The one where I attempt to compare a royal slave to a French princess

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688)

It’s the first time I read such an old classics in audio format. I have listened to classics before, but 17th century novels are quite a different world away from a 19th century Balzac or a late 19th century detective fiction.

The language, its flourishes and peculiarities, the structure, the length of chapters, the circumvoluted circumstances, the slightly clichéd characters… It was a challenge for me not to have the printed word in front of me to cling to. Thankfully, the reader from Librivox was skilled and very articulate, and the book isn’t really that big. Also, I made sure that I wasn’t missing anything big by reading the summary online.

I wasn’t really swept off my feet by the story, but that’s alright, I didn’t expect to. It was really interesting to see a novel set in the West indies especially as a dose of realism showed that Behn knew her business (I was comparing it to fictional foreign countries in Voltaire’s Candide, for example). It was interesting to see this first portrait of black people under a positive light, especially after reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s casual racism in Emily Fox-Seton novels, that were published more than 200 years later (more on that one later!).

Of course, Oroonoko is not meant to be a modern hero, and the book is not meant to denounce racism and slavery at all. In fact, Behn is quite content with slavery for ordinary people, she really sees it as degrading when it affects superior (a.k.a aristocratic) people. That’s to be expected for the period, but that does put a damper on the vague claim that Oroonoko was the first anti-racist novel written by a woman. As for the women in Oroonoko, I was rather disappointed to see so little of them.

The most fascinating part was the insight I got from Aphra Behn’s life from checking it on the internet. She’s not known at all in France, in fact, so it was all news to me. Comparing it with the classics that I was taught in French lit class, at the same time of Oroonoko’s publishing, there were Racine, Corneille and Molière plays and La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette (1678).

I am probably comparing apples to oranges, but I must say that the comparison is not quite favourable to Behn, as La Princesse de Clèves feels to me a lot more subtle and less cliché then Oroonoko, although I might be prejudiced by my education. As far as drama goes, I found the Princesse de Clèves’ renouncing to her true love more heart-wrenching than Oroonoko killing his own true love, probably because the former speaks more to me in modern terms than the latter. It might be because it’s more psychological and introspective. Perhaps one ought to compare Oroonoko with sentimental novels like those of Madame de Scudéry, which are known for being full of adventures, and sentimental twists and turns where lovers are separated and reunited by fate countless times. I have but studied a few pages of Scudéry in class, because they’re typically very long and verbose, but perhaps my comparison doesn’t hold.

I’m quite interested in international literature comparisons, but my own knowledge is too limited. Is there an English classics akin to the beloved Princesse de Clèves? I’d love to make new discoveries.

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One thought on “The one where I attempt to compare a royal slave to a French princess

  1. I am not familiar with Princesse de Cleves so I cannot produce a comparable English classic. But yeah, I support you in not loving Oroonoko. I had to read it for a colonialism in literature course in college, and it was a SLOG.

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