Prior to the death of Glicera’s father and the revelation of his poverty in Eliza Haywood’s “The City Jilt,” Melladore respects the physical boundaries of his betrothed Glicera and upholds her virgin honor before marriage. However, Melladore’s virtuous restraint melts away at the precise moment Glicera shares the news of her father’s destitute estate. The setting of this conversation incorporates imagery to foreshadow the impending danger to Glicera’s virtue; “They were sitting in an Arbour at the end of the Garden, so shadow’d o’er with Trees, that scarce could the Sun’s Beams at the height of Noon penetrate the Gloom, much less those of the pale Moon, who then shone but with faint and sickly Fires…” (Haywood 67). To begin, the conversation takes place in “the garden.” The definitive article “the,” as opposed to “a” as an indefinite article, indicates a specific location that is either already established in the narrative or presumed within the context. At this moment in the plot, Glicera is in mourning over her father’s death, and eighteenth-century decorum necessitates that she to “keep to [her] house” for some time after his death (Wilputte 70). It stands to reason that the narrator indicates “the garden” at Glicera’s property, or rather, Glicera’s garden. Further, the term garden is often “[a]pplied to a region of remarkable fertility” (“Garden”). The narrator employs the common trope of the garden as female fertility or sexuality—in this instance, Glicera’s sexuality. By revealing her father’s destitute estate to Melladore in “the garden,” Glicera’s virginity becomes the figurative setting in which she reveals her poverty to Melladore.
In this figurative setting, the garden (e.g. Glicera’s virginity) is not a bright, openly visible space. Instead, the lovers converse in the “Arbour [which is] shadow’d o’er with Trees.” Visibility is reduced as even sunlight cannot break through “the Gloom,” which is a term that indicates a “dark and threatening” atmosphere (“Gloom”). The language here suggests that in the context of Glicera’s virginity something threatening is looming, and Glicera is unable to see it coming. Indeed, the narrator explicates that the “[Moon’s] faint and sickly fires” were so dim that Glicera “perceived not… [Melladore’s] alter’d Countenance…” when she related her impoverished state to him (Haywood 69). In this moment, the narrator delineates how, without Glicera’s awareness, a new desire is kindled in Melladore, one to surreptitiously plunder her garden.
Amidst the gloom in Glicera’s garden, Melladore’s lascivious plot is accompanied by the only thing able to penetrate the thick arbor— the “[Moon’s] faint and sickly fires” (69, emphasis added). Fire as a trope for wanton sexual conquest continues in the narration of their eventual sexual encounter. The narrator describes Glicera as being “melted by his Pressures” (70, emphasis added). It appears that Melladore turns up the heat, as it were, with “Vows, Sighs, Tears, and Implorations” until she finally succumbs to his endeavors and “[falls] Victim [to his] lawless Flame” (69-70, emphasis added). But how does this fire trope characterize Melladore’s seduction? Recall that the narrator illustrates the first instance of fire in the seduction narrative as “faint and sickly.” According to the OED, faint can indicate something “feigned, pretended, [and] simulated” or “wanting in courage, spiritless [and] cowardly” (“Faint” Def. 1. and 3.). Moreover, the word sickly signifies something that is “not robust or strong” (“Sickly”). The narrator seems to undermine Melladore’s character by depicting his seduction as fake, spineless, and weak. In this light, then, Melladore garners no glory by bedding the maiden, and the narrator, instead, attributes Glicera’s sexual downfall upon her own naivety (Haywood 69, 70, 71). Such a subtle undermining of Melladore’s seduction style serves the thematic dynamics of the story; that is, even as Melladore causes Glicera’s sexual downfall, he begins his narrative trajectory just as pathetic as he eventually becomes in the end.
“Faint, a.” Def. 1. and 3. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 28 Feb. 2010.
“Garden, n.” Def. 1.c. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 28 Feb. 2010
“Gloom, v.” Def. 2.a. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 28 Feb. 2010
Haywood, Eliza. “The City Jilt.” Early English Women Writers 1660-1800: Three Novellas. No. 5. Ed. Earla A.
Wilputte. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State UP, 1995. 65-103.
“Sickly, a.” Def. 1.a. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 28 Feb. 2010
Wilputte, Earla A. Notes. Early English Women Writers 1660-1800: Three Novellas. No. 5. Ed. Wilputte. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State UP, 1995. 65-103.
Gender Ambiguity in Aphra Behn’s “To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman”
The narrator in Aphra Behn’s “To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman” begins the poem with a consideration of which “title” is most appropriate for addressing Clarinda (line 1). She deliberates, “Fair lovely maid, or if that title be / Too weak, too feminine for nobler thee, / Permit a name that more approaches truth: / And let me call thee, lovely charming youth” (1-6, emphasis added). In this excerpt, the narrator employs language that is subtly gendered, fostering a sense of ambiguity regarding Clarinda’s anatomy that subsequently opens the poem to differing empirical interpretations. To begin, the narrator opens with “[f]air lovely maid” but immediately challenges the language as insufficient to describe someone as “noble” as Clarinda. If the initial address, specifically “maid,” differs from Clarinda’s subjectivity because she is “nobler” than “maid,” what does the narrator mean by the word noble? Although this adjective commonly denotes its primary definition of “distinguished,” the narrator specifies that Clarinda’s nobleness varies from the idea of “maid” because a maid is “too feminine” in comparison; additionally, this primary definition of noble is gender neutral (“Noble” I). Therefore, the narrator must be engaging a less obvious interpretation of the word.
As early as 1398 AD, noble as an adjective also described something that was “of a part of the body; important; spec. essential to life” (“Noble” II.7.c). If one applies this “bodily” definition, then Clarinda cannot be called a maid because some crucial, life-sustaining “part of [her] body” is not as female as that corresponding part in a maid. Does this mean that Clarinda’s feminine exterior conceals some hidden masculine anatomy?
Before drawing any conclusions regarding Clarinda’s anatomy, one might look more closely at all factors in the equation. If “maid” is “too feminine” in relation to “noble,” where noble indicates something that is bodily and life-sustaining, is there enough evidence to conclude that the “something” is necessarily a body part and not, instead, a bodily act? Looking more narrowly at the word maid, contemporary society commonly attributes this title to a “young (unmarried) woman” (“Maid” I.2.a). While this definition was certainly valid at the time the poem was composed, another definition also existed. A more primary definition of maid in the OED indicates that the noun also refers to “[a] man without experience of sexual intercourse,” and this male definition was employed as early as 1300 AD (“Maid” I.1.b). This alternate reading of the term maid consequently proposes an alternate interpretation of the essential bodily element that makes Clarinda “too feminine” in relation to the “maid” (now, male virgin).
Perhaps, rather than possessing a male body part, Clarinda actually partakes in the conceptually masculine act of sexual promiscuity. Such an interpretation would corroborate with the other differentiator between “maid” and “noble”—that is—the narrator’s observation that “maid” is also “too weak” in comparison to Clarinda. This sort of subtle implication would position Clarinda, the woman, as stronger than a male virgin because of her sexuality. In so doing, the narrator might undermine the concept that sexual agency lies exclusively within (without and through) the phallus. The “nobler,” bodily, and life-sustaining part of Clarinda could alternatively be read as her possession of not a phallus but a libido.
“Maid.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 3 Nov. 2008
“Nobel.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 3 Nov. 2008
“To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman.” Aphra Behn: Oroonoko and Other Writings. Ed. Paul Salzman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. 262.