Chapter 5 — Looking and Seeing

In 1668, Aphra Behn was pleading for relief and protection from her indebtedness. Two years later, she would witness the opening and successful six-day run of her first play, The Forced Marriage and embark on a career of writing that traversed genres and brought her into the highest circles of the Restoration literati. In her work, Behn did not hesitate to engage the intersectionality of gender, class, and race in both conventional ways (Abdelazer and Oroonoko) and unconventional ways (The Widow Ranter). Most scholarly studies of Behn’s canon largely focus on the intersectional threads she weaves together. For example, the majority of critical takes on Behn’s romance novels or her dramatic works examine gender issues, especially around women’s sexuality or economic concerns. When critics turn to questions of race, the primacy of Oroonoko is unquestioned, although Abdelazer occasionally gets a nod. Rarely do scholars look to a pair of Behn’s novellas as sites to explore questions of race, racism, and colorism — The Adventure of the Black Lady (hereafter The Black Lady) and The Unfortunate Bride, most likely written before her death but not published until 1697. Despite being described as “A Novel,” The Black Lady hardly seems to reflect what we have come to recognize as a novel; the text is six pages in length and lacks character depth and structural complexity.

Part of the reason these texts may not receive critical attention can be traced to modern editorial decisions that ignore Behn’s titles and consign the works to a volume with labels such as The Black Lady, The Fair Jilt, and Other Short Stories. The other, and more significant reason, is the debate on early modern prose fiction and whether it can be called a “novel” or not. For example, Michael McKeon writes, “seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century writers often use the terms ‘romance,’ ‘history,’ and ‘novel’ with an evident interchangeability that must bewilder and frustrate all modern expectations” (McKeon 1987, 25). Moreover, McKeon continues, “alongside this confusion we can perceive a growing impulse to make the dyad ‘romance/history’ stand for an all-but-absolute dichotomy between opposed ways of knowing the world” (25). As a result, romance is posited “not only as a distinct generic, but also as broadly epistemological, category whose meaning is overwhelmingly trivializing or pejorative” (27). Yet, as McKeon contends, “the casual pretense to historical truth … is one of the traditional romance methods of self-authentication” (56). Ironically, McKeon reminds us, “the claim to historicity is no less a rhetorical trope than verisimilitude” (53). It is, in the end, the “dyad ‘romance/history’” that allowed for the hybrid that is the late seventeenth-century novel.

The novel, according to Lennard J. Davis, has its basis in history, has a more contemporary locale (usually that of the author), and is “shorter and more compact of plot,” while “romances value the preservation of virtue and chastity; novels tend to focus on illegal doings and forbidden passions” (Davis 1996, 40). Furthermore, Davis argues, “romances make clear that they are mixing fact and fiction to create an essentially fictional plot; novels tend to deny that they are fictional” (40). Leah Orr rightly criticizes the efforts of critics such as McKeon, Davis, and others to develop “theories about the differences between romances and novels, between fact and fiction, between Behn and Defoe. They have mostly sought development, progress, and evolution in the texts of canonical authors” (Orr 2017, 26). As she points out,

the language used to describe works of fiction and the comments made about factual and fictional writing in the eighteenth century is far more complex and nuanced than most modern critics have acknowledged. Writers of fiction were conscious of what they were doing, and what their readers might want, and to base our ideas about early fiction on the work of just a few authors seriously misrepresents the wide range of fiction available in the period (27).

Janet Todd’s decision to classify what Behn refers to as novels as “short stories” performs two actions. (Todd 1997) First, it ignores the complexities of the romance novel structure, which is not always determined by form, and plays into modern expectations about the novel form. And, by referring to the novellas as “short stories,” Todd makes these texts more easily dismissible when it comes to considerations of Behn’s self-representation and the questions of race and racism. Second, and this is a fundamental flaw in critical approaches to Behn’s engagement with race, the erasure of these texts as “romance novels” misses the generic work that they do and plays into a reification of Oroonoko as Behn’s “real” romance novel. In what follows, I want to step away from the theoretical arguments about what constitutes the distinction between romance and novel. I read both The Black Lady and The Unfortunate Bride as Behn designated them, novels, with an understanding that these two texts participate in a literary economy of racializing subjectivity but not necessarily in the way critical studies of Behn’s canon seems to take for granted. It is my argument that the deceptive simplicity of The Unfortunate Bride and The Black Lady, when the pair are read in tandem, offers a complex picture of Behn crafting a strategic relationship to white supremacist logic about Blackness and whiteness as stable somatic signs.

