Home Forums Reading Group August 2020: Aphra Behn, The Fair Jilt (1688)

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    • Kim Simpson
      Forum Administrator
      Post count: 42

      Starter Questions

      – What do you make of the truth claims in the dedication? How might this story being true change the way that we read it, and the way we think about its author?
      – What sort of genres is Aphra Behn drawing on to put this tale together?
      – How are the holy orders written about here?
      – Did anything strike you about the representation of female desire here?
      – What sort of heroine is Miranda? Is she sympathetic? What do you think of the closing lines of the story?
      – Why are there two attempts on Alcidiana’s life here? What purpose do the repetitions have? Can you spot any narrative patterns or circularities?
      – What types of acting and deceit can you find?
      – What did you make of the details about clothing in the narrative?
      – The details Behn gives about the botched execution are particularly grisly. What does this part tell us about how executions worked, and how they were documented?
      – Do you think Behn is making a point about love in this story?
      – How important is class in this story?
      – What do you think Behn might be saying about justice, and about the power of public opinion?

    • Kim Simpson
      Forum Administrator
      Post count: 42

      Write Up: Chawton House Reading Group August 2020
      Emmeline Burdett

      As its name would suggest, the Chawton House Reading Group usually takes place at Chawton House in Hampshire, an Elizabethan manor house which was formerly owned by the novelist Jane Austen’s brother, Edward. COVID-19 has, however, driven the group online, with this session of the group having taken place via Zoom. I was rather pleased when I discovered that this was to be the case, as I had often wanted to join the group before, but, as I am based in North London, I had always felt that Hampshire was quite a long way to travel for a couple of hours. With sessions now taking place online, however, this was no longer a consideration.

      Like Chawton House itself, the Chawton House Reading Group focuses on early women’s writing, and August’s read was the short novel The Fair Jilt by Aphra Behn. Behn, who died in 1689, was probably the first English woman to earn her living by her pen – a decision motivated less by ambition than by necessity. After the death of her husband, Behn had gone to Holland – then at war with Britain – as a secret agent, but she received no financial assistance and, on her return, was imprisoned for debt. On her release from prison, she took up writing, and became extremely successful.

      Behn’s connections with countries other than England are evident from the plot of The Fair Jilt, which takes place mainly in Belgium. It tells the story of the machinations of Miranda, a young noblewoman, whose beauty and fortune leave the object of her desires unmoved, but are sufficient to persuade various other men to attempt to win favour with her. Her servant and husband are seduced into carrying out various plots she has designed against her younger sister Alcidiana’s life, to avoid sharing inheritance.

      About fifteen of us had a very wide-ranging and stimulating discussion about the novel, and we touched on such topics as Behn’s boldness in producing an unlikeable heroine in whose fate the reader is nevertheless still interested – some of the participants pointed out that in this sense, The Fair Jilt can be seen as prefiguring Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s 1816 novel Emma. We also talked about how the real disappearance from fiction of this kind of multifaceted female protagonist can be seen as mirroring changes in society – for example during the Victorian era. We agreed, though, that there have been exceptions to this – one of the most notable being Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1847).

      I was not entirely in agreement with the way that some of the other participants seemed to applaud Miranda’s behaviour – which was motivated by selfishness and greed – as a heroic attempt to succeed in a man’s world. However, at the beginning of the session, Kim, who led the discussion, drew our attention to two prints, “Before” and “After”, by the eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth. These show a man’s affection waning after he has successfully ensnared the woman he had previously pursued. These prints show ‘the thrill of the chase’ as all-important, but are also suggestive of the double standards which often exist regarding expectations of male and female behaviour. We were able to keep this in mind throughout our discussion, and it was wonderful to read Behn’s novel, with which I had previously been unfamiliar, as well as to learn about Behn’s fascinating life, and to take part in such an enlightening discussion.

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