The Significance of the Female Pen in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

March 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

The decision to become a female author in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a daunting task in itself, never mind choosing to narrate your work from a female, personal perspective. Such was the case of two famous texts that are read through a female narrative voice, Oroonoko and Northanger Abbey. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, tells the story of an African prince who becomes captured and forced into slavery in the British colony of Surinam in the West Indies, while Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey follows the life of her protagonist, Catherine, through her journeys at Bath and Northanger Abbey. While their stories are unique, through a female narrative voice both women are able to situate themselves according to how they would like their readers to view them. The role of Behn and Austen as female narrators is advantageous to both women in that it offers them a certain authority over their respective texts while also eliminating any personal accountability.Behn demonstrates authority by interrupting the text to interject her own personal opinions, a strategy ultimately meant to control the reader’s perception of her. Behn’s first address to her readers proves this to be true when she makes it clear that Oroonoko is a story “without the addition of invention,” one not written to “entertain [her] readers with the adventures of a feigned hero” (2137). It can be noted that these statements were designed not only to display her authority, by assuring her audience that the events were fact rather than fiction, but to lend a certain credibility thus ensuring the reader is likely to trust her and think her reliable for the duration of the story. Behn additionally interrupts the text to provide a context as to why she was on the island of Surinam, explaining that her father was to be “lieutenant-general of six and thirty islands, besides the continent of Surinam,” and upon arrival in the country, “the best house in it was presented to [her]” (3162). By informing the readers of her father’s social status, and hers, she is able to show that she is part of the governing, dominant force of the island, setting her apart from the slaves and once again proving her authority over the story. Perhaps the most interesting way in which Behn displays control is through the continuous use of phrases like “I do assure my reader” and “as I said” throughout the story (2140). While she remains, for the most part, silent when relaying the part of Oroonoko’s story that she was not present for, Behn still manages to remind the reader that she has full control over the text by unnecessarily tacking on statements like the ones above. Through the recognition of her social status and constant interjections of personal opinion throughout the story, Behn controls the way the reader perceives her, ultimately exhibiting her power over her work. While Behn exercises her authority over the text, it can still be read as a true reflection of the times in which she was writing, as a female author in the seventeenth century was still considered to be a very new and developing concept. It is clear that Behn struggles with her identity as a female author and could be reflecting this in her writing as she blatantly undermines her own talent when she speaks of Oroonoko’s story saying, “his misfortune was to fall on an obscure world, that only afforded a female pen to celebrate his fame,” but then contradicts herself by explaining that not many people could have told his story better than her (2158). In her informative journal, Gender and Narrative in the Fiction of Aphra Behn, Jacqueline Pearson explains that while authority and power constitute a central theme in Behn’s work, “her ambiguous status as white (and therefore powerful) but also female (and therefore powerless)” almost compromises her authorial power due to her gender (187). In this way, we can see Behn conforming to the social limits of her gender that were true of her time while still struggling to maintain a certain authority throughout the text. Through the provision and interjection of personal opinions and the claim of a certain ownership over her characters, Austen displays authority and remains in control of her story, Northanger Abbey. Though Austen initially speaks ill of her character, Catherine, she eventually obtains a sense of ownership over her when her behaviour finally becomes agreeable to Austen. This can be noted when it seems as though Austen takes credit for her new and improved protagonist when she says, “had the company only seen her three years before, they would now have thought her exceedingly handsome” (47). Austen further flaunts her control over her character when she says “I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace” (224), and “I may dismiss my heroine to the sleepless couch” (107). Naming Catherine, “my heroine,” not only reminds the reader that Austen is the one in control, an authority that only the female narrator could possess, but also shows Austen marking her territory by treating Catherine as a type of possession. An additional, if not