Favourite Fictional Women: Hellena from The Rover

Because Company B is currently staging one of my mostest favouritest plays, Aphra Behn’s The Rover, I am re-posting here an old Friday Hoyden piece from over at Hoyden About Town.

The Rover is one of the all-time great Restoration comedies. One of the greatest silly romps of any era of playwriting, in fact, because it has everything: disguises, sword fights, carnival, a girl dressed as a boy, thwarted lovers, drunken shenanigans, sex, danger and a jilted courtesan.

It begins with the information that Florinda is to be forced to marry an old man, in a match arranged by her father (despite her known love for the cavalier Belvile), and that her younger sister Hellena will be made a nun, the news delivered by their brother. Hellena immediately gets a long speech where she describes the horror ahead for Florinda in vivid detail, “And this man you must kiss, nay, you must kiss none but him too, and nuzzle through his beard to find his lips – and this you must submit to for threescore years, and all for a jointure!” (A jointure was the portion a widow inherited when her husband died.) “Is’t not enough you make a nun of me, but you must cast my sister away too, exposing her to a worse confinement than a religious life?”

When The Rover was first performed, Hellena was played by Elizabeth Barry, who was on her way to becoming the most popular actress on the stage at the time. Behn had a great relationship with many star actresses, like Barry, Anne Bracegirdle, Nell Gwynn and Mary Betterton, and wrote them wonderful roles.

Portrait of a brunette white woman in Restoration dress.

Aphra Behn

Hellena is the ultimate witty wench, and nothing so trivial as the rule of her father and brother and the conventions of ladylike behaviour is going to keep her down. She persuades her sister and their cousin Valeria to put on masks and gypsy costumes, and sneak out to join the festivities in the town, for it is Carnival time. Florinda hopes to find her lover and make plans for a clandestine wedding, but Hellena just wants to see the world and have some fun.

When she encounters Belvile’s outrageous friend Willmore she spots a kindred spirit. Similarly to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the real hero and heroine are not the nice couple Belvile and Florinda, but the rakish Willmore and the incorrigible Hellena. These two share some of the wittiest and most sexually frank banter ever staged. How often has a woman needed to have this rejoinder to hand?:

Willmore: Thy lodging, Sweetheart, thy lodging, or I’m a dead man.

Hellena: Why must we be either guilty of fornication or murder, if we converse with you men?

When he suggests that they retire to bed without the fuss and bother of a wedding Helena’s response is, “And what shall I get? A cradle full of noise and mischief, with a pack of Repentance at my Back?”. Much more pleasingly pragmatic than concern for her virtue. Not that she is actually against the pastime he is proposing. She is quite open about her keenness to explore the carnal possibilities with Willmore, as long as it happens on her terms. When she tells him that she is destined for the convent she observes, ”I perceive, Father Captain, you would impose no severe penance on her who was inclin’d to console her self before she took orders.” My favourite line of Willmore’s is when he speaks of Helena in terms of one of the most common metaphors for her kind – a falcon: “give me a mad Mistress when mew’d, and in flying one I dare trust upon the wing, that whilst she’s kind will come to the lure.” Which means that he wants a girlfriend who hates being confined. He would rather she flew free, and he will simply trust that she will come back to him when he calls her. Ahhhh…

Review of the current production is on its way.

C17th portrait of seated woman.

Portrait of the Duchess of Portsmouth, depicted in the popular style of the period by Peter Lely (held in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

3 thoughts on “Favourite Fictional Women: Hellena from The Rover

  1. Richard Armitage supposedly was in this in drama school, but I don’t think we ever heard which role. I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to see it staged, either.

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