structure of the Love-Letters in the tried metaphor of a military campaign, he torments himself with his hard-won amorous achievements. How can he endure "all the fatigues and toyles of Loves long Sieges, Vanquisht the mighty Fantôm of the fair, the Giant Honour, and routed all the numerous Host of Womens little Reasonings, past all the bounds of peevish Modesty," only to fail at the moment of reaching the body itself? As the abstract obstacles of reason and honor – mapped imaginatively onto distance, time, and a landscape of obstacles – are overcome, only the ramparts of her clothes, in a suddenly eroticized image of "the loose and silken Counterscarps that fenc’d the sacred Fort," are left: "nothing stop’d my glorious pursuit." Silvia has offered him her "sacred and inestimable treasure" (176); why did he not seize it, experienced plunderer of female chastity as he is? Ludicrously, he worries his reputation will suffer (179), as if he anticipated the reader of his letters. Grey, we may recall, was taunted as "Cold Caleb" in Absalom and Achitophel, presumably for his apparent nonchalance at being cuckolded by his best friend. Philander’s worries about his new-found "degree of coldness" (180) appear designed to evoke the contrasting public persona of the super-sexed libertine.

Through his apparent inability to explain his sudden impotence – was it "by an over transport," by some "hidden Witchcraft" (177)? "I want Philosophy to make this out" (185) – the real reason sneaks up on the reader. Philander recounts coming into the garden, already primed with fear: "I had ‘tis true for Silvia’s sake some apprehensions of fear of being surpriz’d" (180), and not merely for Silvia’s sake. A man – in the dark, he half imagines him – approaches him, calling; he knows it must be the father. This confrontation – momentarily delayed, as the trembling lover escapes unseen into the mansion – is of particular interest, as it appears to be entirely of Behn’s invention. It shows signs of having been written for another purpose and inserted. In mid-sentence in the previous letter, Silvia for the first time suddenly switches from Philander to Lysander (173); in this letter he uses both names and signs off Lysander, never to use it again. Behn may have expanded her poem "The Imperfect Enjoyment" for the stage and decided to use it in the novel; the fact that the hero’s name survived into the new text is an indication of the speed with which she composed. The Love-Letters make scant use of the dramatic potential of the actual events with which its author was intimately familiar – little is done with the secret plot or even the trial; the brief account of the escape to the Continent is at best a fortuitous climax – but it stages a masterly theatrical scene in the garden at Bellfont/Durdans. While the scene appears to have no basis in the actual course of Ford and Henrietta’s affair, it is remarkably well integrated into the plot and dramatically entirely, even intensely, appropriate.

The tryst itself is now surrounded by the prowling presence of the father, predator-like, circling his prey in the darkness. Silvia’s loveliness fails to assuage her lover. No sooner aroused, he is startled by "a sudden fright that in a moment chang’d my Feaver of Love into a cold Ague fit (181-2); his performance not so unaccountably suffers. An "unhappy noise at your Chamber door" has a similar result on her "trance" (185). She decides he must leave at once, disguised; dressed in "Melinda’s Night Gown and Head dress," he flees hesitantly into the garden. By the dim light of a cloud-covered moon, he sees "a man taking towards me with cautious speed" (187). Melinda, he now recalls, had made an assignation with the Count "to get rid of him" (163) at an inopportune moment; he must step into the role. Satirically hailing him as "a Maid of Honour," Monsieur urges the pretend-Melinda to retreat with him for "a present of a heart and something else" (188); the courtship is brief.

Philander’s role is deliciously reversed; he must now argue the virtues of chastity and honor to avoid certain discovery. "[C]onsider I’m a Maid," he ventures; "Heavens, would you make a Mistress of me?" (189-90). The father sardonically counters, "what wouldst thou be a Cherubin?" The fact of sexuality cannot be denied; the loss of chastity is inevitable and requires no ceremony. Appealing to a distinction the Count refuses to acknowledge, Philander pleads, "I am no Whore, Sir." The father responds with exaggerated brutality: "No crys he, but I can quickly make thee one, I have my Tools about me" (190). Philander almost "burst out into loud Laughter" (190). The rapid escalation culminates in action: the Count "clapt fifty Guinnies in a Purse into one hand, and something else that shall be nameless into the other" (191) – presents, Philander comments disparagingly in his letter, "that had both been worth Melinda’s acceptance" (191). The dramatic sequence works so well and is so intimately fitted into the internal logic of the narrative that it is easy to forget how entirely implausible it is that Philander would succeed in passing himself off as a woman under such intimate circumstances. In an ironic reversal, he turns the tables on the Count to get away: pretending to fear discovery, he convinces his discoverer to turn his back to look – "that my fear may not disturb your joys" – and slips away.

