Episode Five

Rolling the Dice on Love

Written and produced by Taylor Porcha, Daniel van Solingen, and Briana Bodin (cite)

In this episode, Taylor, Daniel, and Briana explore concepts of betting on love and relationships, as well as Restoration-age gambling culture. To support this endeavors is an interview with Dr. Misty Anderson (University of Tennessee), co-convener of the R18 Collective.

Show Notes

Topics discussed

  • assessing the chance and outcomes of love and relationships
  • betting as a metaphor for romance and marriage
  • financial impact of marriage and risk associated
  • gambling in relation to sex or the sexual marketplace
  • advancement of women’s involvement of gambling
  • Behn’s continuing legacy
  • psychology of gambling as an addiction

Resources mentioned

  • Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko and Other Writings. Edited by Paul Salzman, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Behn, Aphra. The Rover and Other Plays. Edited by Jane Spencer, Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Evans, James E. “‘A Sceane of Uttmost Vanity’: The Spectacle of Gambling in Late Stuart Culture.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 31, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–20, doi: 10.1353/sec.2010.0001.
  • Hankins, Scott, and Mark Hoekstra. “Lucky in Life, Unlucky in Love? The Effect of Random Income Shocks on Marriage and Divorce.” Journal of Human Resources, vol. 46, no. 2, 2011, pp. 403–26, doi: 10.3368/jhr.46.2.403.
  • Huggins, Mike. “Associativity, Gambling, and the Rise of Protomodern British Sport, 1660–1800.” Journal of Sport History, vol. 47, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–17, doi: 10.1353/sph.2020.0000.
  • Richard, Jessica. “‘Putting to Hazard a Certainty’: Lotteries and the Romance of Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 40, no. 1, 2011, pp. 179–200, doi: 10.1353/sec.2011.0003.


(CW) Note this episode makes reference to the enslavement of people of color, rape and sexual violence.

ELIZABETH. Author, spy, political propagandist, Aphra Behn was one of the first English women to earn a living by her pen. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the English Civil Wars, expanding transatlantic slave trade, and settler colonialism in the Americas, with frankness and complexity Behn’s work engages a range of topics, from gender identity to political power.

My name is Elizabeth Tavares and I am so pleased to welcome you to “Aphra Behn: The Podcast.” This limited series celebrates the 350th anniversary of the first public performance of a work by Behn, surveying major trends across translations of romances and scientific texts, timely plays, erotic poetry, and inventive novellas. Researched, written, and produced by University of Alabama undergraduates during the coronavirus global pandemic in the spring of 2021, this series offers a primer to one of the most influential writers in English you’ve never heard of.

Listen to the seven episodes, covering topics from climate and gambling to gossip and marriage, in any order. Each episode includes a special feature, including short performances from plays and interviews with world-class scholars. Want to learn more? Check out our website for show notes as well as links to popular and scholarly resources. We’re grateful to the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, the Samford Media Center, and the Alabama Digital Humanities Center for their support of this project. And thank you for listening. Now on with the show.

TAYLOR. Welcome to “Aphra Behn: The Podcast.” We are your hosts, Taylor Porcha

BRIANA. Briana Bodin

DANIEL. and Daniel van Solingen.

BRIANA. In today’s episode, we will be talking about questions betting on love, risk-taking, and gambling across some of the novellas, plays, and poems by Aphra Behn.

TAYLOR. Betting is all about chance assessment or weighing whether an action has high or low risk. For example, high risk might include betting on a card game say where the value of money lost could negatively impact one’s livelihood, such as inability to pay for food, bills or gas money. The bet is optional, the loss and the negative impact need not be felt. Jessica Richard explains that while gambling is an investment, it is both sacrificial and risky, “the tension between chance and control that constitutes gambling is inherent in participation in the lottery. Buying a lottery ticket is both unproductive sacrificial expenditure and productive proto-capitalism investment.” Seventeenth-century English literature and especially theater was interested in this question of why take the risk, and Behn was no exception, weaving the issue into the novellas The History of the Nun and Oroonoko, and the plays The Rover and The Lucky Chance.

First, betting and gambling is most often used as a metaphor, particularly in cases of romance and marriage. For example, in the novella The History of the Nun, the protagonist Isabella is consistently put in situations where she must bet on love with little certainty or information. For Isabella, gambling on love has to do with making or breaking promises, as the narrator states early on, “never to break a vow, for that was the first ruin of her and she never since prospered.” Isabella has been raised in a convent and plans to be a nun. After one suitor comes and leaves, she seems determined to not miss the second chance, and decides to run away with Henault, taking the chance that life might be better with him than in the convent. She was eternally thinking of him, how handsome his face, how delicate every feature”: this infatuation with Henault eventually leads Isabella to debate if it is worthwhile to gamble away her vows as a nun in order to be with him. She even frames the evaluation of risk as a two-sided debate with herself: this was the debate. She brings reason on both sides; against the first, she sets the shame of a violated vow . . . possibly, that sin might be as soon forgiven as another.” Isabella does decide to gamble on love and ends up forsaking her vows to be with Henault.

