This essay will explore how female
criminality and subversive behaviour is represented within the novellas The
History of the Nun and The Fair Jilt. The essay will analyse how and
why the female heroines came to commit such crimes, and the aftermath of their
actions. It can be argued that crimes within the novellas are committed because
of the harsh restraints assigned to women of the time period they were set.
This essay puts forward the idea that within The History of the Nun, female
criminality takes place because of the protagonist’s desire to protect her
reputation, and within The Fair Jilt, crime is represented as a way for
the main female character to break away from the sexist gender roles by taking
on more masculine characteristics. This essay will also explore the effect that
violation of vows has on crime, and the punishment given after.
The History of the Nun, Aphra Behn explores eighteenth century female
desires. Behn designs Isabella, who incorporates ‘conflicting versions of the
perfect woman.’ (Hultquist, 2015, pg 488) Isabella is both the virtuous nun who
remains true to her vows, and also the lustful woman who desires a marriage.
Behn purposely forms a situation in which Isabella’s desires are not the issue.
On the other hand, the patriarchal society’s rules and expectations of women
are what cause the problems. Behn builds an environment where Isabella’s
complicity within patriarchal rules ruins her, and the story concludes in a
frenzy, however, not without justice and pardon.
As Isabella grows up,
she falls in love with the handsome Henault. Isabella’s emotions clash as as
she concurrently tries to suppress her feelings for Henault and remain true to
her vows. ‘She tried fasting long, praying fervently, rigid penances and pains,
severe disciplines, all the mortifications almost to the destruction of life
itself, to conquer the unruly flame; but still it burnt and raged the more.’
(pg 166) Isabella suffers in silence; as her feelings for Henault torment her,
she in return torments her body. However, her feelings grow stronger; the more
she shows ‘penance’ the more her feelings ‘raged.’ Isabella eventually
concludes that her growing feelings, even after her attempt at repression, must
be approval from God: ‘it was resisting even Divine Providence to struggle any
longer with her heart.’ (pg 166) Isabella believes this is a sign from God; his
acceptance and forgiveness in breaking her religious vows. However, as
suggested by Behn, breaking a law, or here a ‘vow’, is regarded as a sin (pg
139), and leads to revenge and punishment. Therefore, here, Behn is emphasising
how crime, especially crimes against Heaven, always ends in punishment.
However, perhaps Behn is also emphasising the unfairness women were subjected
to due to their lack of choice. Isabella is forced to choose between her lover
and her vows; to follow her heart would be to break the laws of heaven.
Introducing her narrative
in a monastery, Behn emphasises the outcome of violated laws to lovers and to
God, but also ’emphasises that vow-breakers can avoid rash decisions
about their fate’ (Hultquist, 2015, pg 488) if ‘nunneries and marriages were
not entered into till the maid so destined were of a mature age to make her own
choice.’ (pg 141) Isabella was deemed suitable to make her decision when she
was 13, and as having a ‘virgin innocence’, Isabella does not understand the
implication of her vows. Though Behn is condemning broken vows, ‘the narrator
emphasises the role that proper patriarchal protectors should play in a woman’s
life, especially when she is too young to understand or protect herself.’
(Holquist, pg 488) Therefore, Behn is emphasising how women who act out
of line, whether that be law-breaking or an attempt to subvert their strict
gender role, often the patriarchal society takes part of the blame. If
Isabella’s father had allowed to wait until she was of age, she would have
chosen Henault, and no vows would have been broken. However, this first event
foreshadows the rest of the novel, and the horrors that follow