The fact that the reader’s imaginative resistance is so entirely absent at this point testifies to the dramatic integrity of the scene and strongly suggests the network of references to the real world of politics has been effectively severed. Yet it is worth recalling who these fictive characters are molded on. For the novel to have any political impact, the behavior and attitudes of the fictional characters must continually be mapped onto and employed to activate inferences about real political actors, as they clearly are in the propaganda letters just discussed. Yet the "Monsieur le Comte" that Philander meets in the garden is intensely apolitical; his behavior is compelled by narrative necessities rather than by those of the real world; the character violates the mapping. Logic dictates he must be identified with Baron Berkeley, the author of a pious tract, a loyal member of the King’s Privy Council. Yet such an identification is incongruous; it appears that the correspondences to the world of men has been largely sacrificed in favor of the drama of the encounter.

If the Comte does not convincingly or prominently stand for the political Earl of Berkeley, he indubitably stands for the familial father: as Warner argues, a figure with "prehistoric" dimensions (Warner, 1998: 58). While the impact of the encounter is clear, its emotional logic appears to be largely tacit. Yet the basic parameters are straightforward; the drama hinges on three simple facts. So obvious as to risk escaping attention is the father’s assumed determination to prevent his daughter’s sexual activity: this represents the basic level of threat to the lovers and is what forces Philander to disguise himself from his own father-in-law. The second is the father’s sharply contrasting callous indifference to Melinda’s desire to preserve her virginity. The last is the raw and unconstrained power of his own sexuality. Pace Warner, there is no reason to conflate his determination to keep Silvia chaste with his sexual designs upon Melinda: he is not Philander’s sexual rival for his daughter’s favors. The dramatic conflict relies precisely on the asymmetry between his brutal disregard of Melinda’s virtue and his assumed extreme solicitation for his own daughter’s chastity.

The relative decoupling of the fictive world from the real world of politics on the level of a one-to-one mapping not only facilitates a richer psychological set of inferences, as the drama is freed from the concrete limitations of the real situation; it also opens for the possibility of a political impact on a deeper or more general symbolic level. Yet the dramatic significance of the Count’s double standards is not self-evident. As Silvia’s father, if not as Lord Berkeley, the Count’s behavior might have the effect of discrediting him morally – that is to say, it could be seen to erode the validity of his insistence that his daughter should be virtuous, since he shows such an active contempt for virtue in his own actions. Where his supposedly immoral daughter has delayed sex in favor of a prolonged courtship to test the sincerity of her suitor, creating a context of strong mutual love and reciprocal commitment, her supposedly moral father declares he is ready to turn a young woman in his charge into a whore. Conversely, and at the same time, it could be argued that the father’s crude behavior does nothing to undermine his paternalistic authority: he is simply taking care of his daughter’s sexuality for perfectly comprehensible and selfish reasons. Silvia is his blood relation; Melinda is not, so he has no emotional investment in her well-being. As a servant girl, she should be flattered by the attention and grateful for the offer: sexual morality could be considered a class privilege. Yet this latter perspective, even as it falls short of branding the father as immoral, trivializes his moral stature. We know Melinda is in love with Alexis; she had no intention to let the Count procure her. The appeal to a morality grounded in pure self-interest serves to free Philander from the terror of the father. The latter’s moral capital is squandered: where Berkeley’s stature is increased through his moral tract, among other themes lamenting marriage for money (1680: 34), the Count, sheltered by the darkness, uses his wealth to prey on virgins.

Yet the encounter is not with Melinda. It could have been: if what we needed to see was simply the bestial amorality of the father, a letter from her would suffice. She could provide the reader with a direct and vivid access to the father’s depraved psychology, divesting him of his moral authority. But the fact that Philander has taken her place is infinitely more effective: it creates the impression of a desire that is doubly and indisputably inappropriate. It cannot even be taken seriously, other than as a threat to the lovers’ well-being. It pits the lovers squarely against the power of the father – but it is a power that shreds its own legitimacy even as it is displayed. The exaggerated coarseness of the act invests it with a powerful but opaque symbolic power. As he holds his adversary’s money in one hand and his penis in the other, Philander is suddenly tempted to laugh: the father has inadvertently transferred his power to him. He can safely be deceived.