The Unfortunate Bride

The Unfortunate Bride presents a familiar Behn romance storyline. The novel begins with two male friends, Frankwit and Wildvill, “both with considerable fortunes although “Wildvill was of the richest family, but Frankwit of the noblest” (Behn 1915, 377). After some time praising Frankwit’s qualities, the narrator tells the reader “Belvira only boasted Charms to move him … and from their childhood they felt mutual love.” Like most of Behn’s romances, parental intervention separates the loves when, in Belvira’s “fourteenth year,” her father sends her to London not long after her mother’s death. Apparently, Frankwit’s father also “took a journey to the other world,” and with “all imaginable haste” Frankwit buried his father and rushed off to London (378). Eighteen months pass with many solicitations on Frankwit’s part and refusal to consummate their love on Belvira’s part.

The exchange between the lovers ends with Belvira agreeing to wed Frankwit based on his promise of fidelity, “my dear Belvira … be assured I shall be ever yours, as you are mine; fear not you shall never draw Bills of Love upon me so fast, as I shall wait in readiness to pay them” (382). Immediately upon mentioning “Bills,” Frank informs Belvira he is off to Cambridgeshire and will return within a week with a “Brace of thousand pounds” to celebrate their nuptials. The lovers exchange letters written in verse, which Belvira shares with her formerly blind cousin, Celesia. According to Belvira’s last letter, “an aged matron has by charms unknown” cured Celesia’s blindness. Frankwit’s pleasure in this letter, and the others from Belvira, proves to be his downfall, “for ’twas that very fondness proved his ruin” as he “often read the letters o’re and o’re” (385). At this point in the novel, we might expect a father’s or relative’s intervention or a lover’s sudden bankruptcy as the obstacle to love. What Behn offers, and what we do not see in any of her other romances, is disruptive sexuality in the form of a Black woman.

While in Cambridgeshire, Frankwit took lodgings

at a cousin’s house of his, and there, (it being a private family) lodged likewise a Blackamoor Lady, then a Widower; a whimsical Knight had taken a fancy to enjoy her: Enjoy her did I say? Enjoy the Devil in the Flesh at once! I know not how it was, but he would fain have been a Bed with her, but she not consenting on unlawful terms, (but sure all Terms are with her unlawful) the Knight soon marry’d her, as if there not hell enough in matrimony, but he must wed the Devil too. The knight a little after died, and left this Lady of his (whom I shall call Moorea) an estate of six thousand pounds per Ann. (541)

Behn’s characterization of Moorea is marked by a series of surprising turns we don’t often see in early modern literary depictions of Black women. For all the pejorative, religiously-inflected anti-Black rhetoric, Behn doesn’t leave those as our only images of Moorea. She is a Lady, widow, and possesses “an estate of six thousand pounds per Ann.” In other words, the Lady Moorea is nobility by virtue of her marriage.

Behn’s representation of Moorea, even with the negative language we often see linked to Black characters (evil, lust driven, duplicitous, jealous, and so on), is of an independent woman who can afford to act on her desires. Moorea does not articulate a worry about how she will economically survive. She doesn’t need to seek a husband for her erotic pleasures. Most importantly, Moorea is a Lady. Despite the narrator’s racist approbation about how the marriage came to be, Moorea clearly recognizes the problems attendant on unmarried sexuality. On this point, I find Jacqueline Pearson’s point that Behn’s “romantic affirmations … are constantly undercut by financial realities, for the tales are anchored in economic as much as erotic desire” (Pearson 2004, 195). Therefore, I would argue, the only real difference between the women in the romance comes down to who controls her financial destiny, and the answer is Moorea.

