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Amatory Fiction

Amatory Fiction

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Stories of sexual desire, female empowerment, startling oppression, and intricate deceptions! Amatory fiction is undeniably progressive, so much so that you'll be surprised to learn the genre arose in the 17th century. These female authors pioneered the novel, brought female viewpoints to the forefront, and highlighted the injustices in gender expectations. That's quite the series of accolades! Let's define the genre and then explore its history to learn more about what made these female-penned novellas so important.

Amatory fiction: definition

First, let's take a look at the definition of amatory fiction.

Amatory is a term used to describe something that refers to sexual activity or desire.

Amatory fiction refers to a genre of literature in which predominantly female writers depict sexual desire and intimate relationships.

Originating in Britain in the 17th century, amatory fiction typically centres around a female protagonist exploring her sexuality, actively pursuing a lover, and following her romantic instincts. Amatory fiction was published almost universally by female authors who were using it as an opportunity to present progressive females, share their viewpoints, and depict the oppression they encountered in day-to-day life.

The novels feature a romantic affair between an innocent, sympathetic female character and an egocentric, older male. Love in amatory fiction rarely ends well for women; the male often objectifies the female, and women are often left abandoned or pregnant. Despite this, the goal is never to present women as 'damsels in distress'. Female protagonists in amatory fiction pursue their desires actively and typically play a large part in their downfall by acting lustfully or impulsively.

This depiction of women is a far cry from the predictable romance narrative of 17th and 18th century Britain, wherein a naïve, passive woman would be seduced and subsequently marry a deceptive, self-absorbed man.

As a result, amatory fiction has been labelled feminist literature; women are depicted as equal participants, pursuing relationships purely to satisfy their desires rather than in service to a man. At the time, critics claimed women were merely presenting their ideal sentimental relationship. However, recent scholars have noted that amatory fiction writers distanced themselves from patriarchal oppression.

Patriarchal refers to a societal system that is controlled by men.

The narrative will frequently comment on the expectations of women in society, reveal the oppression they face, and use sarcasm to undermine male authority. Amatory fiction authors were creating female protagonists granted agency and control that, because of male domination, was not readily available to women at the time.

Restoration drama amatory fiction

The theatres reopened in 1660 after eighteen years of closure due to puritan rule. This was known as the Restoration.

The puritans were a group of 16th and 17th century English Protestants. They aimed to 'purify' the Church of England by eliminating all religious practices not included in the Bible. The puritans also ordered the closure of all London theatres because they were seen as meeting points for those harbouring anti-puritan ideas.

The Restoration began in 1660 with the ascension of King Charles II to the throne, thereby restoring the monarchy after the throne had been empty for a lengthy period. It lasted approximately until the reign of Queen Anne in 1710.

With fewer restrictions, playwrights flourished with reinvigorated inspiration, creating works containing bawdy humour and taboo topics. This was also the first time in history that women could act in plays alongside men.

These new opportunities provided the perfect environment for social change. It was therefore during the Restoration that women first began to produce plays alongside men. Two of the most significant female playwrights during this period were Aphra Behn (The Dutch Lover (1673) and The Rover (1677)), and Delarivier Manley (The Lost Lover (1696)).

Eighteenth-century: amatory fiction

Amatory fiction continued to flourish during the early eighteenth century. Many female playwrights began to experiment with other forms of writing, creating novellas to be read rather than performed.

A novella is shorter than a typical novel, but longer than a typical short story.

Modern scholars now propose that amatory fiction writers were creating predecessors to the novel, particularly the romance novel. The stories share similar characteristics with this genre, like sexual, scandalous material, and equal desire from both men and women.

It was during this time that the Restoration's female playwrights began to experiment with prose. Aphra Behn pioneered the amatory novella, creating The History of the Nun (1689) and The Lucky Mistake (1689) towards the end of the seventeenth century. Delarivier Manley soon followed, penning The New Atlantis (1709) and The Adventures of Rivella (1714).

A later, but equally significant author was Eliza Haywood, who authored Fantomina (1725) and Love in Excess; or, The Fatal Enquiry (In 1719). Behn, Manley and Haywood were collectively termed 'the fair triumvirate of wit' and are today considered the most important amatory fiction writers.

Amatory fiction can also be used to track changes in the types of literature people were concerned with throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The challenging, often subversive narratives rebel against established gender norms. The popularity of these stories suggests a cultural shift, wherein the female experience was increasingly represented and read about in literary works.

Despite being a hugely significant predecessor of the novel, the amatory fiction genre was not given due credit by critics for many years. Early efforts (by male writers) to piece together 'the rise of the novel' refused to acknowledge works of amatory fiction, deeming them tasteless and improper. In recent years, however, scholars have labelled amatory fiction as culturally significant and use it to track the gradual shift in reader interest from drama and poetry to prose fiction in the 17th century.

