Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister
Behn Love-Letters 1684.jpg
Titlepage of the first edition of the first volume
Author Aphra Behn
Country England
Language English
Genre Epistolary novel
Publisher Randal Taylor
Publication date
1684, 1685, 1687
Media type Print

Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister by Aphra Behn is a 3 volume roman à clef playing with events of the Monmouth Rebellion and exploring the genre of the epistolary novel. "Behn's novel is based loosely on an affair between Ford, Lord Grey of Werke, and his wife's sister, Lady Henrietta Berkeley, a scandal that broke in London in 1682".[1] It was originally published as three separate volumes: Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister (1684), Love Letters From a Noble Man to his Sister (1685), and The Amours of Philander and Silvia (1687).

Plot summary[edit]

Part I[edit]

This part is a story of wooing and seduction of a young woman, Silvia, by Philander, her brother-in-law.

Part II[edit]

Silvia's and Philander's flight to Holland

Silvia, disguised as a young man with the name Fillmond, and Philander run away to Holland. Brilljard, who has been married to Silvia to save her from being married to another man by her parents, and two male servants accompany them. On their journey they meet a young Hollander, Octavio. Quickly, a strong friendship develops between Philander and Octavio. Not knowing that Fillmond is in fact a woman, Octavio nevertheless falls in love with Silvia on their joint journey. Philander confides to Octavio that he is in conflict with his King, and after Philander and Silvia decline Octavio's offer to stay with him in his Palace, he accommodates them at a merchant's house nearby. There Philander and Silvia, still in disguise, spend a happy time together. Brilljard, staying with them, falls secretly in love with Silvia. When Silvia falls into a violent fever, her true sex is discovered by the servants and the whole truth of their story is revealed to Octavio by Philander.

Philander's flight from Holland

Octavio, torn between his affection for Silvia and his friendship to Philander, urges the same to leave the country within 24 hours as he fears he will otherwise be taken by force to the King of France. Philander's first response is that he'd rather die than leave Silvia behind. Also, he is scared that she might fall in love with someone else once he has left. But he then is convinced by Octavio and Brilljard – who both love Silvia and therefore have an interest in his departure unknown to him – to save his own life not only for his but for Silvia's sake also. It is agreed that Silvia is to follow him as soon as she has recovered, and equipped with money from Octavio, after a last encounter with Silvia and without telling her of his flight, Philander finally takes his leave to Collen.

Brilljard's assault on Silvia

Silvia, devastated by his flight, believes his love has worn off already when she receives her first letter from him. And indeed, Philander reveals in a letter to Octavio that he finds life without Silvia less painful than expected. Octavio seizes the opportunity and reveals his affection to Silvia, which she strongly dismisses. Silvia, in need for a second opinion on Philander's letter, shows it to Brilljard, who, seizing his chance to harm the rival, agrees with her that there is a change in Philander's attitude towards her. Silvia gets into such a state that she faints into his arms. Brilljard, overwhelmed by his feelings, almost rapes the defenceless Silvia, but for Octavio's appearance. Though Brilljard can conceal his attack at first, he is later found out by Octavio and Silvia, who after an attempt on Brilljard's life decides to forgive him for her own sake as she depends on him in his position as her husband. Brilljard notices that Octavio's feelings towards Silvia are more than that of friendship and in his jealousy closes a deal with Antonett, maid to Silvia, to betray any news to him in exchange for his affection. Also, Brilljard gets a letter from Philander who confesses to him that, though still in love with Silvia, he has an affair with another woman, and asks him to do anything in his power to delay Silvia's departure for Collen.

Octavio courts Silvia with the permission of Philander

While Silvia is waiting for further news from her Philander, Octavio is paying her regular visits and no longer hides his affection. Silvia, though she turns him down as she is still in love with Philander, is vain enough to be flattered and encourages him to pursue his advances further. In the course of the events, Silvia becomes increasingly sure of a growing decrease in Philander's love for her, and concludes that someone like him who has loved twice can fall in love for a third time, too. Her sorrow is more and more overcome with anger, and she decides to take revenge, using Octavio as an instrument. Hoping that jealousy will bring Philander back to her at last, she talks Octavio into writing a letter to Philander in which he confesses his love for Silvia, asking him for his permission to do so. Philander's answer is positive. He argues that in case Silvia is true to him, Octavio's love will not do any harm, and in case she turns false on him, she in his eyes is not worth to be preserved. Either way, he encourages Octavio to pursue his courtship.