Once Frankwit’s betrayal of his betrothed is known, Belvira considers him lost to her and eventually marries Wildvill. Of course, the romance plot requires closure for at least one of the rivals. Frankwit, “tho, yet extremely weak,” rides to London and arrives on the day of the marriage. At this point Behn deploys one of her favorite strategies for authenticity of the account, deploying the authorial “I.” Behn uses this technique in a number of her romances, the most notable use occurs in Oroonoko. In The Unfortunate Bride, the author states,

I was at this time in Cambridge, and having some small acquaintance with this Blackmoor Lady, and sitting in her Room that evening, after Frankwit’s departure thence, in Moorea’s absence, saw inadvertently a bundle of Papers, which she had gathered up, as I suppose, to burn, since now they grew but useless, she having no farther Hopes of him: I fancy’d I knew the Hand, and thence my Curiosity only led me to see the Name and finding Belvira subscrib’d, I began to guess there was some foul play in Hand. Belvira being my particularly intimate Acquaintance, I read one of them, and finding the Contents, convey’d them all secretly out with me, as I thought, in Point of Justice I was bound, and sent them to Belvira by that Night’s Post; so that they came to her Hands soon after the Minute of her Marriage, with an Account how, and by what Means I came to light on them. (473)

The remainder of The Unfortunate Bride details in typical romance-genre fashion the discovery of the truth behind Frankwit’s betrayal/abandonment, the duel between Frankwit and Wildvill (who believes Belvira is Frankwit’s “Strumpet”), the revelation of the misunderstanding (all laid at Moorea’s feet) of the deaths of Wildvill and Belvira, and Belvira’s insistence that Frankwit marry her formerly-blind cousin. Thus, while Frankwit and Belvira didn’t achieve their happily ever after, Celesia and Frankwit do. Moorea, the presumed instigator, appears to escape punishment for acting on her desires.

The one detail that casts Behn’s depiction of Moorea in an interesting light is when the author intrudes to comment that she was “in Cambridge” and had “some small acquaintance with this Blackmoor Lady” (473). As Pearson rightly argues, these types of intrusions serve as the “author-narrator’s desire to insist on the truth of the narrative and the eye-witness authority of the narrator” (Pearson 2004, 195). I want to suggest that the detail should invite more scrutiny. Until this moment, we have very little information about the authorial voice. The romance begins with an account of the friendship between Frankwit and Wildvill. Most the narrative is in the third person except for the moment the narrator “secretly” conveys the letters from Moorea’s room (Moorea being absent) and sends them to Belvira who was a “particularly intimate Acquaintance” of the narrator. What is significant is that once the author-narrator sends the letters to Belvira, both Moorea and the authorial “I” disappear from the romance plot. On the surface, the use of the authorial “I” as eye-witness may seem trivial. However, we see this convention pop up enough times in Behn’s romance novels (e.g., Oroonoko) to recognize that it has an additional purpose.

The Black Lady

We see this technique used in The Black Lady. It opens as follows, “about the Beginning of Last June (as near as I can remember) Bellamora came to town from Hampshire” (Behn 1915, 7). The intrusive “I” services to establish the veracity of the narrative. The precision of the narrative details creates a historical authenticity (London) that underscores the romance elements despite the idealized names. The end result, not surprisingly, is the continued instability of ontological and thus historical certainty. Even so, Behn’s novel does align itself more with romance than history: the idealized names (Mrs. Brightly, Bellamora, Fondlove, and so on); the vagueness of Bellamora’s history; and the allegorical ending to the novel.

Seduced by her lover and pregnant with his child, Bellamora leaves her home in Hampshire and travels to London, in search of “Madam Brightly, a Relation of hers with whom she design’d to continue for about a half a year undiscover’d, if possibly, by her Friends in the Country” (315). Upon her arrival at London, Bellamora loses her “Trunk, with her Clothes, and most of her Money and Jewels.” She is taken up by an “ancient Gentlewoman,” who after hearing Bellamora’s pitiful tale, recognizes the lover’s name and brings Bellamora’s situation to the attention of a gentlewoman residing in the house. The woman happens to be the sister of Fondlove (for so the lover is named). The two women (landlady and Fondlove’s sister) contrive to bring the two lovers together by persuading Bellamora that, if she does not wed Fondlove, she will be sent to the “House of Correction, and her Child to a Parish-Nurse” (319). Bellamora refuses all attempts to prod her into marriage until a desperate Fondlove invokes the one argument against which (it is supposed) no woman’s tenacity can prevail — maternal instinct:

