Frederick. I begin to suspect something, and ‘twould anger us vilely to be trussed up for a rape upon a maid of quality, when we only believe we ruffle a harlot. (4.5.123-5)
I really try to like The Rover. I know that despite Behn’s Royalist loyalties the play satirises Cavalier behaviour and sexual politics in a lot of ways. Blunt, for example, is ultimately a figure of ridicule, whose impotence renders him pretty much non-threatening, even if his misogynistic rants make for unpalatable listening. Similarly Florinda’s chasteness leaves us fairly certain that she’s never in any real danger. But the two near-rapes of Florinda, which the play seems to include for titillating entertainment (oh, those outrageously disreputable cavaliers!), and the casual way Behn’s drama dismisses courtesans and lower-class women as disposable and rapeable make the play too wearisome to be funny (for me anyways). I want to believe that Frederick’s distinction between “a maid of quality” (virginal and noble) and “harlots” (a word which stands in the play for any unchaste and unvalued woman), is just one more example of absurd cavalier cowardice (they’ll take advantage of any woman so long as there’s no likelihood of legal or social penalty). But I’ve read enough articles on early modern laws regarding rape, marriage, inheritance, and sexual regulation to know that Frederick’s statements are backed by legal and popular opinion. Class and sexual history did matter — a lot — in determining whether sexual violence was a legally punishable crime. Moreover, Frederick is one of the decent men in the play. His ability to distinguish between chaste and noble ladies like Florinda and other, less chaste and valuable women, is supposed to mark him as a likeable character. Which makes me think we’re being invited to nod along with his underlying assertion that only some women deserve not to be raped.
Little wonder the play leaves me feeling a bit queasy.
16 April 2013 ~ Hamilton
Behn, Aphra. The Rover. Ed. Anne Russell. Peterborough: Broadview, 2009.