The Adventures of Rivella is a particularly interesting piece of fiction. It is seen by some as a precursor to the novel, if not one its own right, and the history behind its composition and release is of particular interest.
By all accounts, Delarivier Manley lived a highly controversial life. She had a bigamous marriage with a cousin, she was involved in numerous fraudulent activities, was politically outspoken, and allegedly had numerous affairs. She became a major celebrity in large part because of her lifestyle, and as such, she was to become the subject of a biography. In response, she offered to write an autobiographical story rather than deal with the release of the aforementioned biography. The Adventures of Rivella was the result. This text is sensationalized and strongly biased in her favour, but also an early precursor to the novel.
The Rover is arguably an early piece of feminist writing. Given that this is a love story, and that women are more ultimately successful in their pursuits by ignoring the advice of the patriarchs is, in itself, subversive for the time period. There are also far more female characters than males in the play; a key figure representing patriarchal authority, Don Vincentio, does not appear in the play at all.
As for the vulnerability of the women in the play, it could be said that this is Behn’s comment on how little power was afforded to women during this time. By bringing attention to these obvious facts of life, she made the dangers of women in her time more publicly visible.
Of all the writers on the course reading list, Aphra Behn was the only one whose name I initially recognized. With that being said, reading “The Unfortunate Happy Lady: A True History” has been my first experience actually reading any of her work. I can now understand why her name alone stood out to me as faintly recognizable. Of everything I’ve read for the course thus far, this story has been the most enjoyable text for me personally. I know that Behn is often grouped with Manley and Haywood as “the triumvirate of wit”, but in my opinion, her writing is wittier and more well developed than the aforementioned women.
With regards to the story, I was impressed by her caricature of an unjust patriarch. The brother figure who is ostensibly without any feminine love interests, neither wife nor mistress, is capable of providing the protagonist with her share of the dowery until he spends a great deal of it on stereotypically stupid male vices. The older woman’s inquisition into the nature of the sibling relationship could be a veiled remark about how unlikely she believes them to be genetically similar; her insinuation that the protagonist is her brother’s mistress shows a disbelief that she is related to a person such as her brother.
The women in this story are the only objectively virtuous characters.
There appears, to me, a good deal of autobiography in “The Description of Cooke-Ham”. For all the expected talk of grace and awe, there are apparent moments of weakness or “unworthiness”. Often, her most powerful images of grace are juxtaposed against her self-deprecation; there are moments of grace in spite of her apparent shortcomings. This all made more sense to me upon reading her biography and learning that she was fervently religious while also being involved in a fair amount of behaviour that would have been, at that time, controversial. An illicit affair led to pregnancy which led to a hasty marriage to a cousin. There are even unsubstantiated claims that she was Shakespeare’s mistress. Regardless, these actions did not result in writing that was less fascinated with a higher power, but rather seems to have led her to a closer relationship with the tenants of her religion. The hardship and controversy in Lanyer’s life made her a surprisingly devout poet.
Despite their chronological similarities, the works of Anne Askew differ greatly from those of Isabella Whitney. I’ve noticed that the majority of poems we’ve looked at to this point have had an overall sense of optimism, often as a direct response to the religious faith felt by many poets at this time. In that sense, Whitney’s “A Sweet Nosegay” seemed abnormal to me. I did enjoy the text, and I found it interesting and perhaps progressive that she noted the idiocy of men in love, but it struck me as atypical in its tone and content. More than anything else, Whitney seems bitter in this poem, the majority of which seems to me a condemnation of the courtly love tradition. I wanted to contrast Whitney’s negativity with Askew’s hopeful writing because, of all the women in this course, she seems to have the most right to negativity.Her refutation of a particularly ridiculous aspect of Christian tradition led to her being tortured and ultimately burned at the stake. Her writings are nonetheless full of hope and a sense of devotion to her religion. Although Askew could have justifiably been far more bitter than Whitney, her writings are far more optimistic.
The excerpts I read by Julian of Norwich were quite different than I expected, particularly after reading biographical notes. Her thoughts on sin are interesting given her time as a Benedictine nun: “God also showed that sin would be no shame but an honour to man, for just as for every sin there is an answering pain in reality, so for every sin bliss is given to the same soul. Just as different sins are punished by different pains according to their seriousness, so shall they be rewarded by different joys in heaven according to the pain and sorrow they have caused the soul on earth. For the soul that shall come to heaven is so precious to God, and the place itself so glorious, that the goodness of God never allows the soul which will come there to sin without giving it a reward for suffering that sin. The sin suffered is made known without end, and the soul is blissfully restored by exceeding glories.” Juliana goes much further than the expression “loving the sinner, hating the sin”; she condemns neither the sinner or the sin. The idea that suffering caused by sin will be matched in heaven with equal bliss from God must have been a fairly unconventional idea. Her unbounded positivity doesn’t end on the topic of sin, Juliana sees every person as an inherently perfect creation in the image of God. As products of divine creation, she argues that we never fail to delight God, that “the Blessed Trinity is always completely pleased with all His works”. Juliana’s writings on religion seem uplifting to the point of being somewhat irregular.
To me, what is most striking about “The Wife’s Lament” is how helpless and reliant the narrator is. The beginning line, “Full sadly this song I sing of myself, / of my own experience” gave me an early impression of self-empowerment on the part of the wife, but what follows is an account of what happened to the speaker, and very little about how she reacts to these circumstances. The text gives an account of fairly regular hardship, though “never more than now”. It’s interesting to me that estrangement from her husband both constitutes “exile” to her and that it trumps all past difficulties, “new or old”. The husband is shown as helpless only in his negative qualities – his heart plotted homicide, seemingly without his consent. In contrast, the wife simply observes her misfortune and laments on it, achieving nothing.
While writing a negative account of matrimony must have been revolutionary at the time, there are still traces of patriarchal influence in the text.