But he taking her in his Arms began again, as he was wont to do, with Tears in his Eyes, to beg that she wou’d marry him e’er she was delivered; if not for his, nor her own, yet for the Child’s sake, which she hourly expected; that it might not be born out of Wedlock, and so be made uncapable of inheriting either of their Estates, with a great many more pressing Arguments on all sides. (320)

Bellamora’s resistance is finally broken and at last she consents.

Of the numerous novelistic writings Behn produced, it is intriguing that The Black Lady has received very little scholarly attention. In The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, Todd suggestively implies that Behn may not have written The Black Lady (Todd 1997). According to Todd, the likely candidate is Tom Brown, who satirized Behn in his Letters to the Dead from the Living and who translated Scarron into English for Samuel Briscoe (publisher, along with Charles Gildon, of The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn 1696). Todd’s explanation for the possible ascription to Brown is that, when Behn’s “The King of Bantam” was published in 1698 (in a second edition of The Histories and Novels), Gildon

worried about the difference between Behn’s baroque prose fiction style and that of the new work: “The Stile of the Court of the King of Bantam, being so very different from Mrs. Behn’s usual way of Writing, it may perhaps call its being genuine into Question.” The answer he gives is that it was done for a wager to see if she could write in Scarron’s style. (Todd 1997, 317)

The Black Lady appeared for the first time in the 1698 All the Histories and Novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn. In her discussion of Behn’s novel, Todd writes:

Like “The Court of the King of Bantam,” “The Black Lady” dates itself by reference to a theatrical performance: of John Wilson’s The Cheats. It too has self-conscious touches of Behn. Having lost trunk and friends in alien London, the dark-haired heroine responds by sending out for a “Pint of Sack.” But other curious elements are less typical. Proving pregnant, the heroine keeps her room to hide her “great Belly.” One of the Scarron stories that [Tom] Brown translated was “The Useless Precaution,” in which the man’s beloved kept her room because she was in the last stages of pregnancy. In her condition, the “Black Lady” is forced by her officious friends to choose life on the parish or marriage to a man she has come to loathe; the overseers of the poor who search for her are called rapacious “wolves” who prey on the poor. Is this Behn getting at her father? Or Brown, knowing more than most, getting at Behn? (Todd 1997, 317)

Todd’s comments merit some consideration. First, it is clear that she is not entirely convinced that Behn wrote The Black Lady. The only “touches of Behn” Todd identifies is that Bellamora sends “out for a ‘Pint of Sack.’” What, we might ask, about the novel’s opening sentence? The character names? The playful pun that concludes the novel? More importantly, the narrative refusal to lay blame (a rather common feature in Behn’s complex handling of gender relations within her writings)?

Todd’s suggestive questions about the possible motive behind the writing of The Black Lady similarly require more than she offers. Why would Behn write a story of a pregnant woman to get “at her father” (especially when, by Todd’s own account, Behn’s father died enroute to Surinam nearly 30 years before), or Brown, “knowing more than most,” want to get “at Behn”? In some ways, Todd’s comments would have been far more convincing had she merely stated the fact that The Black Lady was published in All the Histories and Novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn and end her discussion of the text there. Or, if Todd wanted to engage critically the novel and its intriguing history, addressing questions of ascription, style, and interpretation, her discussion of The Black Lady should have been more than a single paragraph. In all fairness to Todd, it must be acknowledged that her principal aim in writing The Secret Life of Aphra Behn is biographical and not literary analysis. Yet the tantalizing questions Todd poses about authorial motive for writing The Black Lady (whether the author is Behn or Brown) deserve further analysis and/or commentary. Interestingly, Todd ignores completely Behn’s provocative title and its implication.

