#OurRomanticHeritage: The Fair Jilt
The PHS's new monthly column, #OurRomanticHeritage, takes a look at romance novels that have inspired and influenced writers today. PHS Editor, Ali Williams, is taking on Aphra Behn's The Fair Jilt, the first novel in the English language, written by a woman.
It always frustrates me how history always manages to forget Aphra Behn's contributions to the face of writing as we know it. She is, without a doubt, the first woman to write a novel in the English language (the first being John Bunyon's The Pilgrim's Progress), and is often overlooked in favour of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
Either way, she had two novels published in 1688: Oroonoko, a tragic and brutally honest story about slavery and love; and The Fair Jilt, a dramatic novel that Catherine M. Roach argues "stands as a prrecursor to today's popular romance novels."
The Fair Jilt is a phenomenal piece of writing - especially for its time - but I can't talk about it without first mentioning its writer.
Aphra Behn was one of the first English women to make her living through her writing. Poet, novelist and playwright, she also worked as a spy in Belgium for King Charles II and is the only woman to be buried in the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey. The inscription upon her tombstone reads: "Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality".
Her writing was rejected after her death, particularly due to seeing both her own career path and the content of her writing as "indecent", and Virginia Woolf is often attributed to a revival of interest in her writing, after Woolf wrote about her in A Room of One's Own:
"All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds... Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance."
The Fair Jilt itself is a dramatic narrative following Miranda, a villainess whose romantic entanglements we follow until she causes her sister's death by her husband. It's very over the top, and frankly funny as well, but there are a number of moments that I think resonate with 21st century romance readers.
The opening always reminds me a little of the famous Pride and Prejudice opening, setting out a statement about love and life:
"As love is the most noble and divine passion of the soul, so is it that to which we may justly attribute all the real satisfactions of life, and without it, man is unfinished, and unhappy."
It's an interesting way to open a novel and it's followed by four paragraphs that directly address the reader in a style not dissimilar to the "Dear Reader" letters that characterise the modern category romance novel. Behn even goes so far as to defend the romantic and dramatic nature of the story, explaining that it isn't as far from realism as it might seen:
"I do not pretend here to entertain you with a feigned story, or anything pieced together with romantic accidents; but every circumstance...is truth."
But it is our villainess who really seems to strike home. Despite the fact that Miranda becomes more and more manipulative as the narrative unfolds, she's introduced to us as beautiful, "admirably shaped" and intelligent, speaking "several languages naturally". If it weren't for some of her actions later on (aside from trying to have her sister murdered, she also cries rape when someone won't sleep with her - definitely not heroine-material!), she'd seem like the archetype for a romance heroine.
She's educated and clever, and has no qualms about talking about what she wants from a man:
"Do that which thy youth and beauty were ordained to do! - this place is private...We are as secure from fears of interruption, as in deserts uninhabited, or caves forsaken by wild beasts. The tapers too shall veil their lights, and only that glimmering lamp shall be witness of our dear stealths of love. - Come to my arms, my trembling longing arms."
In some ways, she was always going to be a villainess; in the 1680s, any woman as brazenly open as this about their sensuality and sexual desires was assumed to be either depraved or a prostitute, and perhaps that's why it's difficult to dismiss Miranda as just another evil woman.
Or perhaps it has more to do with the fact that Miranda is always at the heart of the story. Her husband - Prince Tarquin - has his name above hers on the title page, but it is Miranda's name that is written in capital letters. It is she who is the fair jilt; it is she who drives the narrative action forward; and it is she who seems like a prototype for the strong, independent women who we find in romance novels today.
Ali Williams is an all round romance nerd, who splits her time between working on her PhD proposal, quilting and trying every restaurant in the West Sussex area. For more information about her and her writing project, check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.