Friday Hoyden: Hellena in Aphra Behn’s “The Rover”

I was going to do Aphra Behn, and then I thought, if it were possible to establish that it was on a Friday that Virginia Woolf gave her famous lecture upon which A Room of One’s Own is based, and in which she extolls Behn as the first woman known to make a living from her pen, she might already be the very first Friday Hoyden of all time. And who wants to try to compete with Virginia Woolf? So in the spirit of tigtog’s request for more fictitious and literary hoydens, I am going to focus on the heroine of Behn’s best known play.

The Rover is one of the all-time great Restoration comedies. One of the greatest silly romps of any era of playwriting, in fact, because it has everything: disguises, sword fights, carnival, a girl dressed as a boy, thwarted lovers, drunken shenanigans, sex, danger and a jilted courtesan.

It begins with the information that Florinda is to be forced to marry an old man, in a match arranged by her father (despite her known love for the cavalier Belvile), and that her younger sister Hellena will be made a nun, the news delivered by their brother. Hellena immediately gets a long speech where she describes the horror ahead for Florinda in vivid detail, “And this man you must kiss, nay, you must kiss none but him too, and nuzzle through his beard to find his lips – and this you must submit to for threescore years, and all for a jointure!” (A jointure was the portion a widow inherited when her husband died.) “Is’t not enough you make a nun of me, but you must cast my sister away too, exposing her to a worse confinement than a religious life?”

Portrait of a brunette white woman in Restoration dress.

Aphra Behn

Hellena is the ultimate witty wench, and nothing so trivial as the rule of her father and brother and the conventions of ladylike behaviour is going to keep her down. She persuades her sister and their cousin Valeria to put on masks and gypsy costumes, and sneak out to join the festivities in the town, for it is Carnival time. Florinda hopes to find her lover and make plans for a clandestine wedding, but Hellena just wants to see the world and have some fun.

When she encounters Belvile’s outrageous  friend Willmore she spots a kindred spirit. Similarly to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the real hero and heroine are not the nice couple Belvile and Florinda, but the rakish Willmore and the incorrigible Hellena. These two share some of the wittiest and most sexually frank banter ever staged. How often has a woman needed to have this rejoinder to hand?:

Willmore: Thy lodging, Sweetheart, thy lodging, or I’m a dead man.

Hellena: Why must we be either guilty of fornication or murder, if we converse with you Men?

When he suggests that they retire to bed without the fuss and bother of a wedding Helena’s response is, “And what shall I get? A cradle full of noise and mischief, with a pack of Repentance at my Back?”. Much more pleasingly pragmatic than concern for her virtue. Not that she is actually against the pastime he is proposing. She is quite open about her keenness to explore the carnal possibilities with Willmore, as long as it happens on her terms. When she tells him that she is destined for the convent she observes,  ”I perceive, Father Captain, you would impose no severe penance on her who was inclin’d to console her self before she took Orders.”  My favourite line of Willmore’s is when he speaks of Helena in terms of one of the most common metaphors for her kind – a falcon: “give me a mad Mistress when mew’d, and in flying one I dare trust upon the wing, that whilst she’s kind will come to the lure.” Which means that he wants a girlfriend who hates being confined. He would rather she flew free, and he will simply trust that she will come back to him when she feels like it. Ahhhh…

A girl in smock and pantaloons stands on a stool, watched by a C17th costumed woman and man.

This isn’t actually from The Rover, it’s from a play called “Or”, about Aphra Behn and her actresses. But I thought it look like Hellena, Florinda and their brother in the first scene.

When The Rover was first performed, Hellena was played by Elizabeth Barry, who was on her way to becoming the most popular actress on the stage at the time. Behn had a great relationship with many star actresses, like Barry, Anne Bracegirdle, Nell Gwynn and Mary Betterton, and wrote them wonderful roles.

And here is a bonus picture of Jeremy Irons as Willmore.

B&W photo of Jeremy Irons lying on his side, in cavalier costume.

Jeremy Irons in The Rover

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, history

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4 replies

  1. Thank you. You’ve made me want to read the play.

  2. If people are going to rush off and read the play, which I really hope you all do, I should add a note that it does include two scenes of threatened rape, and one of them in particular is quite scary. I think they are very well handled, and do a great job of showing the appalling sense of entitlement of upper-crust men to any woman who isn’t overtly owned by another man, but you should be aware that those scenes occur.

  3. Thanks for this! I’ve always meant to read an Aphra Behn play, but I’ve never got around to it.

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