Pearson, on the other hand, not only accepts Behn’s authorship of The Black Lady but also takes up the matter of the novel’s title. In her essay “Slave Princes and Lady Monsters: Gender and Ethnic Difference in the Work of Aphra Behn,” Pearson considers the novel in light of Behn’s general use of “images of racial and cultural difference” throughout her work (Pearson 1996). Pearson’s analysis explores Behn’s use of racial and monstrous images in a number of texts — Oroonoko, The Unfortunate Bride, Abdelazer, and The Rover. When Pearson turns her attention to The Black Lady, she observes, “the protagonist Bellamore is, presumably, only ‘black’ in the usual seventeenth-century meaning of the word, dark-haired and dark-eyed. But her name, while representing ‘bell’amora,’ ‘beautiful love,’ can also be read as ‘bella mora,’ ‘beautiful Moor.’ Pregnant, unprotected, unmarried and consequently persecuted in Restoration society, she is thus identified by implication with the position of Blacks as outsiders” (Pearson 1996, 226). Unlike Todd, Pearson astutely highlights one of the intriguing lexical complexities associated with Behn’s practice of naming her fictional characters. Behn’s audience presumably would have easily recognized the playful semantics denoted by Bellamora’s name.

Despite drawing attention to the novel’s title, The Adventure of the Black Lady, and the multiple semantics of Bellamora’s name, Pearson does not expand on either point. Furthermore, with reference to the novel’s title, Pearson’s comment that “Bellamora is, presumably, only ‘black’ in the usual seventeenth-century meaning of the word, dark-haired and dark-eyed” is a somewhat paradoxical and misleading statement. Pearson’s comment first implies that there is only one presumable way to read Behn’s use of “black,” “dark-haired and dark-eyed,” yet later suggests that (given Bellamora’s name) we should comprehend her identification “by implication with the position of Blacks as outsiders.” The word “black,” as Pearson suggests, was used routinely to describe an individual with dark hair and eyes. However, and this is a significant caveat, the word also signified skin color (Black Moor, Black woman, and so on) and the hair and eye color of most dark-skinned people was also dark. This semantic register does not in and of itself negate Pearson’s definition; rather, it expands and complicates the interpretive range of the novel’s ideological meaning (as Pearson’s observation suggestively implies). Furthermore, if we were to read The Black Lady as a romance (as I believe we should), then Pearson’s final point, linking Bellamora’s identity “with the position of Blacks as outsiders,” has far greater ideological significance than both she and Todd acknowledge.

With the exception of Pearson, few scholars draw attention to the idea of reading The Black Lady in terms of race. Two arguments sum up what would be general opposition to this idea: first, the novel’s title and Bellamora’s name notwithstanding, nowhere in the novel does Behn specifically describe or refer to Bellamora in terms of racial (that is, Black) attributes; and second, if Behn had wanted Bellamora to be viewed as “Black” she would have done so since Behn rarely displayed reluctance to represent Blacks in her other writings (Oroonoko, Abdelazer, or Moorea, the “Blackamoor Lady,” in The Unfortunate Bride). This opposition is valid if certain principles exist trans-historically as definitive truths — that the semantics and semiotics of race are always monochrome; that white passing did not exist prior to the late nineteenth century as a cultural phenomenon of the transatlantic slave trade; and that every literary treatment with race will always assume the same form — anti-Blackness.

I make this point because the analysis of race in Renaissance and early modern English culture often operates according to these principles. Yet, as the literary tradition of color passing demonstrates, the certainty by which human beings recognize and know racial identification is easily undone. One of the complexities in thinking about race and white passing in early modern English literary texts is the question of evidence. We are accustomed, at least in the United States, to viewing racial passing as particular to enslavement and the rise of very specific white-centric notions about how racial differences are discerned and, in literature, displayed. What Heliodorus’s Aethiopika has shown is that reading for the somatic isn’t always reliable. I propose that The Black Lady exemplifies this same “truth” when it comes to racial recognition. In other words, it is my contention that the author insists that we disentangle ourselves from normative expectations about evidentiary predicates of race.

