Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Emily Bowles Smith: "Corporeal Intelligibility"

Emily Bowles Smith
Lawrence University

“Our print . . . still remain on the prest greens”: Corporeal intelligibility and the nature of the press in Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister

1> Early in Aphra Behn’s novel Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-1687), Silvia (the sister from the novel’s title) writes to her lover Philander:

“I threw myself down on that bank of grass where we last disputed the dear but fatal business of our souls: Where our prints (that invited me) still remain on the prest greens: There with Ten Thousand sighs, with remembrance of the tender minutes we past then, I drew your last Letter from my Bosome; and often kist and often read it over, but oh, who can conceive my Torment, when I came to that fatal part of it, where you say you gave your hand to my sister, I found my soul agitated with a Thousand different passions, but all insupportable, all mad, all raving; sometimes I threw my self with fury on the ground, and I prest my panting heart to the cold earth, then rise in rage and tear my hair.” (13-14)

2> Here Behn sets up a dense network of images related to print culture. She uses the word prints once as a noun and prest twice, once as an adjective and a second time as a verb, thereby setting up a vocabulary that she deploys in the novel and that she develops throughout her writing more broadly.

3> As the first woman to earn her living by the pen, Behn was peculiarly and particularly invested in defining the profession of authorship and, as I hope this paper suggests, she often did s by imagining authorship as a part of a fluid continuum of terms related to practices characteristic of the intersecting categories of manuscript, performance, and print. Because my focus here is on her novel Love-Letters—a text that appeared in print during Behn’s lifetime—I will look almost exclusively at the final category that I just mentioned, that of print literature, but I hope that some of the elliptical features of my argument point others in the direction of manuscript and performance.

4> Wendy Wall has explained that, in Elizabethan slang, “to ‘undergo a pressing’ is to act the lady’s part and be pressed by a man, an act here associated with the loss of authorial virginity” (1). Douglas A. Brooks pushes this point even further, noting that “the pen was essentially housebound; the press, on the other hand, appeared in public much too often” (5). In relation to Behn, the impact of such highly dichotomized terms is self-evident: Far from housebound, she was publicly available and accessible through her popularly performed plays, her widely circulated manuscript and print poems, her scurrilous broadsides, and her novels, which ranged in subject matter from Love-Letters to Oroonoko (1688), or from sexual intrigue to slavery. Like her early modern predecessors and her Restoration male contemporaries, Behn was quick to capitalize on the images of the pressed female body, the promiscuous text, and other images engendered by the basic metaphoric relationship between the printing press and the sexual press. Because of her gender, she was uniquely able to ply these metaphors with corporeal implications. Her depictions of the author’s body are always already inscribed with the qualities she appends to femaleness, including sexuality, seductiveness, pleasurability, along with features that she draws from a more encompassing continuum of sexualities, such as autoeroticism and other possible effects of the pen or what Behn terms the “masculine part” (217) in her preface to The Luckey Chance (1687).

5> In approaching her printed works, we might easily single out images of the prest body as the promiscuous body, as the aforementioned passage suggests. But this same passage also and more subtly draws our attention to Behn’s fear of and interest in the semi-permanence of corporeal inscription. For her, the press of the printer like the press of a man’s body is as much a source of impermanence as it is of lasting impressions.

6> Along these lines, we might think of the importance of the interaction between writing surface and writing instrument, particularly as Elizabeth Grosz has imagined it in Volatile Bodies. According to Grosz, “the kind of texts produced depends not only on the message to be inscribed, not only on the inscriptive tools—stylus, ink—used, but also on the quality and distinctiveness of the paper written upon” (191). For women writing for the print publication from the Restoration and on into the late eighteenth century, the “quality and distinctiveness of the paper written on” was largely outside of their control—a lack of authorial agency that would not have been felt, for example, by Margaret Cavendish’s stepdaughters Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Egerton when they compiled a presentation copy of their manuscript writings during the Interregnum or by other women whose works circulated primarily in manuscript volumes. In some ways depictions of highly stylized but natural writing surfaces seem to function as a form of compensation for this transformation of medium, and also as a way of suggesting that medium and meaning cannot exist independently. In the texts that I examine here—two of Behn’s poems and her novel Love-Letters—Behn experiments with the relationship between surface (parchment, envelope, page, tree, grass) and instrument (pen, knife, body, bodies) in such a way as to draw our attention to the continuum of legible materials capable of encoding and embodying meaning.

Unsatisfied nymphs and the impermanence of the press

7> Before turning back to the passage that I quoted at the outset of this paper, I want to look briefly at a similar image in Behn’s premature ejaculation poem The Disappointment (printed in John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’s Poems on Several Occasions in 1680 and reprinted with variations in Behn’s Poems upon Several Occasions in 1684) and in A Paraphrase on Oenone to Paris (1680), her translation for John Dryden’s compilation of translations and paraphrases based on Ovid’s Heroides. In the penultimate stanza of The Disappointment, Behn writes:

“Like Lightning through the Grove she hies,
Or Daphne from the Delphick God,
No Print upon the grassey Road
She leaves, t’instruct pursuing Eyes.” (13.1-4)