This leads down a winding path as Isabella undergoes a great many difficulties with this choice, including leaving the nunnery, turning away from faith, the death of two lovers and the death of herself in the end. To mitigate all of this suffering, thinking Henault dead she marries her first love, the wealthy Villenoys. However, her first husband is found, but poses a risk to her current comfort and livelihood. She kills him, and in order to free herself, tricks Villenoys into dumping the body, which gets him killed as well. This is only resolved with Isabella’s own execution at the hand of the courts, where she is made an example of the risk that one runs for breaking a vow, as the image of her scaffold speech suggests: “She made a speech of half an hour long, so eloquent, so admirable a warning to the vow-breakers, that it was as amazing to hear her, as it was to behold her.”

While Isabella is raised in a convent and cared for by nuns, women who live and operate outside the risks of marriage, the novella demonstrates the ways in which those social norms problematically invade the walls of the convent. In raising Isabella to have options, to either choose a life as an elite woman in society or as a nun herself, they equip her with a wide range of skills intellectual and artistic: “she was the prettiest forward prattler in the world, and had a thousand little charms to please, besides the young beauties that were just budding in her little angel face, so that she soon became the dear loved favorite of the house: and as she was an entertainment to them all, so they made it their study to find all the diversions they could, for the pretty Isabella, and as she grew in wit and beauty every day, so they failed not to cultivate her mind and delicate apprehension in that was advantageous to her sex.” In their attempt to find all the diversions and skills they could to help develop her wit and beauty . . . to cultivate her mind,” it is these same traits that the marriage market also uses to assess risk.

One of the social pressures that the novella is critiquing is to use marriage as a tool to acquire wealth, which entails a great deal of risk. Throughout The History of the Nun young adults are expected to marry someone of a reputable social standing, betting on the significant other that gives them the best possible chances or wealth, social standing and success. For example, “now it was that young as she was, her conduct and discretion appeared equal to her wit and beauty, parents of abundance of young noblemen made it their business to endeavor to marry their sons to so admirable and noble a maid.” This concept also strikes me as a high-risk action, where characters are forced by social norms to build their livelihoods off of their social status. If they choose a significate other who does not meet or exceed their perceived social status, then they too are affected and almost demoted in their class standing. Mike Huggins argues “friendship and credit required esteem, often described in terms of ‘honor,’ a masculine status rooted in a reputation for successful, chivalrous, and honest competition. Honor, reputation, and status had to be constructed within contemporary social conventions. It stemmed from position in the community. Honor had to be asserted and vindicated, reinforcing notions of gentility and politeness. Honor helped construct gambling identities.”This highlights the way in which honor or social standing is either positively or negatively affected by gambling.

DANIEL. The critique of betting on love has the added complication of race in another of Behn’s novellas, Oroonoko. Oroonoko follows the life of a west African prince, who is captured and enslaved, as well as his wife, Imoinda. When Oroonoko and Imoinda first fall in love, what he is willing to take risks on and who for changes significantly: “Yet he changed that weakness on love alone, who was capable of making him neglect even glory itself, and for which new he reproaches every moment of the day.” This proves to be a high-risk action as Oroonoko risks losing his status by taking the mistress who was already owned by the king his uncle. She had been “sent the royal veil . . . that is, the ceremony of invitation . . . secured for the king’s use and ‘tis death to disobey.” Imoinda has no say, and ultimately dies at Oronooko’s hands, both having been enslaved and Oroonoko unwilling to see his wife or child raped or murdered by others. Oroonoko understands the complexity of this moment, trying to apologize in advance, having “told her his design, first of killing her.”One might argue that in this moment Imoinda is making the, quite literal, life changing gamble that her relationship with Oroonoko is more valuable than her life. On the other hand, the narrator never gives her voice, so readers have no idea whether or not she consents. In this, as in Behn’s other works, whether or not a woman consents to the gamble, she is ultimately the biggest bearer of risk and the biggest looser.

To help expand on some of these ideas, we would like to welcome Dr. Anderson, Head of the University of Tennessee English Department. Thank you, Dr. Anderson, for taking time out of your day to share your insight on the correlation between betting in seventeenth century England and modern times.

TAYLOR. Alright so, my name’s Taylor. I’m a Junior here at UA [University of Alabama]. and I am doing a podcast on Aphra Behn. So I was just hoping to talk to you a little bit about that if that was okay.