Philander confesses his new love to Octavio

In return for Octavio's honesty, Philander reveals to him that he has fallen in love again, too. During his journey, he has made the acquaintance of and become friends with the Count of Clarinau, a Spaniard. Philander accepts Clarinau's offer to stay at his palace. On a walk through the grounds, Philander notices Clarinau's wife, a young girl named Calista which was taken out of a monastery to become Madam the Countess of Clarinau. He observes her secretly, but just as he is approaching her, the Count enters the scene and Philander rushes back into his hiding place without having spoken to Calista, who has not seen a young handsome man before and therefore believes she has seen a vision. Philander spends the following days look-ing for her, without success. He trusts Octavio, his rival, with this secret, at the same time asking him not to use it against him with Silvia. Octavio is outraged when he recognises that Calista is his sister. He is torn between his friendship with Philander and his love for Silvia, but his honour forbids him to make use of Philander's secret by revealing it to Silvia.

Silvia's suicide attempt

At the same time, Philander also sends a letter to Silvia, in which he assures her of his love and criticises her for being too self-interested to understand him. More certain of his betrayal on her than ever before, Silvia attempts to kill herself with a pen-knife, but is saved by Antonett. Being thus rescued, she turns to Octavio for his letter from Philander which she expects to be of use for her peace of mind, and at the same time replies to Philander, threatening him that if she ever found out about him lying to her, she would take revenge on him. At this point, it is not only her love for Philander that makes her go wild but also her pride that has been hurt. Silvia, who finds she is growing fonder of Octavio, still urges him to present the letter to her, and finally he confesses that he owns one. Though he at first denies her to see it, Silvia then gets herself in such a state that in the end, he begs her to let him show the letter to her.

Brilljard's deceit and its effects

This is postponed when Octavio is called away for a day on sudden business. Brilljard has learned from letters from Octavio to Silvia, which Antonett took to him rather than Silvia first, about Octavio's way of writing. When he also gets hold of a letter from Silvia to Octavio, he misjudges the situation and takes it for sure that they have become lovers already. He therefore sets out and feigns a letter to Silvia, in which he suggest in the name of Octavio that she to him is no more than a common mistress and that the price for Philander's letter would be she herself. Silvia is outraged at first, but still in want of Philander's letter, makes plans for a revenge on Octavio. She agrees with her maid that Antonett will disguise as Silvia and receive him. Again, Brilljard keeps the letter to himself. He also has the letter from Philander, which Octavio sent to Silvia as he had promised to give it to her before. It is Brilljard, disguised as Octavio, who meets Antonett, disguised as Silvia, that night. He hands over the letter, which Antonett passes on to Silvia in an unobserved moment. That night, however, does not proceed according to Brilljard's plans. He has taken aphrodisiacs which made him sick, so that he has to leave Antonett. However, their encounter is observed by Octavio who has returned earlier than expected and who at once hastens to Silvia to see how she has taken Philander's letter. Seeing only Antonett and taking her for Silvia, he is sure that Silvia is entertaining an affair. Silvia in the meantime has read Philander's letter to Octavio. Overwhelmed with an-ger and pain, she faints and it is only with the help of Antonett that she recovers. She then writes an angry letter to Philander in which she calls herself his fiend and curses him. Still, she is aware that a love once lost cannot be retrieved, and encouraged by Antonett, she decides not to pity herself but to set out for revenge.

Misunderstandings between Silvia and Octavio

Though still mad at Octavio and scared he might have found out what she believes to have been a deceit on him, she regards him as the person best suitable for her plans and therefore contacts him once more. Octavio, who is still in the dark about the previous night's happenings, is mad at her in return, and messages go back and fro[clarification needed] further entertaining the misunderstanding between them which leaves him believing her to be a common mistress, while she is by then sure that he has found out about her cheat. It takes a couple of hot-tempered letters until the whole truth concerning the night in question is revealed.

