It is delightful to talk about one’s favorite books, and occasionally Dr. Boli has the opportunity to do just that at some length, with nobody stopping him, for Serif Press editions of classic works of the past. The latest addition to the catalogue is Aphra Behn’s short novel Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, with an introduction by H. Albertus Boli. This is one of the many books often pointed out as the “first novel in English,” though it is of course useless to identify which is the first novel in English until one can get literary critics to agree on a definition of “novel,” and getting literary critics to agree on anything requires chairs and whips. Furthermore, there is some question as to whether the book is fiction at all; like all fictions of the era, it claims to be a true story, but then all true stories of the era also claim to be true stories.
Here, at any rate, is Dr. Boli’s introduction, reprinted by permission from the Serif Press edition of Oroonoko. And if you think the book is something you might like to read, you might wish to invest a few dollars in an attractively printed paperback edition.
The question everyone wants to ask about Oroonoko is whether it is, as the original title page says, a true history, or whether it is a work of fiction. This is, however, a question we shall probably never be able to answer, and the reason is that the same question can be asked about the life of the author—and never successfully answered.
No one knows who Aphra Behn was. This is quite an accomplishment on her part. She was a famous woman in her time. Her plays were hits on the stage. She was a great wit in a civilization of great wits. At a time when cleverness was more respected than perhaps at any other time in English history, the word “ingenious” belonged to her; it was her personal property, and to the world at large she was “The Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn.” Naturally, people wanted to know who she was and where she came from. And she told them.
But she does not seem to have told any one consistent story. There are at least half a dozen different accounts of her birth and parentage. Even her birth name is unknown—or, to put it another way, several different birth names are known for her. In every tale she told, she seems to have poured truth and fiction into a big pot and stirred them around until they were so thoroughly mixed that no one could ever sort them out again.
One thing we do seem to know about her life is that she worked as a spy for Charles II (who never paid what he owed for her services), using her feminine wiles and her gift for plausible fictions in Amsterdam during the Anglo-Dutch War. We also know that she moved in a circle of libertines, and, as one Victorian writer politely puts it, “It is impossible, with what we know regarding her life, to defend her manners as correct or her attitude to the world as delicate.”* [Edmund Gosse, “Behn, Afra,” in the Dictionary of National Biography.] She was married to a man named Behn for a while, but he did not leave her in easy circumstances, and when King Charles did not come through with her payment, she was forced to turn to her pen for sustenance. Modern critics regard her as the first female professional writer in history. She died at the age of 48, scribbling to the end; it is usually said that she died from the effects of poverty and overwork, although she might also have suffered from one of the various diseases incident to incorrect manners and an indelicate attitude to the world.
One thing we do not know about Aphra Behn is whether she was ever in Suriname, the scene of the second half of Oroonoko. Earlier biographies take it for granted that she was, but the information comes entirely from what the narrator of Oroonoko says about herself, and it requires some twisting to make those details fit some of the other known facts about Mrs. Behn. On the other hand, her descriptions of Suriname are so colorful and filled with accurate detail that it seems unlikely she got them from books. She could have got them from books, but as a professional writer Aphra Behn counted on being able to turn out the greatest number of words in the shortest possible time. In her Epistle Dedicatory, Mrs. Behn claims that “I never rested my pen a moment for thought” in writing Oroonoko, but wrote the whole narrative in a few hours. We do not get the impression that she liked to waste time on research.
So the book itself makes a plausible case for her having been in the English colony in Suriname for a while. Then is the story a true history, or is it a fiction with local color informed by actual experience?
We can be certain that some of it is fiction, simply by reading the book. The incidents at crucial points of the love between Oroonoko and Imoinda are obvious fictional constructions, exactly the sorts of incidents that filled the immense folio romances of Mademoiselle de Scudéry at about the time Mrs. Behn was writing. When dancing Imoinda trips and falls straight into Oroonoko’s arms, thus revealing their still-burning love, we can be sure that we detect the hand of the author laboring to advance her plot. When, later, the lovers are reunited because Imoinda runs out of her hut chasing a little dog she is very fond of, we may realize that the dog has been summoned into existence only for this purpose, and immediately vanishes from the universe when his job is done.