DR. ANDERSON. Fantastic, I’m looking forward to it.

TAYLOR. Well, thank you so much. So our podcast is kind of on women’s rights. In this case it’s specifically on a women’s role in gambling and betting we see this a lot throughout Aphra Behn. She does a lot of betting on love and kind of gambling on love, so I was kind of wondering if you had any input on that. Specifically, we see it a lot throughout the nun. There’s a lot of betting with women throughout. The nun kind of pushes them to engage in activities that nuns don’t typically do. We see it a lot in Oroonoko as well. I’m excited to see what you have to say.

DR. ANDERSON. What a great question, Taylor. I think that in many Restoration comedies we see gambling in relation to sex or the sexual marketplace. And we often see men at cards, in fact Man of Mode (1676) famously opens in this way. We also have card playing in Way of the World (1700) right at the opening, too. So, men who don’t want to admit that they’re competing sexually wind-up being seen at cards. So, I think that for Behn, picking that up is already engaging with the trope that she sees elsewhere and it’s always about being a little hidden if you’ll notice right. A good gambler doesn’t give it away and women are all forced to be gamblers in this world because they have to win at this marriage market. There aren’t other good options out there for them except interestingly enough possibly being a playwright or actress, one of the two places that women could make money. They’re not the only ones, there just aren’t other options so the gamble is forced upon you. You are forced into this choice. So, a character like Helena in The Rover, one of everybody’s favorite Behn characters; she understands this very well, and then nuns in convents are the other place because they are another plot option for women. If you don’t marry, that is another place you can go. And certainly, Mary Astell talked about that in her early writings. But Helena knows that she’s going to have to gamble in a different kind of way and of course her first gamble is men’s clothes. The gamble of sort of operating in a different kind of ludic space.

TAYLOR. Absolutely. Thank you so much. I love that response. It gave me so much insight and I didn’t necessarily think about it that way. Thank you so much. So, my next question is going to be Do you feel like this place a role in the modern world as well. Do you think women are advancing or that they are still gambling in their everyday lives?

DR. ANDERSON. Yeah, yeah. You know, while I hardly believe that we inhabit a perfectly just world where equity is a reality for everyone, that’s not the case at all. There’s no question that the lives of women have changed radically and that women aren’t forced to gamble in this way. That is an economic proposition though. That depends on the availability of work for women at a decent wage, a good wage, because women have always worked, the caution is can you survive and ideally thrive. Could you get past the first level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and that’s possible now. But that’s where a lot of justice questions and struggle questions for identity groups who do not have positions of full equity in a culture really do come back to economics right. Do you have these opportunities or not and that is something that has been a game changer but clearly the work isn’t done.

TAYLOR. Absolutely, absolutely. Do you think that Ms. Behn would fit in with modern day writers?

DR. ANDERSON. Oh yes, I love playing little thought experiments where I bring people back from the dead, especially Restoration [and] eighteenth-century writers. With what we did with these ideas, what would they think about where this wild ride took us? I think that she would be able to navigate the modern world because I think that her sensibilities were ahead of their time—impressions about what was happening in her experience of the world. She had a global sensibility about what was happening in the world. While Oroonoko is a distinctly problematic text it is nonetheless an important engagement with the reality of the massive human trafficking problem that was the slave trade. That was redefining the culture she lived in. She knew that in her bones. Her own politics are complicated. They don’t line up with our notions of being patriotic or conservative or anything like that. She was a royalist, but I think that she would find this world that we live in a place where she could still use the map, you know, so to speak. She could still find her way. I think she was beginning to see the world in some very modern ways.

TAYLOR. I agree with that, I absolutely agree with that. I have one question that actually kind of plays off of this question. If she were here today, or if she was born in this time frame, do you think her arguments would have changed?

DR. ANDERSON. The simple answer is yes. Because I think that when you encounter an intelligence like Behn, someone so deeply engaged with the questions of her times, that tells us that this is a mind that is going to be engaged with what their current questions are and not calcified into one way of looking at the world. So when you see that kind of flexibility or at that capacity to think against the grain or not just following the herd, you can say again if we are allowed to bring back the dead, right, if we could imagine this, the answer would definitely be yes she would change.

The biggest place where I would want to see how she changed is around her ideas about sovereignty and political order. I can’t imagine that she could come to the same conclusions because our ideas about politics, the political order and sovereignty have changed radically. Then again though she would find enough common threads. Have we really given up on the idea of kingship you know, on the idea that there could be a single stabilizing force? You see people craving that, wanting it, but I think she would have a lot of critical distance on those questions based on her experience. It would be curious to see what she might’ve made of the last four years for instance.