The proposal

Octavio falls in love with Silvia all over again, and Silvia forgives him for the sake of her revenge to Philander, though she also has to admit to herself that she cares for him, too. Silvia promises Octavio anything he wishes for if only he takes part in the revenge. He proposes to her, but she refuses him, telling him that she is expecting a child from Philander. It is only when Octavio shows her another letter from Philander that Silvia, mad with rage and determined to take revenge, makes up her mind, not considering her marriage to Brilljard nor telling Octavio about it at all. In the letter concerned, Philander is giving an account of his affair with Calista, who he has courted successfully. The couple has almost been discovered by Calista's husband, the Count of Clarinau, but for a spectacular flight of Philander's. Philander closes his letter to Octavio by telling him that he has now lost all feelings for Silvia. The second part of the 'Love Letters' closes with Antonett and Silvia setting off for a church in a nearby village, where they will meet Octavio.

Part III[edit]

Titlepage of The Amours of Philander and Silvia (1687)

To Lord Spencer: Aphra Behn praises Spencer for his noble birth and the glorious future, that is surely destined for him. The author pretends that there are no parallels between Lord Spencer and Cesario, because Spencer would be as loyal as his own father. However, she seems to warn him implicitly of making the same mistakes as Cesario, the character in her book. Cesario is highly ambitious and wants to become King. But he lacks good advice and patience. Therefore his rebellion against the King, his own father, fails and he dies on the scaffold.


Silvia: a beautiful young woman, who eloped from her parents with Philander, the husband of her sister; married to Philander's servant Brilljard (a sham marriage); became Octavio's mistress in Philander's absence

Philander: a young handsome man, who enjoys conquering women; left his wife Mertilla for Silvia; found a new mistress (Calista) in Cologne; a good friend of Octavio and his rival as well; a rebel who has joined Cesario's association

Octavio: a handsome, rich and noble man; one of the States of Holland; Calista's brother; in love with Silvia and a rival to Philander

Cesario: Prince of Condy; leader of the rebellion of the Huguenots in France; aspires to become the next King of France; he is the King's bastard son

Brilljard: Philander's servant; Silvia's lawful husband, who promised not to claim her as his wife; however, he fell in love with her

Calista: Octavio's sister, married to an old Spanish Count; Philander's new conquest

Sebastian: Octavio's uncle, one of the States of Holland as well

Sir Mr. Alonzo Jr.: a handsome young gentleman, nephew of the governor of Flanders, by birth a Spaniard; a womaniser

Osell Hermione: Cesario's mistress, later his wife; neither young nor beautiful

Fergusano: one of the two wizards appointed to Hermione; Scottish; deals with black magic


In the last part of Aphra Behn's “Love-Letters” it is difficult to ascertain the main plot line. Many new characters, such as Alonzo, are introduced and the plot contains various love affairs, disguises, mistaken identities, and personal and political intrigues.

Despite the title “The Amours of Philander and Silvia” the love between these two characters does not seem to play the major role any more (as it did in part 1). Their feelings towards each other are only dissembled and their relationship to other people gain in importance. Silvia is pursued by Octavio and by Brilljard, Philander pursues Calista and other women. Furthermore, a large part of the action is concerned with Cesario's political scheme to gain the crown. That is why it is hard to say, if Philander and Silvia are still the protagonists in part 3 of the novel.

In comparison to the first part of the “Love-Letters” Silvia's character has changed a lot. She has become a calculating woman, who is only interested in her own profit. Much of her emotions are dissembled. It could be argued for some inconsistency in Aphra Behn's novel in her character development.

What is more, it becomes harder to identify the major characters and to understand the motivations for certain actions. This hangs partly together with the change of the narrative form. The exchange of letters in part 1, and to a lesser extent in part 2, granted the reader more insight into the characters´ motives. The distance to the characters grows in part 3, where the omniscient narrator tells the story with less subtlety. On the other hand, this invites the reader to make up his or her own mind about the character's motives and developments.

Silvia and Octavio have to flee. In part 2, Philander has fallen in love with Calista in Cologne. His former mistress Silvia learned about his cheat and wanted to take revenge upon him. She decides therefore to marry his close friend Octavio, who is truly in love with her. This secret marriage is prevented in part 3, but not by Philander. It is Brilljard, Silvia's lawful husband, who has grown jealous of Octavio. Although Brilljard had promised never to claim her as his wife, he reveals in public that he is already married to her. In this way, Silvia's reputation is damaged and consequently Octavio's. Although Octavio has learned that she is already married to Brilljard, he still wants to marry her. He even accepts to be deprived of his honours, when he is charged with not caring about state affairs. This shows that Silvia is more important to him than his own status and societal position. Octavio's powerful uncle Sebastian falls in love with Silvia and brings her to his own house, where he guards her well. He wants to marry her, but is shot dead beforehand, by one of Octavio's pistols that goes off by chance. Octavio and Silvia flee to Brussels.