8> The lines are fraught with the language of print culture, but Behn’s emphasis is on the absence of print rather than its presence. This is interesting, first, because for many years The Disappointment was attributed to Rochester. Although Behn could not have guessed this problem of attribution, the fact that the printed poem was erased from Behn’s canon until fairly recently adds a modern twist to the lines. The second, and probably more intentional, point that I want to mention about these lines involves Behn’s maneuvering between Cloris’s missing print and her own print authorship. To leave behind a “Print upon the grassey Road,” Cloris would have instructed him of her whereabouts—a subtle nudge, I think, at the sort of publications that were expected from and acceptable for female writers, which would have included a variety of didactic books, some hinging on housework (like Hannah Wooley’s many books) and others on religious behavior (such as the mothers’ manuals that Dorothy Leigh and others wrote during the Renaissance, primarily for posthumous publication). But she leaves “No Print,” and Behn—reveling in her moment of embodied textuality and sexuality—acknowledges that she shares Cloris’s sentiments: “The Nymph’s Resentments none but I / Can well Imagine or Condole” (14.1-2). She does not want to leave behind the sort of print that would satisfy Lysander but instead offers her own authorial imprint: a poem about the failure of masculine desire, the evasiveness of a sexually desiring and desirable female, and the power of the prest and pressing female author.

9> Behn uses an absent or missing print to convey Cloris’s unsatisfied desire. The woman who has not been prest leaves “No Print upon the grassey Road.” By contrast, in Oenone the grass bears the graphic traces of the sexual press. Oenone mourns the loss of her lover by remarking on the continued legibility of their sexual encounters, noting how “the dear Grass, as sacred, does retain / The print, where thee and I so oft have lain” (184-85). In this couplet, Behn strikes an unexpected balance between sexual infidelity and textual permanence. Love, which Oenone thought was lasting, vanishes long before the print of her and Paris’s bodies on “the dear Grass.”

Silvia and the “prest greens”

10> Silvia diverges markedly from Cloris because she is compulsively drawn to the imprint that she and Philander have left behind on the grass. Like Oenone, she wants to read and reread the “prints [that] still remain on the prest greens.” Although there is no realistic possibility that the grass would retain the impressions of Silvia and Philander’s bodies, Silvia fetishistically imagines that their forms have left something lasting on the ephemeral surface of the grass. For Silvia, as for Oenone, “the prest greens” designate a site and surface inscribed with sexual desire and devotion; the ephemeral matter remains legible to both of these betrayed women long after their lovers have strayed.

11> Her sheer naïveté about the nature of print and of the press is made manifest when Philander uses the same language to talk about his desire for Calista, Silvia’s replacement in the final parts of the novel. He writes to Octavio that he “laid me down just on the print which her fair body made, and prest, and kist it o’re a thousand times, with eager transports, and even fancy’d fair Calista there” (176). Again Behn uses the words print and prest, here with a decidedly autoerotic turn: Philander “laid me down” on the site of the “print which her fair body made, and prest,” imagining Calista there but actually pressing the earth alone. In this moment of a masturbatory encounter with the print marketplace, Philander “found the paper with the Song which I have sent you” (176)—this is a poem found nowhere else in Behn’s published works. The press here is ephemeral, promiscuous, and autoerotic, but it is also generative in a way that it never is for Silvia, who rereads the prints on the grass but never discovers poetry.


12> Behn’s varied depictions of the grass as a surface on which the print and the press interactively leave marks of female desire, sexuality, and shame show how the “prints [that] still remain on the prest greens” elaborate metaphorical relationships related to print culture in ways that make the female body corporeally intelligible but that also perpetuate and publish male infidelity, female shame, and other key features of the misogynist economy of the print marketplace that were so often the subjects of Behn’s critiques. Throughout her works, Behn imagines external inscriptive surfaces as continuing rather than containing the contours of the body. The grass, the trees, and in her plays more urban surfaces like the prostitute’s sign bear traces of the body and suggest that, for Behn, to be a woman in print is a surface phenomenon that necessitates a complex interplay between the body as an agent but also a site of inscription and the variety of inscriptive surface that extend the body’s parameters. Her works indicate her fascination with the medium of print and also her awareness that print—like other forms of surface pressing—embodies the female author’s desire for corporeal intelligibility.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. The Disappointment. In The Works of Aphra Behn, volume one, edited by Janet Todd, 65-69. London: William Pickering, 1992.

---. Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister. In The Works of Aphra Behn, edited by Janet Todd, volume 2. London: William Pickering, 1993.

---. The Luckey Chance: Or, An Alderman’s Bargain. In The Works of Aphra Behn, volume 7, edited by Janet Todd, 209-84. London: William Pickering, 1996.

---. A Paraphrase on Oenone to Paris. In The Works of Aphra Behn, volume one, edited by Janet Todd, 12-19. London: William Pickering, 1992.

Brooks, Douglas A. “Introduction.” Printing and Parenting in Early Modern England, edited by Brooks, 1-28. Burlington: Ashgate, 2005.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Wall, Wendy. The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Emily Bowles-Smith is a visiting assistant professor at Lawrence University. She has published on Aphra Behn, Frances Brooke, and Margaret Cavendish. Her book, Triumphant Bodies: Sexual-Political Conquest in Women’s Published Writing, was published by Cambridge Scholars Press in 2007.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

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