TAYLOR. I completely agree with that one. I do have one more question. So, we talked about kind of how she would be reacting to modern times if she was here, what would she be writing about. Do you think that readers today would still be interested in things she wrote in the past? I know specifically me and my class we didn’t know anything about Aphra Behn till we joined this class, and it has been so interesting to see her thoughts to put the pieces together to see kind of the role of women. She has so many other things there. Do you think we could incorporate this into other classes and kind of broaden the horizons of students that understand and interpret her works?

DR. ANDERSON. Again, Taylor that’s a great question and one that’s close to my heart as someone that teaches Behn and loves light bulbs going off. I think that right now I’m part of a project called the R18 Collective which, I don’t know if you’re familiar with what we’re up to, but it’s a group of six academics, all of us work primarily on Restoration or eighteenth-century theater studies. And we write books about this, we teach classes about this. We are all university professors, but we are collaborating right now with a series of theaters across Canada, us and the UK because we want to see more of these plays and we want people to see them. We don’t just want to teach them in our classes. So, my current project is intimately tied to that question but not just in terms of classes but in terms of a larger media encounter with Behn.

And The Rover is a play that I would have not been willing to stage fifteen years ago but that I think I would want to stage now, precisely because of its complications. I think that post #MeToo audiences have a very different experience if they are in the hands of a really brilliant director and a really brilliant cast. With the way that rape is strangely normalized in moments in that play. And I think that we would be able to have that conversation. And that’s just a little example and theaters always have to ask why this play now. And that answers going to change. I don’t think it would have been right to do it fifteen years ago. I think it’s right now because we are looking for those moments where someone like Behn is speaking from beyond the grave and peering into a future that isn’t there yet. We can see that, and we can also come back to that play and start to find our one through lines and threads back to a past that we need to have an encounter with.

How is for instance the colonial project that we can see in The Rover something that we still need to grapple with? Whose spaces are considered exotic? Who has power and why? Those questions which are cultural, they involve conceptions of ethnicity and nation. They involve conceptions of race. There have been productions of the rover that cast the women and the non-British characters as black and brown actors to kind of make the point this is already about trafficking and exoticism of being in Naples.

So long winded answer to say that I believe we need more Behn and other writers as well. And I use her every chance I get in different types of classes [like] survey of drama. Again, I teach classes that are primarily from 1660 to 1800 so I routinely can put her in those places. But whether that’s primarily about theater or it’s primarily about political history I always want her in there. We are actually currently working with the Red Bull Theater in New York. They have been staging some plays by women as writings and we are pitching them some others. So we don’t know what it’s going to be but stay tuned and in March of 2022 you’ll get to find out. We’ll know what they picked before that, but they did look at the rover. It won’t be The Rover but there’s a really fascinating play called The Convent of Pleasure by Margaret Cavendish that they are taking seriously.

TAYLOR. That sounds so interesting. I’m definitely interested in that. I would love to hear more about it. That is absolutely incredible. I know this class has taken me by just amazement. I am in such awe. I absolutely love her books. I think this is my first class from this time frame. I’m usually in poetry classes and stuff and it’s so different but I’m learning so much. It’s a different kind of learning and it’s one of those that you can apply to everyday life. It goes so much deeper than poetry does and I’m just so grateful for this interview with you and to have this insight. It has been so amazing and absolutely incredible. I am so excited to put this podcast together. I think my classmates are really going to love to hear the insight that you provided.

DR. ANDERSON. Oh, Taylor you’re warming my heart thank you and I’m so glad you’ve fallen in love with some of the same stuff I fell in love with.

BRIANA. Risk-taking in personal relationships was not unique to seventeenth-century England but continues to be an issue we grapple with today, particularly in US. Recent trends in psychology frame gambling as a form of addiction and can be dangerous to different degrees for different personality types. Like betting on love in these works, gambling more generally always has both an economic and social impact. For example, marriage rates in the US have recently declined at exponential numbers. In just the last ten years, shifting downward from seventeen to sixteen women per every one thousand individuals being married over the age of fifteen, according to a recent census report. Among other factors, marriage may still be perceived as a high-risk venture for women, especially at a young age when the pressure is greatest. Scott Hankins argues, “the first [factor] relates to the role of transaction costs in marital decision-making. Although it may be optimal, after receiving the income shock, for married women to have delayed or avoided marriage, significant transaction costs are associated with divorce. In contrast, few, if any, transaction costs are associated with not getting married in the first place.”

Marriage proves to have huge personal and financial costs that seem not worth the risk in The History of the Nun and Oroonoko, as both end in ultimate disaster for women. And yet women seem to have no better tools to assess the risks inherent in these choices. Some win the jackpot or find themselves married happily for over fifty years. Others find themselves divorced, fighting for custody of children, rebuilding their lives around something other than a relationship. Aphra Behn has much to offer on how to re-evaluate what about love is worth better on.