Article Title

Aphra Behn’s The City Heiress: Feminism and the Dynamics of Popular Success on the Late Seventeenth-Century Stage


Robert Markley


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

For all the attention devoted to Aphra Behn’s fiction, poetry, and plays over the last twenty-five years, few critics have focused on what remains a crucial problem in the scholarship on her work: the half-acknowledged tensions between her critical and commercial success on the Restoration stage and the current consensus that emphasizes her resistance to and protests against the endemic antifeminism of her time.1 Paradoxically, the more critics insist on Behn’s iconoclastic significance as a pioneering woman writer, the more difficult it seems to explain cogently the appeal of comedies such as the second part of The Rover (1681), The Roundheads (1680), and The City Heiress (1682), that travesty “proper” feminine behavior, ridicule male authority figures, and debunk romantic love. Although the “resentful realism” of these comedies indicates that Behn and her audiences recognized only too well the constraints on women in late seventeenth-century society, her concern with restaging, in comic form, the emotional and financial difficulties of women’s lives does not in itself account for her string of theatrical successes.2 In their ironic treatment of female chastity and masculine constancy, as I have argued elsewhere, her comedies present a sophisticated and sympathetic understanding of the ideological complexities of women’s existence in a misogynistic society.3 By demystifying the masculinization of desire that constructs women only as sexual objects, Behn undermines the ideological assumptions and values that make female identity dependent on inviolate chastity and rigorous self-policing; she can then legitimate female desire by inverting the gender politics of her spectators’ gaze and turn her libertine heroes into self-parodying objectifications of masculine desirability.4 This process of defamiliarizing the gender dynamics of the wit comedy of the 1670s allows Behn to exploit the ironies that her re-gendering of desire creates: sexually compromised women become heroines; rich heiresses remain willfully blind to the consequences of their own desire; and wits become libertine performance artists who have limited success in manipulating women. In this respect, Behn implicates her audience—men and women alike—in participatory spectacles of ideological recognition and disavowal, and it is this complex process of interpellation that gives her comedies their ironic leverage. In The City Heiress, Behn brilliantly stages the comic struggles of her characters to come to terms with their cynical participation in social rituals that mirror those of fashionable Restoration society: her heroes and heroines recognize that they, like the audience, are complicit in the very practices and beliefs that frustrate their desires.


1 For representative views, see Janet Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (London: Andre Deutsch, 1997); Derek Hughes, The Theatre of Aphra Behn (Bastingstoke: Palgrave, 2001); Jane Spencer, Aphra Behn’s Afterlife (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism, ed. Heidi Hutner (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993); Aphra Behn Studies ed. Janet Todd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); and The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn, ed. Janet Todd and Derek Hughes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Hughes, Theatre of Aphra Behn, 2.

Robert Markley, "'Be impudent, be saucy, forward, bold, touzing and leud': The Politics of Masculine Sexuality and Feminine Desire in Behn's Tory Comedies," in Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theatre, ed. J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah Payne (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 114–140.

4 See Daryl Ogden, The Language of the Eyes: Science, Sexuality, and Female Vision in English Literature and Culture, 1690–1927 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005).

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