The scene in the garden strips the father of moral authority, thus clearing the way for Philander to have sex with Silvia. More strongly, the dramatic purpose of the scene is to legitimate their relationship. Politically, this is a highly problematic move: there can be no doubt that her readers at some level would read the father as Lord Berkeley, even as that link is maintained in a fictive suspension. The dramatic legitimacy of the lovers is achieved at the price of an outrageous slur on a leading Tory. By discrediting him, it pays the price of discrediting itself as effective loyal royal propaganda. Behn had argued in the dedication that being a good lover is the primary criterion for being a good subject to the king. Now it is becoming clear that she wishes at any price to make Grey a good lover, even though he is a traitor; Berkeley, in contrast, is dismissed as a poor lover, even though he is a loyal and supportive subject. The contradiction is only a particularly striking example of the persistent tension in Behn’s work: as a novelist, she opts for high-quality love in the relationship between Ford and Henrietta, even though this is in clear opposition to being a good subject.

This contradiction is not necessarily destructive, but it does not appear to permit a resolution on a literal level. Behn vacillates between identifying her protagonists with real political agents and embedding them within a fictive world with an autonomous dynamic. Her strongest claim to loyalty lies in her persistent attempt to map the sentiment of love, the internal battle of erotic affection, onto the public struggle for power.

The Ideology of Absolute Desire

The psychology of love provides a particularly rich set of mental and physiological responses for modeling the state. It suggests a passionate commitment to mutual support to the point of adoration in the relationship between the chosen sovereign and the subject, and can be gendered either way. [12] On the other hand, love is prone to change its object, opening up for betrayal and infidelity, a problem that is much less prominent in the metaphor of the father. As if in an attempt to forestall these possibilities, Philander and Silvia’s repeated insistence that they are unable to withstand or renounce love form a central topos of the Love-Letters. This rhetoric of compulsion serves in part to vouchsafe sincerity: while free will opens for the possibility of reflection, selfishness, and deception, the claim of a subjectively experienced necessity of love is reassuring for a continued commitment.

What underwrites the legitimacy of love’s total dominion in the soul is the apparent immediacy and necessity of desire. Philander recounts how his desire is inflamed by recalling memories of Silvia into consciousness, by visualizing "her dress all negligent as when I saw her last, discovering a Thousand ravishing Graces" (3). The longings these images arouse appear to be insensitive to the distinction between what is present and what is merely remembered, and he hastily restrains his own productions for fear of being overwhelmed by the elicited emotions: "Oh I dare not think on, lest my desires grow mad and raving" (3). The ability to deliberately recall memories into consciousness in order to experience and to enjoy the mind’s response to them is potentially problematic: physically experienced longings are elicited in the absence of any object of desire with such strength that we must hold our representational horses. The apparent immediacy and power of the evoked emotional response Philander experiences constitutes for him "enough to justifie that flame in me, which our weak alliance of Brother and Sister has render’d so criminal" (4). He adopts the strength and speed of the desire as sufficient ground to champion illicit love in the face of honor’s opposition: it is experienced as "too mighty" too resist, as god-like in its unqualified being.

In the language of structured connectionism, the rhetoric of the lovers coactivates the domains of love and politics. Each of these have rich sets of logical implications. The domain of love calls forth associations of the physically erotic, the natural, of going beyond convention, of passion, compulsion, and irresistible urges. On the other hand, love also involves the dangers of deceit, of guileful seduction bordering on rape, with the attendant loss of virginity, honor, reputation, and social standing. The conflict set up by these contrasting sets of entailments plays itself out in part between the lovers, in part within, where the respective strength of each blessing must be weighed against the other. Clearly, the optimal solution is loving cooperation: mutual self-sacrifice and devotion, faithfulness, and exclusiveness, a solution made explicit and socially sanctioned in the rite of marriage.

This harmonious and ideal solution, however, is of course precisely what Silvia and Philander are denied: he is already officially committed to her sister and thus cannot provide her with the respectability, honor, and security of marriage. To compensate for the unavailability of marriage, the natural, the erotic, compulsive, and irresistible dimensions of desire are magnified beyond all bounds: "Granting my passion equal to its object," Silvia exults, "you must allow it infinite" (211). At the same time, the concern of honor, reputation, and marriage is demonized and ridiculed as an opposition lacking any legitimacy, as tyrannical; marriage is "a trick devis’d by the wary old," as Philander says (5); the "nonsense" of "imposing Gown-men," as Silvia puts it; cold, without passion, or lecherous and disgusting (335). What matters in love is not the piece of paper or the approbation of others, but the psychological, physiological, and emotional commitment that ensures faithfulness. This is an exciting and acceptable resolution in the domain of love, perhaps precisely because it lacks the predictable stability of marriage.

