It’s a classic quiz question: who was the first woman to make a living from writing? Answer: Restoration dramatist and poet Aphra Behn.
What’s perhaps less well known is that she consistently referred to herself as ‘Astrea’ in her writing. ‘Astrea’ carries a whole host of associations in seventeenth-century England. There are traces of Astraea, the name often identified with Elizabeth I, but its most resonant derivation is from L’Astrée, a pastoral bestseller written by Honoré D’Urfé in 1607 and first translated into English as Astrea in 1620.
Aphra Behn, 1670
Set in Forez, a region near Lyons, L’Astrée recounts the stories of groups of nymphs and shepherds in a forest divided by the river Lignon. On one side of the river are the shepherds and shepherdesses; on the other, nymphs and nobles. As with all pastoral romance, it’s about aristocrats with leisure time yearning for a simple life and philosophising about social, ethical and erotic behaviour. Farmers’ Weekly it ain’t.
The romance begins when Astrée banishes her lover Celadon from her sight. She believes him to have been unfaithful, but the blameless shepherd has been a virtuous and constant lover. Distraught, he throws himself into the river Lignon and is rescued on the other side of the bank by Galathée and her nymphs Léonide and Sylvie. Galathée falls in love with Celadon and keeps him comfortably imprisoned for most of the first volume before he escapes with the help of Léonide to the other side of the forest where he constructs a temple to his beloved. Love, avowedly chaste, becomes the central force of the text as the characters variously discuss their dilemmas and pass judgement on the ethics of lovers’ actions.
L’Astrée is barely studied at universities now. Its length militates against it, so if it’s examined at all it’s through excerpts or as an exercise in narratology (though check here for a University of Paris project on D’Urfé) since it uses a variety of discursive forms: letters, tales, poems, debates. It’s a remarkably lively read; the individual stories of romantic predicaments that fan out from the central narrative are skilfully woven together, and there is considerable craft in leaving clues that later stories pick up. Myriad different characters are delineated: the proud Astrée, who begins to doubt herself and is tormented by regret for having banished Celadon, headstrong Galathée daughter of the king, the haughty Sylvie, the patient and suffering Celadon, the wise druid Adamas, Sylvandre the judicious intellectual and the amusing libertine Hylas, to name but a handful.
In my next few blogposts I want to discuss its enormous cultural impact. L’Astrée ported Neoplatonic ideas into a readily accessible fictional form. Those ideas, with a little help from St Francois de Sales’s Devout Humanism, dominated aristocratic French culture and the English court. L’Astrée even inspired a equally well-known parody by Charles Sorel, Le Berger Extravagant.
Soul food: The rise of cultural Neoplatonism
L’Astrée is soaked in Neoplatonic philosophy, which holds that all the universe is one being and that different levels of existence work in unity. This is overt throughout the text: to give just two examples, the druid Adamas declares in volume three that God creates the universe out of love and gives man reason, which teaches him to love God in the world. The ideal of love is a manifestation of God. The intellectual Silvandre states in volume two that love is not an abstraction whereby man unites in the love of God but where the lover and beloved unite their souls and wills.
It’s worth stepping back for a moment to examine Neoplatonism’s illustrious Renaissance pedigree. Marsilio Ficino, the Italian metaphysician who represented Plato as the philosopher of unity and order, was a major influence on the gentle theology of St Francois de Sales, who believed in the goodness of human nature. Love and beauty become a way to experience the divine, since to adore the beloved is to be directed to contemplate spiritual things. Uniting souls, not the bodies, is what distinguishes Neoplatonism, which takes as a source text Plato’s Symposium.
Neoplatonism in England is evident from the middle of the sixteenth century, though it’s less a philosophical movement than a literary one.
Jayne Sears argues that although Ficino is influential on the Continent, he is not the primary source for Neoplatonism in England at this time, and certainly an EEBO search reveals that neither Ficino nor Plato was published in English during this period. Prose writers up to 1570, such as Elyot and Ascham, engage with these ideas, but between 1570 and 1610 the influence of Plato’s Symposium is evident in poetry (especially in Spenser and Drayton) and after that mostly in drama, particularly Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess (1608) and other tragicomedies.
The Neoplatonic literary version of love is not Petrarchan. You simply don’t get the frustrated blazon of the female body, where physical parts are parcelled out. This is rife in the sixteenth century both in France and England; check out Pléiade writers such as Ronsard or the erotic epyllions by Inns of Court poets such as Barnabe Barnes and Thomas Lodge. However, from the second decade of the 1600s, just after L’Astrée was published in France, the lover contemplates the whole being of his adored. The feminine is still the object of the masculine gaze, but the masculine is yearning to mesh with and subsume itself into the beloved in Platonic unity. Drayton’s valorisation of chastity is a typical example, but Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning (1611) best fits the Neoplatonic template:
Our two soules, therefore, which are one,
Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.
