‘Unlink the chain’: Experimentation in Aphra Behn’s Novels

Kate Aughterson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapterpeer-review


Feminist re-readings of science and masculinism in the late seventeenth century have contributed much to our knowledge of the ways in which the philosophy of science, methodologies and language have been complicit from the early modern period in the solidification of a bourgeois binary gender system. This chapter will argue that Behn’s prose fiction and translations were intellectually and aesthetically engaged with these contemporary ideologies and explicit practices of experimentalism. Experimentalism in the early modern period meant a combination of authentic empirical investigation with a discursive examination of what that meant for new modes of representation (famously evoked by Bacon’s ‘idols of the marketplace’). For Behn- as for Cavendish – ‘experiment’ was both a novel way of seeing the world, and a new way of writing – and one which they fdrew into their formal writing. Ian Watt’s classic The Rise of the Novel (1957) linked the emergence of the new genre to the rise of bourgeois individualism, reifying Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as the archetypal novel: a historiography which has been rightly challenged by materialist and feminist critics, who variously acknowledge Behn, Manley and Haywood as Defoe’s contemporary or predecessor practitioners of the novel, as well as complicating an exact equation between individualism, style and form. Nevertheless, what remains is a critical consensus that a new genre emerges in the early modern period, recognised by contemporary readers, writers and booksellers by the unstable noun ‘novel’ (news/ new thing) which gradually came to refer to the genre. Aphra Behn’s prose publications from 1684 until her death in 1689 were dominated by experiments in this new form: she wrote a number of novellas in addition to Love Letters and Oronooko – in which she played with modes of voice, representation and the reliability of the narrator.
By locating Aphra Behn’s experiments of the 1680s within the context of her political and dramatic career and contemporary philosophical experimentalism, this chapter acknowledges feminist re-calibrations of the history of the novel, and develops a more explicitly aesthetic account of that experimentalism through close textual analysis of Behn’s experimental prose techniques. It thus suggests that a binary classifications of experimentalism with liberal or left-leaning politics is a simplification of the relationship between aesthetics and politics, and conversely, that the recent critical commonplace that Behn’s Tory politics dominate all her political thinking and writing is a reductive simplification of both her political views and her aesthetic practice. Through such analysis, we can return to larger questions about how we might describe experiments in the novel form of the novel, as well as Behn’s status as an innovative writer and thinker.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWomen Writers and Experimental Narratives
Subtitle of host publicationAn Experiment of Her Own
EditorsKate Aughterson, Deborah Philips
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Print)9783030496500
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • women's writing
  • gender
  • experimental fiction


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