This view of love and this dynamic of desire transposes and resonates with the political. Using the language of absolutism, Behn casts the doubts and conflicts of love as an interior power struggle, a civil war between love and honor. The "secret Instruction" of the novel lies in part in the fact that love invariably triumphs and the insurrection led by the usurper and traitor Honor is crushed; the god of love is as it were confirmed and reinstated as rightful ruler and reigns without opposition in the now pacified soul. Yet when this struggle finds its solution in self-sacrificing and fruitful devotion without the official blessing of law and community in marriage, these implications also feed back into the political domain. The triumph of love against convention translates into an affirmation of the primordial legitimacy of the king as lover, subject to no bounds, and met with self-sacrificing devotion on the part of the loving subjects. By being processed in the conceptual blend (cf. Turner and Fauconnier 1995: 185), absolutism gets converted into an ideology of desire. The legal constraints that the "wary old" attempt to impose on the king are by implication similarly ridiculed and delegitimated. If the king is the people’s lover, Parliament is his boring and pestering wife.

What guarantees the legitimacy of desire itself? In part, it can be grounded in nature. The emotions that appear to spring unmediated from the depths of the mind are easily invested with the ineluctable force of nature. As McKeon points out, in the late seventeenth century the natural was beginning to be seen as "an intricate and self-regulating … order that seemed to be coextensive with God’s spiritual order" (McKeon 1987: 199), characterized not by God’s participatory intervention but by his mysteriously perfect design. "Where an Appetite is universally rooted in the Nature of any kind of Beings," Thomas Taylor argued in a 1697 sermon, "we can attribute so general an Effect to nothing but the Maker of those Beings" (qtd. in McKeon 1987: 203). Yet in the Love-Letters, desire exceeds even the bounds of nature. Philander argues that Silvia’s – the imagined Silvia’s – ability to arouse an illicit passion in him must be the very quality that justifies this passion; his desire is thus self-validating and "shou’d force all obligations, all laws, all tyes even of Natures self" (4).

These sentiments echo the ambitions of the reigning monarch. "After the Dissolution of the Oxford Parliament everyone knows King Charles the IId set up a Despotick Power," Oldmixon writes; "That Plots were formed to murder the principal Promoters of the Exclusion Bill and their Abettors; That the Kingdom was overrun with Informers, Prosecutions, Imprisonments, Fines, Misery and Ruin on Account of Conscience" (Oldmixon 1724: 279) – what Behn in her introduction charmingly calls "the blessed Age of swearing, and the hopeful Reign of evidences" (ix-x). Perhaps most harrowing is that James, Duke of York, if the historian Richard Greaves is right, personally arranged for Essex’s throat to be cut in the Tower in July 1683 in order to secure guilty verdicts for the rebels (Greaves 1992: 219-29). [13] On the strength of Essex’s supposed suicide, Lord Russell was convicted for an assassination plot he had vigorously fought against; Sidney was executed for "defending the view that governments might be resisted in certain circumstances" (Hill 1972: 197), and that in an unpublished manuscript. "This Godlike King," Behn writes in the same period; "all Good, all Gracious, Calm and Merciful," "indear’d … to us by his wondrous care and conduct, by securing of Peace, plenty, ease and luxurious happiness" (123, 130).

Structural Learning

The pleasures of fiction have their own logic. While we cannot be sure that Behn was paid to write the Love-Letters as Tory propaganda, we can be reasonably confident that, inter alia, this is how she intended it to work. In order to function as effective propaganda, however, the novel had to be crafted so that it seduced its readers into performing the act of imaginative immersion. The cognitive task of fiction, I have briefly proposed, is to create a simulated world where fictive agents can explore remote but attractive possibilities inherent in reality itself, not for the purpose of planning actions but to improve the internal organization of information. These potential modes of being are in any case typically not immediately realizable: they may be too hard or expensive to implement, requiring personal commitments that cannot be made, or carry with them undesirable downstream consequences. Nevertheless, the exploration of fictive world must be guided and animated by desires that relate in complex ways to the real world and permit patterns to be abstracted – schemas of attitudes and actions – that conform to what in principle could be utilized in reality.