The heroine of Behn’s romance, Bellamora, possesses all the ideal attributes that a late seventeenth-century romance heroine should: “Youth, Beauty, Education, Family and Estate” (319). The narrator’s use of phrases such as “Fair Innocent (I must not say Foolish) one,” “The Fair Unthinking Creature,” or “the pretty innocent Creature,” suggests that, for all her “Education,” Bellamora is extremely naïve (316). Yet there are moments in the narrative where we must wonder whether she is as “innocent” as portrayed. For example, it is not entirely certain that Bellamora has conveyed the truth of her experiences to the Land-Lady:

the discreet Gentlewoman endeavour’d to comfort her [Bellamora] by all the softest and most powerful Argument in her Capacity … which she did with so much Earnestness and visible Integrity, that the pretty innocent Creature was going to make her a full and real Discovery of her imaginary, insupportable Misfortunes; and (doubtless) had done it; had she not been prevented by the Return of the Lady, whom she hop’d to have found her Cousin Brightly. (316)

Bellamora’s reticence in revealing her real situation is both an astute move when one travels to a new environment yet, the next morning, she reveals all to the “Land-Lady” and another “Lady” who we soon discover is the sister of Fondlove. Bellamora’s description of her relationship with Fondlove is a curious account. Throughout her account, her disinterest in Fondlove is apparent; her uncle’s attempt to wed her to a man “whose Person and Humour did by no means hit with my Inclinations” (317). “This,” she continues, “gave Fondlove the unhappy Advantage over me.” What then transpires is a classic example of seduction. However, instead of the lover repudiating the beloved, it is the pregnant Bellamora who is reluctant, declaring “’Tis the only thing I dread in this World: For I am certain he can never love me after: Besides, ever since, I have abhorr’d the Sigh of him” (38). Only when faced with the threat of imprisonment and the loss of her child does Bellamora finally agree to wed her seducer (Behn makes it difficult to view Fondlove as Bellamora’s lover); even so it is with great reluctance:

He taking her in his Arms began again, as he was wont to do, with Tears in his Eyes, to beg that she wou’d marry him e’er she was delivered; if not for his, nor her own, yet for the Child’s sake, which she hourly expected; that it might not be born out of Wedlock, and so be made uncapable of inheriting either of their Estates; with a great many more pressing Arguments on all sides: To which at last she consented. (320)

Unlike Behn’s other novellas and novels, love seems not to be as great a factor in this storyline as one might expect.

The Black Lady ends on what can only be viewed as a rather bizarre note:

Whilst they [Bellamora and Fondlove] were abroad, came the Vermin of the Parish, (I mean, the Overseers of the poor, who eat the Bread from ‘em) to search for a young Black-hair’d Lady (for so was Bellamora) who was either brought to bed, or just ready to lie down. The Land-Lady shew’d ‘em all the Rooms of her House, but no such Lady cou’d be found. At last she bethought her self, and led ‘em into her Parlour, where she open’d a little Closet-door, and shew’d ‘em her Black Cat that had just kitten’d assuring ‘em, that she shou’d never trouble the Parish as long as she had Rats or Mice in the House, and so dismiss’d ‘em like Logger-heads as they came. (320)

The Land-Lady’s feline humor serves to bring closure to Bellamora’s troubles in true romantic fashion. Bellamora and Fondlove are reunited and married and all possible threats to their relationship/happiness effectively thwarted. Yet there is the fact that the humor in the text’s final words is premised on the metaphoric association between Bellamora and the cat in terms of their “similar” color.

What are we to make of this romance novel and its wordplay? On the one hand, The Black Lady stands as little more than an exercise in romance storytelling. Behn’s text is terse to an extreme, dependent on stereotypes, and simplistic in its plotting. When compared to Behn’s other novels, the romance seems to fall well short of the novelistic mark in terms of how deeply Behn engages her usual themes. What Behn does, when we consider the text as an example of an ideological register fraught with racial complexity, cannot be easily ignored. Both the novel’s title and the name of its female protagonist invite us to speculate on Behn’s purpose in framing her story in what clearly would be recognized (even in the seventeenth century) as racializing predicates. Bellamora, despite the dual signification of her name, is marked racially by the novel’s title and her own name. The “whiteness” of Bellamora, therefore, is a priori questioned, if not thoroughly destabilized, as a signifier of the ordering of female beauty along a color spectrum. The idealization of whiteness, and the continuing degradation of Blackness, contributed greatly to the use of the word “race” as a predicate of color by the time Behn embarked on her writing career.

