Karin Kukkonen is Associate Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Oslo and Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Research Fellow. She is currently working on the project “How the Novel Found its Feet” (2013-2016, funded by the Academy of Finland), in which she investigates how the development of prose styles in eighteenth-century Britain and France contributed to a stronger sense of readerly involvement in the early novel. As a visiting fellow at IASH, she worked on the eighteenth-century author Sarah Fielding, her experiments in fiction-writing, and how these allow us to rethinking current probabilistic approaches to cognition in philosophy and the sciences. Kukkonen has published widely on comics and graphic novels (Contemporary Comics Storytelling, 2013), the early novel (A Prehistory of Cognitive Poetics: Neoclassicism and the Novel, forthcoming) and literary theory. She is on the advisory board of the project A History of Distributed Cognition (AHRC, 2014-2017) run from the Classics Department at the University of Edinburgh.
Who is Astrea?
We have become unacquainted with this virgin-goddess of antiquity and rarely hear her mentioned these days, but several weeks ago an aspect of her emerged somewhere on the internet when an almost unthinkable proposal was made. Should we consider the possibility of a female James Bond? Can a woman carry a sharp suit, expensive cars and callous sexual mores? Looking at the picture of Gillian Anderson in front of the iconic closing iris of the Bond trailers, which the actor retweeted when she commented on the proposal, we can very well imagine just how convincingly dangerous a female James Bond would be.
The fitting alias for such a figure could be that of “Astrea”. This name was chosen by the real-life spy, playwright and novelist Aphra Behn in the seventeenth century, both in her correspondence with the powers that be in London and in her personality as an author in the world of letters. Virginia Woolf highlights Behn in A Room of One’s Own as the writer who “earned women the right to speak their minds”. In the portraits that have come down to us, Behn smirks with the best of them. As an author, Behn is the woman who introduces readers into the private chambers and secret machinations of one of the most threatening plots to the English throne, the Monmouth Rebellion, in her Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684-87). She takes us into the cruel heart of darkness of Western colonial ambition with Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688) and sneers at moral pretensions in Reflections on Morality, or Seneca Unmasked (1685), her adaptation of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims. Janet Todd’s biography of the historical Aphra Behn indicates that she was none too successful as a spy. Her power lies in the public image which she created with the figures of Astrea.
Astrea has a long history in Western literature. She appears in Ovid’s narrative of the ages of the world in his Metamorphoses as the vestige of the golden age, the last of the gods to leave mankind on their own on earth and the final promise of a return towards better times. Elizabeth I chose Astrea as one of her many mythological masks. Honoré d’Urfé in seventeenth-century France spins the myth into a pastoral narrative in his novel L’Astrée (1607-1627), where the shepherdess Astrea banishes her lover from her sight and occasions a long-running series of narratives between male and female narrators, negotiating their relationships. The early eighteenth-century author Eliza Haywood takes up the figure of Astrea in Epistles for the Ladies (1749/1750), as her biographer Kathryn King indicates, in order to develop a counter-image to the ruling political notions of how Britain should be run.
We are all familiar with the see-through false identities of 007. Astrea has more weight. Indeed, as a look into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries demonstrates, whenever women take up the name of Astrea, they turn dangerous. They tap into the promise, made in Virgil and Ovid, that when Astrea returns to earth, a new golden age will begin, and they are free to develop their notion of what such a golden age might look like. The very strength of this alias lies in its fictionality. It will be clear that Astrea is an assumed name, but nevertheless, it yields the freedom of the imagination to craft one’s own vision and turn it into a narrative that engages with the public debate. Such narratives are fiction in the sense that they will never become a reality. And yet, as they remain in the virtual, they play through a new version of what is real and, moreover, to make it apparent to readers that such a reconfiguration of the actual is always possible.
Mankind might be doomed to live in the present, but, through fictions, it can always rediscover what a golden age might look like. Here, of course, I paraphrase the Renaissance writer Philip Sidney, who also had a brush with Astrea, when his sister Mary dedicated a pastoral dialogue “.. in praise of Astrea” to him. The imagination, however, is also considered a key source for the development of children’s thinking in present-day psychology, as the work of Paul Harris attests, and, through fictions, it can shape the public sphere if we extend Jürgen Habermas’ account further.
Astrea is a figure of the imagination. She embodies the capacity to think through the alternatives to a world in which it is a given that, for example, James Bond needs to be male. Such thinking in fiction is not a question of an escape from reality, but rather, of an exploration of the possible in this reality and its eventual potential for transformation. And it is not a new barrage of politically convenient lies, because such fictionality does not make a truth claim but rather invites contemplation.
Astrea is a heroine with a thousand faces but in a different mode. James Bond basically enacts Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth”, as described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), with its travels into the world unknown, mired in trials, and return into the everyday. Astrea, on the other hand, has many more options. She can travel across space and time. She can remain in the present, embody the promise of a golden age (as in Ovid) or encourage others to tell better stories (as in d’Urfé). She can even become her own author figure (as in Behn), where she comments on the role assigned to her characters and trains a sharp eye on social mores and pretensions. We can all be Astrea, but this would not turn us uniform.
I have chosen to write about a woman who does not exist. It is precisely this quality, I propose, which turns Astrea dangerous, because she offers the possibility to think beyond the confines of the real and because she is not tied to one particular narrative role. Astrea is a figure of a different time, and yet, ancient and early modern notions of fictionality are not out of touch with the silicone age of the internet and digitisation.
Indeed, imagining a female James Bond could herald the return of Astrea.
The author wishes to acknowledge the support of the Academy of Finland who funded the research project “How the Novel Found its Feet” (2013-2016) to which this post is connected.