The complex cognitive demands that are placed on fiction, I suggest, make it a major challenge to integrate the "instructional pact" between the writer and her employer with the "fictional pact" between the writer and the reader. In the former, writing is a tool, for instance for government propaganda; in the latter, the reader implicitly trusts the writer to generate a safe and fruitful learning environment – one that has no immediate consequences for the real world. At the limit, fiction calls on and engages a cognitive mode that is distinct from that required for action, a learning mode whose goal is to improve the organization of information, in contrast with the executive mode of real-world action, whose purpose is control. The "instructional pact" represents an attempt to co-opt the learning mode for executive purposes, an attempt that underlies Behn’s contradictory accounts of her own art. The straightforwardly propagandistic letters I examine above discredit Behn’s claim that "publick Pleasures and Divertisements" can "insinuate" "secret Instructions": they are too blatant, a caricature of fiction.

In The Distinction of Fiction, Dorrit Cohn argues that "fictional narrative is unique in its potential for crafting a self-enclosed universe ruled by formal patterns that are ruled out in all other orders of discourse" (Cohn, 1999: vii). These include "adherence to a bi-level story/discourse model that assumes emancipation from the enforcement of a referential data base; employment of narrative situations that open to inside views of the characters’ minds; and articulation of narrative voices that can be detached from their authorial origin" (ibid., viii). Clearly, what Cohn describes are cognitive processes as much as formal characteristics of texts. The emancipation from a "referential data base" does not mean that fiction is entirely non-referential, however; rather, the references are made in an exploratory and playful fashion. The various interpretations of the Love-Letters, for instance, are all grounded in some way in the referential reality of Behn’s personality, her society, the events she fictionalizes, or common psychological processes. The "employment of narrative situations that open to inside views of the characters’ mind" is designed to assist in what I have briefly described as the construction of a virtual agent, the cognitive move that permits imaginative immersion in the story. The detachment of narrative voices from authorial origin frees the reader to create the narrator himself. The move is signaled from the beginning in Behn’s pretense that she is no more than the translator of a found trove of French Huguenot letters, a pretense that would have been no more credible to a contemporary reader than it is to us today. It serves the purpose not of distancing the events from their contemporary originals, but to place them in the space of fiction, where they can be processed through imaginative elaboration rather than referential precision.

The act of writing must itself be understood as an activity in the learning mode; this may give it the appearance of a failed project if evaluated according to executive criteria. Critics have noted that Behn’s strategy of focusing on the symbolic significance of absolute love as an exemplary paradigm for the relations between the king and his subjects provides an uneasy marriage of her support for the King and her feminist views on relationship. Goreau, like Warner above, convincingly argues that the contradictions do not eventually resolve themselves. "Tory doctrine," she writes, "of course assumed the identification of kingly authority with paternal right." Behn’s whole literary work, in contrast, "was implacably committed to the promotion of disobedience to parents, particularly to fathers, in the matter of marriage" (Goreau, 1980: 251-2). Surely the writer was unaware that these perspectives diverge: "Aphra’s Tory politics were never elaborated to a sufficient degree of sophistication to reveal the contradiction" (ibid.). Yet the Love-Letters is precisely dedicated to dramatizing the contradiction, from her frank dedication to Condon to her sustained portrayal of Silvia’s anguish at defying her father to run away with a man who rebels against his king. It would surely be a mistake to suggest Behn qua novelist is aiming for consistency, or even that the tension must necessarily be resolved. More to the point, Martha Nussbaum argues that literary works are themselves ways of knowing the human world that cannot be reduced to traditional forms of philosophy (Nussbaum, 1995: introduction). The novel is precisely Behn’s sophisticated and public elaboration of her thoughts and feelings around Tory royalism, cast in a format designed to open rich possibilities for structural learning.

What, finally, do we learn from the Love-Letters? On the one hand, the metaphor of the king as the people’s illicit lover provides a cognitive template that invites the inference that no bounds of law or convention must be placed on the king’s power. Yet there is equally room to entertain inferences that go against Behn’s political convictions. A lover-king can be no despot if like Philander his desires are closely regulated by Silvia, the popular object of his affections. Indeed, she is free to reject him altogether, even after she has proclaimed her love, as she one occasion does: a consultation with her sister – his wife – convinces her to end the immoral affair, though she quickly relents. A lover-king would similarly be subject to the whims of his subjects. Again, another lover may be ready in the wings, as Foscario is for Silvia; Philander has no guarantee that he will be favored. Similarly, the rebels’ replacement candidate, the duke of Monmouth, could according to the logic of love legitimately sway affections to his side. Turner and Fauconnier (1995) detail how conceptual blends are formed by drawing selectively from the input domains. In the interpretation of fiction, the inputs are not simply drawn selectively to obtain a single solution, but multiple possible selections are tested, not in order to discover the single true solution but to explore a field of possibilities.