Silvia and Philander reunite. Calista decides to become a nun after having learned from Silvia that Philander has another mistress. The rejected Philander becomes Silvia's lover again. It is astonishing that Silvia yields so easily to him again, considering that she swore to take revenge upon him. What is more, it seemed as if she had gradually developed more feelings towards Octavio. It comes to a duel between the two rivals, in which Octavio is badly wounded. While Octavio is recovering, Silvia runs off with Philander to a little town. This seems to be a spontaneous and unwise action. In contrast to Octavio, Philander is not ready to marry her and thus not concerned about her good reputation. Furthermore, Octavio could secure her financially. Instead of enjoying their reunion Philander and Silvia soon get on each other's nerves and Philander starts having affairs with other women. By now, their love has entirely cooled down. Silvia gives birth to a child, an unimportant event, which is only meantioned in passing. It also remains open what happens to that child; she probably gives it away.

Silvia and Alonzo become lovers. While Philander is absent in Brussels, Silvia follows in men's clothes to regain Octavio as a lover. She makes Brilljard her confidant. To ensure his loyalty she grants him to have sex with her every once in a while. This marks the beginning of her career as a prostitute. Octavio does not fall for her feigned fidelity any more. Like his sister Calista, he takes holy orders, because he has been disappointed in love. The good-hearted Octavio wants Silvia to lead an honourable life without the support of a lover. Therefore he settles a good pension upon her. However, Silvia immediately spends some of the money on fine clothes, jewels, and a new coach. With this equipment she impresses everyone, including Alonzo, at the “Toure” and she finally manages to gain Alonzo as her new lover. She first met this handsome young man on her way to Brussels. Alonzo then held her to be a French nobleman, because she was dressed in men's clothes. They became good “friends” and even shared the same bed. Silvia felt attracted towards him and wanted to test if he could not be turned into a constant lover. With Brilljard's help she manages to deprive him of his fortune. In the end of part 2, Silvia has turned into a successful prostitute, who enjoys her life. Considering the first part of the “Love-Letters” this is a rather unexptected change.

The Political Plot

The political plot in part 3 is focused on Cesario's ambition of becoming King of France. His relationship to Osell Hermione plays a crucial role in this part of the story. She has been a former mistress to Cesario and is already past her beauty. To the surprise of everyone, the handsome prince falls in love with her. Only the reader gets to know the reason: Fergusano, a Scottish wizard, made a philtre, that bewitched Cesario and attached him to Hermione. She finally becomes his wife, and stirs up his ambition to become King with the help of two wizards.

Cesario leaves with all his men from Brussels to France, where he proclaims himself King. He loses the aid of his more powerful friend, though, who dislike his false declaration to the title. Fergusano had his hand in this affair and it seems as if Cesario is rather gullible and easily deluded into believing in his ultimate success.

Cesario's army is defeated by the Royal Army. He was too impatient and what is worse, abandoned by many of his own people. Philander was one of the deserters. He wanted to separate from his own party in France anyway to serve the King. This sudden change in his political attitude is not altogether surprising. In part 1, he already showed a lack of enthusiasm for the rebellion against the King. Cesario is finally executed, whereas Philander is pardoned and regains the affection of the King again.


  1. ^ Pollak, Ellen (2003). Incest & The English Novel, 1684-1814. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 59. ISBN 0801872049. 

External links[edit]

Publication history[edit]

First edition (separate volumes)

  • 1684, London: Randal Taylor, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister
  • 1685, London: Randal Taylor, Love Letters From a Noble Man to his Sister: Mixt With the History of their Adventures
  • 1687, London: Randal Taylor, The Amours of Philander and Silvia: Being the Third and last Part of the Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister

Later editions (all three volumes together)

  • 1712, London: J. Hindmarsh and J. Tonson
  • 1765, London: L. Hawes & Co.
  • 1987, London: Virago, 1987, with a new introduction by Maureen Duffy, Virago modern classic, 240
  • 1996, London and New York: Penguin, ed. by Janet Todd, Penguin Classics

Further reading[edit]