Femininity in Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt

Aphra Behn, as the first woman to earn her living by being a writer in English, known for her daring and controversial treatment of the subjects of sexuality and desire in her works, plays an important female narrative voice in the literary history. In The Fair Jilt, Behn creates a feminine imagery contrary to that of the society she is familiar with. In Behn’s imaginative world, femininity takes over the role of masculinity, shifting from being the object of male desire to becoming the subject that desires; femininity also becomes ambitious and triumphant, wielding power through its sexuality.

In The Fair Jilt, the gender roles between femininity and masculinity are presented as often reversed. This novella tells the story of Miranda – a conniving and ruthless woman born with fatal beauty who takes pleasure in conquering men. Unlike the usual case in which women are deemed as objects to male sexual desire, Miranda instead adopts the role of a desiring subject: she becomes the one who is sexually aggressive, seducing men into falling in love with her and taking the initiative in courtships. Her adoption of the male role as a sexual aggressor is the most pronounced in her obsessive love for Father Francisco.

“… he appear’d all that is adorable to the fair sex, nor that cou’d the mis-shapen Habit hide from her the lovely Shape it endeavour’d to cover… She gaz’d upon him, while he bow’d before her, and waited for her Charity, till she perceiv’d the lovely Friar to blush, and cast his Eyes to the Ground.”

Through the reversal of the male gaze, here Miranda lusts over Father Francisco with her female gaze, shrinking him into a sexually desirable object in her eyes, until he blushes and looks down on the ground. It thus becomes the male, instead of the female, who displays signs of shyness and passivity.

Miranda goes on trying to seduce Father Francisco to succumb to her beauty and to break his vow of chastity using every mean possible, but all of them fail. Out of anger and desperation, she threatens to “ruin” and attempts to rape him. As Toni Bowers suggests, “in Miranda’s upside-down rape of the priest, Behn is laughing at the expense of the patriarchal love-as-rape scenarios… that invariably represented men as lustful brutes and women as sexual prey”. Here nevertheless Miranda adopts the male role as the “lustful brute” and applies the verb “ruin”, a word that is normally used upon women referring to their loss of virginity or purity, onto Father Francisco, rendering him her “sexual prey”. As Jorge Figueroa Dorrego interprets that Miranda has “an unconventional approach to sexuality challenging established notions of feminine passivity and chastity”, through the characters of Miranda and the men that she seduces, by exchanging the gender roles between femininity and masculinity, Behn challenges and mocks the established gender roles in her society.

Femininity is also presented as ambitious and powerful. As opposed to how women’s desires are “unspeakable” in Behn’s world, according to Ruth Salvaggio, Behn’s creative world is a fantasy of female power and triumphant desires. Miranda is well aware of the power of her sexuality and gender role, therefore she knows how to exploit her charms and beauty, in order to manipulate men and to get what she wants. Her attempts to seduce Father Francisco are futile, but she succeeds in taking revenge by leading the authorities to believe that she is the victim, taking advantage of not only her beauty, but also the general belief of women tending to be sexually passive and innocent. She then moves on to her second amour, Prince Tarquin, whom she succeeds in bewitching, with her calculated blushes and glances, her feigned shyness. Afterwards, she manipulates both her devoted admirer and Prince Tarquin into trying to murder her younger sister. Throughout the whole story, Miranda’s desires are triumphant. Even when her immoral deeds are exposed, she goes unpunished, only shamed. It is always the males who seem to suffer for the consequence. Miranda is even rewarded a peaceful and prosperous life at the end.

Ruth Salvaggio suggests that the way femininity is powerful in the novella is influenced by Behn’s personal relationship with her lover John Hoyle. She points out that such a powerful female character like Miranda is inspired by Hoyle’s dominating role in the relationship, therefore she becomes “a desiring subject by adopting positions of coldness, distance, and power”. It is also noted that Miranda’s relationship with Father Francisco is related to Behn’s relationship with Hoyle, as the way Hoyle’s homosexual preferences render him unreachable for Behn is similar to how the father’s vow of chastity render him unreachable for Miranda. Salvaggio thus concludes that through giving femininity power and victory, and through casting only the men as victims in The Fair Jilt, Behn is able to transfer her angst and frustration for her inability to direct her own desires, as well as to seek revenge.

In The Fair Jilt, femininity is given a new rendition, one that differs from the reality of Behn’s world. It exchanges roles with masculinity, rising from being sexually objectified to becoming the desiring subject, the sexual aggressor, as Behn tries to destabilise the social gender roles. It also has a taste of power and victory, in the way that reflects Behn’s fantasy of how she could act like in her personal life.

Bibliography: Behn, Aphra (2013) The Fair Jilt; Or, the Amours of Prince Tarquin and Miranda. Hamburg: Tredition Classics, p.9Richetti, John J. (ed.) (1994) The Columbia History of the British Novel. New York: Columbia University Press. New York: Columbia University Press, p.57Rubik, Margarete (ed.) (2011) Aphra Behn and Her Female Successors. London: LIT Verlag, p.105Hutner, Heidi (ed.) (1993) Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. London: University Press of Virginia, p.260