But we can’t let the poets hold the floor; what’s missing from Sears’ analysis is romance. On the Continent, Urfé’s L’Astrée had become a central transmitter of Neoplatonic ideas, and Catholic Neoplatonists such as St Francois de Sales recognised its cultural power in the promotion of a virtuous life. J-P Camus, who wrote a biography of de Sales shortly after his death, says in his Esprit de St Francois de Sales (tome VI, p 119) that anyone who reads it must acknowledge that its narration of love and chastity are exemplary, just as its author D’Urfé is: “Et certes qui considérera bien l’Astrée et en jugera sans passion recognoistra qu’entre les romans et les livres d’amour, c’est possible l’un des plus honnestes et des plus chastes que so voient, l’autheur estant l’un des plus modestes et des plus accomplis gentils-hommes que l’on puisse figurer..” (quoted in McMahon, fn p233.)
In mid-seventeenth century England, cultural production was dominated by the stage, but romance increasingly helped shape its norms (yes, that’s a sweeping statement, but the traffic between Jacobean and Caroline tragicomedy and romance is too big a subject to elaborate on here). It wasn’t long before a recognisable Neoplatonic culture emerged that was notably feminocentric – and that coincided with a L’Astrée ‘s publication in English in 1620 by an anonymous translator.
The injunction that women should be silent simply does not exist in L’Astrée, either implicitly or explicitly. Shepherdesses and nymphs speak as much as the shepherds and knights.. They relate their own stories and give judgement in the love debates. Near the end of the first volume the shepherds and shepherdesses discover the Temple D’Astrée, where The Laws of Love (“Loix d’Amour”) are engraved. This erotic manifesto posits a submissive (male) lover who must serve his lady, but whereas medieval courtly love had an adulterous subtext, the Astréen lover must serve without necessarily hoping for physical reward. Love must be pure.
The gender politics of L’Astrée and English proto-feminism
L’Astrée marks a radical restatement of the status and agency of aristocratic women. This blossomed in Paris salon culture and préciosité, and it’s most famously exemplified by the Hôtel de Rambouillet, which was the centre for the literary lions of the day. Discussion of love and literary topics in the salons were self-consciously modelled on the debates in L’Astrée. And this is where life mimics fiction; Laurence Gregorio argues that it should not be read as a consistent text that advocates a particular form of Platonic love, but one that sets how to talk about it: “What we see emerging is not a concrete philosophy of love, but rather a kind of theatre of rhetoric, destined for the general divertissement and consistently ending in general merriment.” L’Astrée therefore provides a model for French and English salonnistes in which men and women could take an equal voice.
In England, any analysis of the success of these discursive conventions converges on two central proto-feminists or précieuses and their circles: Queen Henrietta Maria and Lucy Percy Hay, the Countess of Carlisle.While Erica Veevers and Julie Sanders have sought to differentiate these circles – the court’s préciosité had a strong religious accent, while the Countess of Carlisle’s salon was considerably more secular – most critical attention has nevertheless been focused on Charles I’s wife, the French Henrietta Maria. Her expensive court masques were strongly politically encoded and her defiant Catholicism was controversial, not least because of a series of high-profile conversions to Rome by English nobles. (Erica Veevers and Karen Britland have done wonderfully detailed studies on how her political allegiances played out culturally.) In Henrietta Maria’s court productions, women were seen on stage for the first time. Her brand of Neoplatonism was intertwined with Catholic theology, fusing Astréen pastoral romance with de Sales’s Devout Humanism and just a sprinkling of Mariolatry.
To say that the Puritans didn’t like it would be an understatement. William Prynne’s 1000-page diatribe against the theatre Histriomastix (1632) rails against the “amorous pastoralls” at court and attacked women on stage as “notorious whores”. Given that the queen was one of the women who appeared on stage (albeit at court, not in public) publishing Histriomastix was considered a criminal act; Prynne’s ears were cut off and he was branded a seditious libeller.
Yet in many ways, Prynne’s views would prevail. Among many Parliamentarians Neoplatonic culture became associated with extravagance, idleness and emasculation. In the next couple of decades even English romance was reacting against it; Richard Brathwaite’s Panthalia (1659) is particularly critical of court Neoplatonism, and Herbert’s The Princess Cloria is decidedly ambivalent.
And so L’Astrée‘s promotion of the eternal feminine faded in the years just after the Civil War. How neat, then, that it took a woman to bring it back. Aphra Behn didn’t just use Astrea as a poetic alter ego: when she was exiled on the Continent during the Interregnum and working as a spy for Charles II, it was her code name. Royalism and female agency rolled into one.
Karen Britland, Drama at the Courts of Queen Hnrietta Maria (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
Laurence Gregorio, ‘Implications of the Love Debate in L’Astree’, The French Review, Vol .56, No. 1 (Oct. 1982) pp. 31-19
Sister Mary Catherine McMahon, ‘The Astrée and its influence’, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol.12, No.2, (Jul. 1926) pp. 225-240
Julie Sanders, ‘Caroline Salon Culture and Female Agency: The Countess of Carlisle, Henrietta Maria, and Public Theatre’, Theatre Journal, Vol. 52, No. 4, Women/History (Dec. 2000) pp. 44-464
Jayne Sears, ‘Ficino and the Platonism of the English Renaissance’, Comparative Literature, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer, 1952), pp. 214-238
Erica Veevers, Images of Love and Religion: Queen Henrietta Maria and Court Entertainments (Cambridge University Press, 1989)