Although I have focused on the mappings onto politics, much of Behn’s fiction is focused instead on exploring the possible ways in which the mind in love argues, resists, yields, and doubts. She teaches us ways of being and feeling, possible strategies that we as human beings can access if the situation arises. In identifying with a fictive character, the reader makes available core elements of his cognitive structure for the purpose of the fictive simulation: he feels, he remembers, anticipates, hopes, desires, laughs, and cries. The goal of this experience cannot be consistency; real love and politics do not present us with a ready-made and single doctrine, and fiction is closer to life than systematic thought. Instead, what is cultivated is a variety of strategies for dealing with a single phenomenon, from different angles, according to different perspectives. The critic’s job is in part to bring out this multiplicity of possibilities, not because the reader necessarily develops them all (this is not empirical reader-response research), but because it is part of the native design of fiction, formally in the text as well as cognitively in our minds. Our learning from fiction must similarly rely on a complex set of tentative relations to the real world. These relations form embryonic dispositions, seeds of further thoughts, network nodes that provide a pattern for further elaborations. The aim of fictional learning is not action but the development of a new set of possible strategies, weighted for the probability of success and levels of confidence (Siegler, 1991).

It is the role of fiction to create a virtual space where thoughts are as it were suspended, their multiple consequences entertained, and a microscopic crystalline pattern sown into the executive mind as structural learning. This process of learning is largely unconscious; on the surface is only the captivating phenomenology of the fictive experience under imaginative immersion. The social innovations that follow fictions cannot easily be traced back to that seed developed in spare hours of thoughtless amusement at the theater, or frivolously immersed in a scandalous novel. And yet, such public pleasures and divertissements are secret instructions to the people in things that neither the patron nor the author are fully able to control; it is a mode of thinking that permits a sophisticated form of learning of dispositions and attitudes that it is impossible to insinuate into them in any other way. It is done while their defenses are down, the aesthetic horse is dragged over the ramparts, and learning takes place largely without their conscious cognizance. While it may be possible to reconstruct aspects of the inferential networks generated by fiction, these cannot be collapsed into a single set of "secret Instructions." Structural learning presents an opportunity that can be exploited, but it also constrains the writer to play into a complex suite of requirements and distinctive cognitive processes that work against such attempts.

Once she has chosen the discursive structure of fiction, Behn will necessarily be unable tightly to control what exactly is being taught. Certain things can be insinuated, such as the idea that Parliament should always let the King have his way, but this inference is destabilized by other possibilities. These alternative possibilities are sometimes consequences of the metaphorical mapping that in fiction cannot easily be held in check, such as the idea that Parliament might legitimately want to control the King, since he is carrying on an immoral affair with the people. Sometimes they are consequences of turns in the story that sustain the reader’s interest, such as the episode where Silvia decides to break with Philander. I suggest this looseness or play in the inferential networks is not an accidental and avoidable consequence of particular narrative choices, but a necessary and inherent consequence of fictionality itself. It is not the purpose of a reading to arrive at a predetermined interpretation; fiction is designed to open up the possibilities inherent in a situation, and thus to produce multiple selective mappings, many of them unstable, persisting only momentarily, or suited only to the perspective of a particular reader at a particular time. Perhaps this is what gives a hollow, tinkling sound to Behn’s bald-faced pronouncements on the political benefits of fiction, the sound of a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal; perhaps this is why, when she is faced with her audience, she seeks refuge in the incessant instabilities of illicit love.



[1] Behn similarly draws on the abbot of Aubignac's The Whole Art of the Stage (1684) to argue that "Plays have been ever held most important to the very Political Part of Government" (ii).

[2] Although the immediate target of Behn's comments is the theater, her overtly political writings are just as likely to occur in verse or narrative prose; see for instance the blackletter ballad Young Jemmy and the pamphlet A New Vision.

[3] See for instance Eagleton, 1990: 412. Siebers mounts a spirited defense of the aesthetic as having been "unlucky in love" (Siebers, 2000:108), tracing the current tendency to equate aesthetics with ideology to Hitler's enthusiasm: "Art has at all times been the expression of an ideological and religious experience and at the same time the expression of a political will" (Adam, 1992: 9). This conception, Siebers suggests, "has become our theory," albeit with inverted valorization (ibid., 105).