In addition, the word “Moor” was always a racialized term of color in pre- and early modern English culture and language as witnessed by the delineation of Moors according to color (“Blackamoor,” “Tawny Moor,” white “Moor”) that surfaced occasionally in texts. Language begets imagery, and imagery begets meaning, and Bellamora’s “fairness” sits in obvious juxtaposition to this African-ness. Hence, Behn offers a playful reminder that, when translating the word Bellamora, we cannot never foreclose meaning — Bellamora will always translate into English as both “the beautiful Moor” and “beautiful love.” Thus, Bellamora’s fairness exists always in contrast to her name, neither allowing the novel’s readers to ignore the relationship between naming and seeing, nor fostering a privileged hierarchy of beauty. The Black Lady is clearly inscribed on such terrain despite its length; and, in my view, this terrain prescribes how we are to read the text.

From the title to the novel’s culminating jest, Blackness that is “fair” (i.e., white) constitutes the racialized identity that is Bellamora. This effect is achieved in large measure through Behn’s adroit use of romance’s de-familiarizing techniques — verisimilitude and allegory, history and the fantastic. The romance tradition allows Behn to destabilize readerly expectations about the absolute knowability of a person’s racial identity based on color. In this, The Black Lady continues the tradition constituted in representations such as Heliodorus’s Charikliea and Franklin/Tasso’s Clorinda. What all three female characters make clear is that the social category of “Black” women must be rethought to take account of the white-passing figure. Unlike Charikliea and Clorinda, however, Bellamora’s racial identity remains a narrative enigma; her mother and father conveniently dead, her uncle unnamed, Bellamora’s genealogy is known to us only through her name. In addition, Bellamora’s extreme reluctance to wed the man who impregnates her is curiously inexplicable, particularly in a society and age that do not condone pregnancies sans marriage. Her reasons are never made clear, and in the end, only the coercive force of England’s legal system seems to tip the scales for Bellamora. The novel’s conclusion, even so, remains decidedly unsatisfactory.

If, as I am suggesting, we are being asked to read The Black Lady as a passing narrative, we may be witnessing one more version of the Charikliea/Clorinda narrative, within a more complicated frame of reference. Miscegenation was very much a part of English colonial and metropolitan social and cultural practices in the seventeenth century. The stakes for English/African women similar to Charikliea and Clorinda would be far different in this context. Racial identification increasingly became determined not only along national lines but also along a color spectrum. The privileging of whiteness was concurrent with the absolute denigration of Blackness. While this hierarchizing of color was not new — with the transatlantic slave trade and an increasing redefinition of how one’s racial lineage was determined — the visibility or invisibility of Blackness achieved an ontological stature within cultural discourse. And, the choice to be “Black” or “white” not surprisingly assumed an ideological importance among those whose “Blackness” was not visible. In this world, the Bellamoras faced a difficult decision: to declare their “Blackness” and be de-humanized as a “negro,” or to use their whiteness and live life as a passing subject.

Assuming Bellamora was one of these women, she must leave behind all that would announce to the world that her “race” and color were not one. She must vigilantly guard against those traces of her past that might expose her deed. She must invent a new narrative, a “plausible history,” to ensure her secret: dead parents, an unsympathetic, and perhaps, cruel guardian, a missing relative. Most important, if at all possible, she must avoid marriage. To comprehend Bellamora as a figurative white-passing subject is to understand the unstated in the situations of Charikliea and Clorinda; and, concomitantly, to read Bellamora as actively engaged in color passing is to recognize that the social, political, ideological, and cultural conditions extant in late seventeenth-century England were conducive to such a phenomenon. Finally, to read The Black Lady as a white-passing narrative is to explore whether Behn’s fictive characterization not only narratively functions to make visible the invisible Blackness that marked all retellings of Heliodorus’s romance but also serves as a potentially self-reflective mirroring of the author’s complex relationship to late seventeenth-century English white supremacist thinking.

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Race and Romance: Coloring the Past by Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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