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M.L. Stapleton, Admired and Understood: The Poetry of Aphra Behn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004, £28.43, 247 pages, ISBN 0-87413-849-3)—Bill Phillips, Universitat de Barcelona


Admired and Understood is a useful and worthy analysis of Aphra Behn's Poems Upon Several Occasions: With a Voyage to the Island of Love (1684). The term "worthy" suggests faint praise, and indeed the book cannot be deemed entirely successful. This is not necessarily the author's fault: Admired and Understood, though well-bound and pleasant to handle, once opened is dark and daunting in appearance. The font used is not given, but it is a slightly over-sized, black, densely packed "Serif" style, rather similar, without being, "Times Roman." This may seem a trivial complaint, but academic books (unfortunately, and perhaps necessarily) rarely make light reading, and the use of a heavy duty format does not help.

The question of gender and sexual politics is central to Admired and Understood, and given the nature—both of Behn's work, and her reputation over the centuries—this is to expected. In chapter 4, devoted to "her hero Rochester" [160], Stapleton argues that although "at first examination Behn seems to endorse libertine sentiment in both parts of "The Rover" [132] she is in fact strongly opposed to "libertinism." Much of Behn's work, not just The Rover, would seem to refute this argument, but Stapleton does have a point, though it occasionally sounds moralistic. He suggests, for example, that Lysander's little disaster in "The Disappointment" is the price paid for the way he "crudely explores" [140] Cloris and the consequences of his "insensitivity" [141] "epitomizes the fate of men who refuse to prioritize mutuality" [141]. Perhaps so. In the following chapter, in which "On a Juniper-Tree, Cut Down to Make Busks" is examined in depth, Behn's idea of how sexual relations should be conducted is, according to Stapleton at least, revealed. The trouble with "The Disappointment" is that Lysander is simply too self-centered, in too much of a hurry, and too clumsy. Clumsiness may be forgiven in the young and inexperienced, but the lengthy process of love-making which Behn, we are told, believes necessary, and which includes "assignation, foreplay, female desire, premarital sexual congress, mutual multiple orgasm, fleeting post-coital regret, happy mutuality" [160], cannot be dispensed with so cavalierly. "On a Juniper Tree," which describes these qualities "in a timely and lively fashion, with great subtlety, tact and good humour" [160] is far more representative of Behn's opposition to "libertinism" by exorcising "the dysfunctional sexuality depicted in "The Disappointment" and in other examples of the "imperfect enjoyment" genre" [162].

The sense of mild disapproval, not with regard to Behn, exactly, but rather with the "libertinism" of her age, that Admired and Understood seems occasionally to convey is also apparent in Stapleton's habit of stressing the heterosexuality of Behn's poetry. Why he does this is not clear, except perhaps because he believes it will be innovative. In the Introduction he justifiably defends his decision to pay particular attention to certain poems such as "On a Juniper-Tree, Cut Down to Make Busks" on the grounds that "Scholars tend to concentrate on Oroonoko, a handful of the plays such as "1 Rover," or poems such as "The Disappointment," and, of course, the inevitable "To the Fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin'd more than Woman" [24]. Why inevitable? Presumably because the poem is apparently a description of lesbian desire and as such has attracted the attention of a number of critics over the last ten years or so. Ironically, Carol Barash, one of the critics most frequently referred to by Stapleton, argues in her 1999 article "Desire and the Uncoupling of Myth in Behn's Erotic Poems" that "there is no way to read female-female erotic address from the poem itself," thus pre-emptying Stapleton by several years. "To the Fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin'd more than Woman" is only one of many texts by Behn in which conventional notions of gender are deliberately subverted. Referring to "A Voyage" Stapleton argues that "In Behn's narrative contortions, a woman writes as a man to another man as if both men were women, but those who arrive to quench their fires, including Lysander, are definitely heterosexual" [187]. Indeed, but why do the men have to be so definitely heterosexual? Was Behn? Were her poems? Can we possibly know? This insistence on Behn's poetry's heterosexuality, and on its "anti-libertinism," assumes a homogeneity in her work that does not necessarily need to be there at all. Perhaps under the influence of Rochester, Behn was a libertine, at other times not; perhaps she wished to describe a variety of sexual orientations in her work. Who knows, perhaps her own desires, erotic or otherwise, were far from fixed.

One of the best chapters in the book is the third, "The Debt to Dpahnis: Theocritus, Horace, Lucretius." Here, Stapleton explains how Behn, as a woman, although denied university education, did "not allow her lack of proficiency in classical languages, the basic admission requirement to the ferociously male academic literary culture, deter her" [87]. Behn's solution was to befriend the young classicist Thomas Creech who "functioned as the classics department in her liberal education and taught her to write pastoral" [92]. Creech translated, among others, the works of Horace, Lucretius and Theocritus, providing Behn with classical material that she was able to turn to her own purposes: "[m]inor confluences exist between Creech's Horace and Behn that suggest some type of collaboration or at least mutual thinking" [104], comments Stapleton, and there can be no doubt of Behn's gratitude to Creech. Her poem "To Mr. Creech" "describes him in terms so laudatory that [some lines] approach the heroic even bombastic: the champion of women everywhere because his translations make the ancients accessible to them" [86]. Creech, speculates Stapleton, was homosexual and "somewhat mysteriously" [86] hanged himself eleven years after the death of Aphra Behn. His translations of Horace revel in the homoeroticism of the original, suggesting that he "eschews mere translation and makes some kind of statement" [106] and, more importantly for Behn (suggests Stapleton), shows her "how one praises, evokes or addresses a man one loves" [107]. This is an interesting point because it seems to contradict Carol Barash's argument in "Desire and the Uncoupling of Myth in Behn's Erotic Poems." Barash claims that, in a world in which "gender dualism is law," the only model on which Behn can base her own work is that written by men, about women. Consequently the first persona of "To the Fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin'd more than Woman" imagines herself to be a man, and in doing so begins the linguistic and gender appropriation of a masculine literary model. Stapleton does not discuss this, offering Creech's Horace as Behn's model for describing desire for a man. It is not important: once again, it is in plurality that Behn can best be understood; plundering not just the classics, but also Petrarchism, in her search for new ways to explore and describe desire in its multiple forms. With reference to the importance of Creech's homoerotic translation of Horace, Stapleton insists, as usual, that "Behn's passion reflects heterosexuality rather than its opposite" [107], and for all anyone knows, he may be right. Or not.

Admired and Understood is, despite its drawbacks, an interesting book for precisely the reasons given by its author: it discusses in some depth a number of works by Aphra Behn that have not traditionally received the attention they deserve. Similarly, the means by which Behn gained access to the classics, not only through the translations of Thomas Creech, but through those of Abraham Cowley too, is clearly the result of much research and learning, and is an area neglected by many Behn scholars. Interesting also is the author's analysis of Behn's controversial reputation based on the supposed obscenity of her works—a reputation which he strains, I believe, a little too earnestly to burnish. How many of us, I wonder, were first seduced by Aphra Behn precisely because she was rude?

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