[4] Jeremy Collier, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, Together With the Sense of Antiquity Upon This Argument (1698: i); the attack, Robert Hume (1999) demonstrates, was ineffectual. Turning the assumption that virtue is the natural ally of goverment on its head, Martha Nussbaum has recently argued that "literature and the literary imagination are subversive" because they facilitate compassion, a central civic virtue (1995:2).

[5] An anonymous reviewer helpfully queried my commitment to history as an "ultimate reference": "Steen isn't even a New Historicist -- his historicism is of the unreconstructed, 'old' variety." Even though the Whiggish appeal of this progression is not lost on me, I forego the chance to debate whether Sidney was really or only "really" executed for his unpublished opinions. Steen (2001) thematizes the contingent unreliability of historiography; for a general discussion, see Zagarin (1999) and Jenkins' (2000) in my view ineffective rebuttal.

[6] Absent from Behn's account is the fact that Monmouth was the King's firstborn and widely seen as a strong contender to the throne. In hindsight, Shaftesbury's choice appears preferable to Charles': crowning Monmouth would have forestalled the rebellions and brutal repressions of the 1680s, which in any event failed to uphold the rule of James II.

[7] The popularity of this first volume, originally written as a free-standing novel, as well as the dramatic unfolding of events, prompted two sequels. They dramatize, with a great deal of license, the lovers' stay on the Continent and their participation in the Monmouth rebellion.

[8] For a related treatment of the same phenomenon, see Herman (1999).

[9] Cf. "Thymoetes first ('t is doubtful whether hir'd, / Or so the Trojan destiny requir'd) / Mov'd that the ramparts might be broken down, / To lodge the monster fabric in the town." Virgil, Aeneid II: 42-45.

[10] For a discussion of the biology of incest as well as its literary incarnations, see Richardson (2000).

[11] The 1716 edition of the proceedings uses the spelling "Huswife;" I adopt the more plausible and colorful phonetically reduced variant Hussey on the authority of Todd's excerpts from the transcript published "shortly after the trial" (Behn, 1992: 460, 443). The appellation aimed to accomplish Harriet's subordination to paternal control by figuratively confining her to his house; it also carried the implication of a country girl of "worthless character" (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., sense 3).

[12] Queen Elizabeth I made extensive use the rhetoric of love to govern; see for instance her "Golden Speech" of 30 November 1601.

[13] See also Steen, "A Story to Kill For: The Death of the Earl of Essex."


Works Cited

To ensure accurate identification, works published before 1800 include the accession number of the English Short Title Catalog’s on-line edition.

Adam, Peter

1992 Art of the Third Reich (NY: Harry N. Abrams).

Aubignac, François-Hédélin, abbé d’.

1684 The Whole Art of the Stage (London: printed for the author). ESTC R16044.

Ballaster, Ros

1992 Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction From 1684-1740 (New York: Oxford University Press).

Behn, Aphra

1682 A New Vision of the Lady Gr—s, Concerning her Sister, the Lady Henrietta Berkeley (London: J. Smith). ESTC R39790. Full text.

1684 Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and His Sister (London: n.n.). ESTC R12977. Full text.

1992 [1684] Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, vol. 1, in The Works of Aphra Behn, edited by Janet Todd, vol. 2 (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press).

1681 Young Jemmy (London: P. Brooksby). ESTC R232479. Full text.

Bender, John B.

1987 Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of Mind in Eighteenth-century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Berkeley, George Berkeley, Earl of

1680 Historical Applications, and Occasional Meditations upon Several Subjects, 3rd ed. (London: R. Royston). ESTC R23545.

Bohm, David, and F. David Peat

1987 Science, Order, and Creativity (New York: Bantam).

Cohn, Dorrit

1999 The Distinction of Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Collier, Jeremy

1698 A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, Together With the Sense of Antiquity Upon This Argument (London: Keble, Sare, and Hindmarsh). ESTC R19806.

Culler, Jonathan D.

1975 Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

Dryden, John

1681 Absalom and Achitophel, 2nd edition (London: Jacob Tonson). ESTC R29806.

Elizabeth, I, Queen of England

1601 Golden Speech (London: [R. Barker]). ESTC S114021.

Empson, William

1930 Seven Types of Ambiguity (London: Chatto and Windus).

ESTC. Early English Short Title Catalog.

-2000. Electronic database of works in English 1473-1800 (British Library and ESTC/North America).

Filmer, Robert

1680 Patriarcha: Or the Natural Power of Kings (London: Walter Davis). ESTC R29832.

Goreau, Angeline

1980 Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn (New York: Dial Press)

Greaves, Richard L.

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

Herman, Vimala

1999 "Deictic Projection and Conceptual Blending in Epistolarity," Poetics Today 20. 3: 523-541.

