• Adapting Desires in Aphra Behn's The History of the Nun

    Aleksondra Hultquist (see profile)
    CLCS 18th-Century, GS Prose Fiction, TC Translation Studies, TM Literary Criticism
    British literature, Literature and history
    Item Type:
    british literature, literature, women, History and literature
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    Between 1694 and 1757, there were at least five adaptations of Behn's "The History of the Nun; or The Fair Vow Breaker". Modern critics have focused on Thomas Southerne’s play, "The Fatal Marriage: or, the Innocent Adultery" (1694), David Garrick’s 1757 revision of Southerne’s play into the tragedy, "Isabella: or, the Fatal Marriage," and Jane Barker’s short fictional excerpt, “Philinda’s Story out of the Book” in "The Lining of the Patch-Work Screen" (1726). My research has unearthed two previously unknown texts, both moral fables in periodicals, the first in "The Universal Spectator," under the heading “Sure, of all, Ills, Domestic are the Worst!” (c. 1728) and the second in "The Gentleman’s Magazine," which condensed the "Universal Spectator" version in 1731 as “Matrimonial Murders.” This essay uses adaptation theory in order to demonstrate that the problem of female sexual desire is always at stake in the adaptations—the way the protagonist struggles with desire, and the social implications of expressing desire—and each version’s method of depicting the heavy burdens associated with that desire. In all of the versions, the heroines’ desires and responses are extreme. What changes among the adaptations are the expressions of that intensity and the critique of the way in which patriarchal ideology (which manifests in the dictates of parents, monastic discipline, and marriages), produces such intensity. Additionally, adaptation theory demonstrates that none of the interpretations can completely overwrite Behn’s text. For all the simplifications of character each successive adaptation exhibits, Behn’s predominant critique of the ineffectiveness of patriarchal structures to deal with intense female desire is always reiterated in every adaptation through the “adaptive event,” a literary moment invented by the revisions that does not exist in the source text.
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