Amatory fiction: characteristics

Let's highlight the most significant characteristics of amatory fiction.

Progressive portrayal of women

The defining characteristic of amatory fiction is the progressive treatment of female characters. Women are granted agency in making their own romantic decisions and frequently undermine tactics for male control.

Sexual in nature

A common theme of amatory fiction is sexual content, with the works often depicting explicitly sexual scenes. Women were expected to be chaste and not discuss sexual matters in public, so in writing about them, the amatory fiction authors subverted gender expectations.

Scandalous material

Many works of amatory fiction include material that was considered scandalous for the time. For example, love affairs were often featured, which are romances mainly based on lust. As women were expected to marry, seeing them follow their desires entirely based on sexual attraction caused many critics to label the writers inappropriate.

'The fair triumvirate of wit', Behn, Manley and Haywood, were condemned by some critics as 'the naughty triumvirate' because they tended to write about scandalous material!


Deception is a frequent theme of amatory fiction, and comes in many forms. Often men are presented as deceptive by nature. The genre also features mistaken identity and disguise, mainly used by women to gain an advantage, or seduce a man.

Amatory fiction: examples

Let's look more closely at two of the most important examples of amatory fiction.

The History of the Nun (1689) by Aphra Behn

The History of the Nun is one of the pioneering works of amatory fiction and focuses on female feelings of guilt, shame, and desire.

The story depicts Isabella, a woman who is sent to a nunnery but chooses to flee with a love interest, breaking her vows through sexual desire. Isabella regularly questions her morals, weighing up the need to uphold what society expects of her. Her life continues, eventually leading to Isabella killing both her former husband and her current husband to free herself of their oppression.

She struggles with the aftermath of these events, and although no one suspects her at first because of her virtue, she is eventually discovered and executed. This novella was an inspiration for many other female writers who began to explore amatory fiction as a way to depict feminine issues.

Fantomina (1725) by Eliza Haywood

Fantomina follows the tale of an unnamed woman. This intelligent, proactive character disguises herself as a prostitute, which she names 'Fantomina', to converse with a man in a playhouse, Beauplaisir. Believing that she is a prostitute, Beauplaisir rapes her.

When Beauplaisir leaves, the unnamed woman continues to follow him, changing disguises and seducing the man multiple times. When the unnamed female becomes pregnant, her mother finds out, and she is sent to a monastery.

Haywood's progressiveness is in her open depiction of female sexual desire. Most male authors at the time saw female desire as something that should be suppressed. Haywood shows that women can make mistakes and be lustful in the same way. Haywood also shows that, unlike men, women can be punished for acting out of desire, bringing to attention the mistreatment of women at the time.

Amatory Fiction - Key takeaways

  • Amatory fiction involves female writers depicting sexual desire and intimate relationships.
  • Amatory fiction subverts gender norms by depicting females pursuing their wants and desires, rather than letting men oppress and objectify women.
  • The genre is also a predecessor of the romance novel, foreshadowing the cultural shift towards fiction novels over plays and poetry.
  • The genre is defined by a progressive portrayal of women, scandalous material and sexual content.
  • The three most famous amatory fiction authors are Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood.

Frequently Asked Questions about Amatory Fiction

Amatory fiction refers to a genre of literature in which predominantly female writers depict sexual desire and intimate relationships.

Amatory fiction was popular throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. It's popularity lasted approximately until 1730.

1) These amatory books offer a good insight into the role of women in the eighteenth century.

2) The novel details amatory encounters between a man and a woman.

3) The couple were making amatory remarks to one another.

Works of amatory fiction are usually about a female protagonist exploring her sexuality, actively pursuing a lover, and following her romantic instincts.

Fantomina (1725) by Eliza Haywood is an example of amatory fiction.

Final Amatory Fiction Quiz

Amatory Fiction Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Amatory fiction stories originated in which century?

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The 17th Century.

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Amatory fiction is said to be a precursor to what?

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The Romance Novel

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Who authored Fantomina?

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Eliza Haywood.

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What is the defining characteristic of amatory fiction?

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A progressive portrayal of women.

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Which of these is not a common characteristic of amatory fiction?

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Who was not a part of "the fair triumvirate of wit"?

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John Donne.

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Who created The History of the Nun?

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Aphra Behn.

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Define the word 'amatory'.

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Amatory means something that refers to sexual activity, or desire. 

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Which of these is not a reason that amatory fiction is seen as early feminist fiction?

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Women find perfect husbands who love them, and live happy lives from then on.

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What are the correct dates for the popularity of amatory fiction?

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