Hernadi, Paul

1995 Cultural Transactions: Nature, Self, Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP).

Hill, Christopher

1972 The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714, Rev. ed. (Edinburgh: Nelson).

Hobbes, Thomas

1997 [1651] Leviathan, ed. Richard E. Flathman and David Johnston (New York: Norton).

Hogan, Patrick Colm

2001 "Three Hypotheses About Emotion and Narrative," Poetics Today, this volume.

Hyde, Edward, Earl of Clarendon

1888 [1702-4] History of the Great Rebellion, vol. 6, edited by W. Dunn Macray (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Hume, Robert D.

1999 "Jeremy Collier and the Future of the London Theater in 1698." Studies in Philology 96. 4: 480-511.

Jenkins, Keith

2000 "A Postmodern Reply to Perez Zagarin," History and Theory 39:181-200.

Jones, James Rees

1961 The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 1678-1683 (New York: Oxford University Press).

Lejeune, Philippe

1989 On Autobiography, edited and with a foreword by Paul John Eakin, translated by Katherine Leary (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press).

Locke, John

1993 [1689] Two Treatises of Government (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle).

Maimbourg, Louis

1684 The History of the League, translated into English according to His Majesty’s command by Mr. Dryden (London: Jacob Tonson). ESTC R25491.

Marvell, Andrew

1678 An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England (Amsterdam [i.e., London]: privately printed). ESTC R22809.

McKeon, Michael

1987 The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Mocket, Richard

1663 [1615] God and the King: or, A Dialogue: Shewing, that Our Soveraign Lord the King of England, Being Immediate under God within His Dominions, Doth Rightly Claim Whatsoever is Required by the Oath of Allegiance (London: Imprinted by his Majesties special privilege and Command). ESTC R228270.

Nussbaum, Martha

1995 Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press).

Oldmixon, John

1724-6 The Critical History of England, Ecclesiastical and Civil (London: J. Pemberton). ESTC T115226.

Plumb, John Harold

1967 The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725 (London: Macmillan).

Pollak, Ellen

1993 "Beyond Incest: Gender and the Politics of Transgression in Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister," in Heidi Hutner (ed.), Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia).

Richardson, Alan

2000 "Rethinking Romantic Incest: Human Universals, Literary Representation, and the Biology of Mind," New Literary History 31. 3 (Summer 2000): 553-572.

Sidney, Algernon

1683 The Proceedings to Sentence of Death Against Algernon Sidny, Esq, Who Was Convicted of High-treason, (on the 21 of November 1683) at the Kings-Bench-Bar, for Conspiring the Death of the King, to Subvert the Government, &c. (London: Langley Curtis). ESTC R2616.

Siebers, Tobin

2000 "Hitler and the Tyranny of the Aesthetic," Philosophy and Literature 24: 96-110.

Siegler, Robert S.

1991 "Strategy choice and strategy discovery," Learning & Instruction 1. 1: 89-102.

Stationers’ Company

1914 Transcript of the Registers of the Worshipful Company of Stationers: From 1640–1708 A.D., vol. III (London: privately printed).

Steen, Francis F.

2001 "A Story to Kill For: The Death of Arthur Capel, Earl of Essex." 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era VII. Forthcoming.

Sweetser, Eve and Therese Descamp

In preparation "Metaphors of God."

Tankerville, Ford Lord Grey, Earl of

1716 The Trial of Ford Lord Grey of Werk ... for Unlawful Tempting and Inticing, the Lady Henrietta Berkeley (London: J. Morphew). ESTC T69367.

Temple, William

1703 Letters to the King, edited by Jonathan Swift (London: Timothy Goodwin and Benjamin Tooke). ESTC T136603.

Turner, Mark, and Gilles Fauconnier

1995 "Conceptual Integration and Formal Expression," Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 10: 183-203.


1697 The Works of Virgil: Containing His Pastorals, Georgics, and Aeneis, translated by John Dryden (London: Jacob Tonson). ESTC R221907.

Walcott, Thomas

1683 The Tryals of Thomas Walcot, William Hone, William Lord Russell, John Rous & William Blagg. For High-Treason, for Conspiring the Death of the King, and Raising a Rebellion in this Kingdom (London: Richard Royston, Benjamin Took and Charles Mearn). ESTC R21861.

Warner, William Beatty

1998 Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684-1750 (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Zagarin, Perez

1999 "History, the Referent, and Narrative: Reflections on Postmodernism Now," History and Theory 38:1-24.





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