equally as interesting, way that Austen remains in control of the novel is by including her opinion of women reading novels – a subject of much debate during the time in which Northanger Abbey was written. Austen whole-heartedly defends her choice to have Catherine and Isabella read novels when she says “Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers,” clearly refusing to be an author that portrays her heroine as one who mocks novel reading (58). Austen’s personal opinions serve to strengthen the ultimate authority that she holds over her story. In contrast to her authoritative role, by completely removing herself from the events in Oroonoko which readers may deem to be particularly problematic or disturbing, Behn is able to rid herself of any personal responsibility thus shifting blame onto others. The first event which we see Behn assume an objective position occurs after Oroonoko has been brutally whipped as a punishment for leading his fellow slaves in an attempt to escape. While, as a narrator, Behn is usually quick to inform the reader of her authoritative qualities, she is nowhere to be found at the time of Oroonoko’s lashing. Later explaining the reason for her absence, she rationalizes that she was not around to protect Oroonoko because she had heard that he was coming to “cut all [their] throats” (2173). Behn even visits Oroonoko to “protest [her] innocence of the fact” and “[beg] as many pardons for the offenders” (2173). When describing the event, Behn strategically uses the word “they” when speaking of the offenders, making it clear to her readers that she was in no way involved or associated with the crime, effectively removing any accountability off of her. Oroonoko’s death serves as the second example in which we see Behn carefully void herself of responsibility through the use of third person language. Upon her departure, Behn says the people who had Oroonoko in custody “promised all to take what possible care they could of [him]”, but killed him as soon as she was gone (2177). The very act of removing herself from Surinam renders her unaccountable for the death of Oroonoko due to the lack of her physical presence. Because she has the power as a female narrator, Behn strategically remains objective during the less agreeable events in the story so as to shift blame away from her allowing the reader to continue to view her in a positive light. In an interesting approach, like Behn, Austen rids herself of all responsibility in regards to her less than ideal heroine, Catherine. Introducing her protagonist, Austen immediately informs the reader of Catherine’s shortcomings as a typical heroine, describing her as an average girl who “for many years of her life [was] plain as any” (37). Austen continues to belittle her character by calling her “often inattentive and occasionally stupid” (38), further explaining that she was “not remarkable” at any of the things that classify a typical heroine, such as drawing and writing (38). Austen’s detachment and lack of responsibility of Catherine’s characteristics become clear when she speaks of her saying, “What a strange, unaccountable character!” (39). By casting her protagonist in a negative light, Austen makes it seem as if she were cursed to have to deal with such a character that does not meet the standards typical of a heroine, therefore prompting the reader to sympathize with her for taking on such a difficult task. In her article, Northanger Abbey and the Limits of Parody, Tara Ghoshal-Wallace examines Austen’s unique approach, explaining that she “mocks and undermines her own chosen method so that both narrative and reader are kept off balance” (262). It is not until Catherine reaches the age of fifteen, when her “appearances were mending” and she became “almost pretty,” that we begin to see Austen take ownership of her character (39). So, despite Catherine “[falling] miserably short of the true heroic height” (41), Austen manages to remain in good standings with her audience as it is understood that the less than average qualities displayed by her protagonist were not her responsibility.Because a female author’s gender was an obstacle to how their work was received during this time, both Behn and Austen found ways to strategically remain in control of their respective texts while managing to avoid any accountability for the aspects of their stories which were disagreeable to the reader. Clearly, it was important to each author to interrupt the text in order to impart their own opinions upon the reader while still saving face. A further point which would be interesting to consider would be how each text might differ if the authors had chosen not to narrate from a female, personal perspective. Works CitedAusten, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 2nd ed. Ed. Claire Grogran. Toronto: Broadview, 2002. Print. Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education, 2010. 2137-2178. Print. Ghoshal-Wallace, Tara. “Northanger Abbey and the Limits of Parody.” Studies in the Novel 3 (1988): 262-273. Web. Accessed Nov. 24, 2012. Pearson, Jacqueline. “Gender and Narrative in the Fiction of Aphra Behn.” The Review of English Studies 166 (1991): 179-190. Web. Accessed Nov. 24, 2012.

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