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LHMP #358 Hendricks 1999 Alliance and Exile: Aphra Behn’s Racial Identity

Full citation: 

Hendricks, Margo. 1999. “Alliance and Exile: Aphra Behn’s Racial Identity” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Hendricks, Margo. “Alliance and Exile: Aphra Behn’s Racial Identity”

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The restoration of Charles II to the English throne brought the return of many royalist supporters from exile – an exile that left psychological marks within the culture they created. Themes of exile and return may have served to create a sense of continuing community that set them apart from those who had remained in England during the interregnum.

This article argues that the writings of Aphra Behn expressed these themes, both explicitly and implicitly, from a gendered perspective, but also in her work Oroonoko using racial passing as a type of exile.

Exile becomes more than a state of being, even a personal identity, creating an outsider’s perspective on one’s own culture. But for a writer, exile can mean not only separation from one’s culture, but also from one’s audience.

One theme the article explores is the connection between the pastoral genre (a type of deliberate imaginative exile) and the inclusion of “gossip” as a motif indicating the creation of connection and the exploration of emotional hypotheticals, under the cover of a “frivolous” activity. Behn’s “Our Cabal” creates a network of fictional alliances – between characters, between author and reader – via the medium of gossip as a narrative type.

In the epistolary poem “To Mrs. Price” Behn again intersects the themes of pastoral retreat and exile. The narrative voice describes the pleasures of pastoral retreat and begs the recipient to leave the court and city behind, to step out of time in space into the pastoral “exile” and join the writer there. The pastoral setting is framed as a preferred goal, but one of ambiguous enjoyment, given the writer’s depicted isolation and entreaty for company. The companions in this exile are mythic nymphs and shepherds, but the writer longs for the “home “of her prior friendships and companions.

The final part of the article tackles the question posed to the author – inspired by certain racial themes in Behn’s writing – whether Aphra Behn was “passing” in a racial sense. The author doubts this possibility, based on the known facts of Behn’s life (which, admittedly, are scanty and ambiguous), but tackles the question of whether there are themes in her writing that parallel the dynamics and concerns of a passing experience.

[Note: the discussion is fairly jargon-rich.]

There is no firm conclusion about the relationship of Oroonoko narrator to its author (Behn) or the relationship of either to a hypothetical mixed race origin. Rather, the analysis asks, “is the narrative consistent with a hypothetical case where Behn had a Black grandmother, and based the content and viewpoint of Oroonoko on her own background and experiences?”

This also raises the question of whether the themes of exile in Behn’s work might also be informed by a sense of exile from (part of) her own heritage.

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