On the other hand, the slave rebellion led by Oroonoko has the ring of truth; it is too sloppy to be a bit of romantic machinery. The fact that real people with real names are involved in the tale is also suggestive. In particular, the villainous deputy-governor Byam, a real figure who really was in charge of the colony at the time, is painted as an appalling rascal, which seems like an odd thing for a novelist to do to a real person against whom she would have had no occasion for a grudge unless she had known him. We get the strong impression that Mrs. Behn still trembles with fury when she thinks of Byam, as if she really had been witness to something unforgivable.
These observations lead us in contradictory directions, and we are no nearer the truth than when we started. It still seems impossible to decide whether the story is truth or fiction. We may ask a little help, however, from the well-known Restoration playwright Thomas Southerne.
Southerne made a very successful stage adaptation of Oroonoko, which for the next two centuries would be better known than the original book. In his dedication, he expressed his surprise that Mrs. Behn had not adapted it herself, but he proposed an explanation.
“She had a great command of the stage; and I have often wonder’d that she would bury her favourite hero in a Novel, when she might have reviv’d him in the Scene. She thought either that no actor could represent him, or she could not bear to see him represented: And I believe the last, when I remember what I have heard from a friend of hers, That she always told his story, more feelingly, than she writ it.”
This is hearsay of a particularly tenuous sort: a friend of a friend told us. But still, if we take what Southerne says as truth, then Mrs. Behn felt a strong emotional attachment to the character and story of Oroonoko, and it was a story she told to her friends.
When we put these observations together with the anger our narrator displays in the story, we can come up with a plausible hypothesis. Aphra Behn really was in Suriname, and did know the real characters she mentions there. She knew, or knew of, an African who strongly impressed her as a noble and princely man, who was mistreated, rebelled in some way, and was punished abominably for it. Around this character she gradually built a romance in her own mind, and in her usual fashion mixed truth and fiction so thoroughly that she herself probably could not have sorted out which was which. She wrote it down in a great rush after having told the embellished story many times to her friends.
This hypothesis hangs from gossamer threads, but it fits well with the known character of Mrs. Behn, and it is probably as good as any other notion you will hear of how Oroonoko came to be.
Today Oroonoko is a very popular book, especially among teachers looking to check off trendy boxes in literature assignments. It is a book by an independent woman, perhaps the first woman who was a professional writer in the sense of making her living by literature; and its hero is an African prince unjustly enslaved, so it can count as an anti-slavery novel.
But is it anti-slavery? What is Aphra Behn’s opinion on slavery? She herself might not have been able to answer that question. What answer will you get if you ask someone here in the twenty-first century, “What is your opinion on war?” It is a hard question to answer. Most of us will agree that war is a bad thing, but it is a fact: no one we know has ever lived in a world without it. Since war is a fact of our world, the best we can say is that, in the face of war, there are people who act honorably and people who act dishonorably. This is what we see in Mrs. Behn’s treatment of slavery. There has never been a world without slavery in her experience, but given that slavery is a fact, there are honorable and dishonorable ways of acting. Mrs. Behn will not be shy about pointing out who in her story is acting dishonorably. And of course the most honorable character in it is Oroonoko himself, the royal slave—but he himself traded in slaves before he was captured.
It may be disappointing to modern readers that Mrs. Behn does not confront the issue of slavery directly. But issues do not interest her. People do. Half her story is set in Africa, but the most striking thing about it is not the otherness of the Africans, to use a favorite academic term, but the sameness of the Africans. They live in a world where the rules and customs are very different from ours. But they are not representatives of those rules and customs. They are individuals. Some are fine and honorable, some cowardly. Few are outright villains; even the old king, whose lust and selfishness send the story reeling toward tragedy, is a human being with a conscience. These are people like us, Mrs. Behn’s seventeenth-century readers, with our virtues and our vices.
In the same way, the white colonists in Suriname are people with their own characters and traits. They do not represent issues. Mrs. Behn’s slave-trading captain is not a cad because he is a slave-trader; he is a cad who happens to be a slave-trader, so slave-trading is the way his caddishness expresses itself. Her abominable deputy governor would be an awful man even if he had never had the opportunity to torture a noble African prince. Her most honorable white settlers are slave-owners, but people with consciences who will risk their lives for a noble African.
In short, if there is a message to Oroonoko, it is that people should act nobly and not basely in whatever circumstances fate hands them. This is hardly a new idea, but it is the one great idea of all world literature. It may disappoint us in an era when we judge literature by its political utility, but fortunately the ingenious Mrs. Behn’s fame will outlive our narrow era by many centuries.