The next speaker in our English Language and Linguistics research seminar series is Mel Evans from the University of Leeds.

The talk takes place online at 12-1pm UK time on Wednesday 8th of December. Please email me for a link: Billy Clark,

The full title is:

‘When Oroonoko is not enough: computational stylistics and Aphra Behn’s prose fiction’

Mel’s research covers a range of topics which are relevant across the humanities (including digital humanities), connecting linguistics, literature, and history.

She is interested both in individual language use and in variation and change, and has explored these drawing on ideas and methods from sociolinguistics, pragmatics and corpus linguistics.

She has particular interests in early modern English and online communication. Her monograph ‘Royal Voices: Language and Power in Tudor England’ was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. Her co-edited (with Caroline Tagg) collection ‘Message and Medium: Transhistorical perspectives on digital language practices’ was published by Mouton de Gruyter in 2020.

She is co-investigator on the AHRC-funded project ‘Editing Aphra Behn in the Digital Age’, carrying out stylometric (corpus stylistic) investigations of Behn’s writing and that of her contemporaries. She is also editing Behn’s correspondence for a forthcoming new edition of Behn’s works.

The talk is free and open to all. Here is the abstract for the talk:


Aphra Behn’s (c.1640-1689) Oroonoko (1688), set in colonial Surinam, is often accredited with being among the first English novels. The narrative is notable for its engagement with racial and gender politics, for its homodiegetic narratorial persona, and for its potential autobiographic provenance (Rosenthal 2004). Its popularity was ensured by Southerne’s stage version of the play in 1695. Oroonoko was one of four original works of prose by Behn published in her lifetime, contributing to the rapidly expanding Restoration fiction market, alongside a considerable body of posthumous prose, although the authenticity of the latter is highly uncertain. 

Building on work in literary studies and narratology, this paper examines how linguistic frameworks can offer another perspective on style in a nascent genre. Computational and corpus stylistic methods have shown their capacity to provide ‘distant’ and empirical readings of literary writing (e.g. Stockwell and Mahlberg 2015) and to provide quantitative appraisals of authorial style and attribution (e.g. Hoover 2007). The investigation is shaped by two research questions. Firstly, does Oroonoko have discernible stylistic properties that reflect, or contribute to, its status as a milestone in the evolution of English prose fiction and ‘the novel’, when investigated within the broader contexts of the 17th-century emergent prose fiction text-type? Secondly, can the analysis of Oroonoko and Behn’s other prose works provide evidence or insight into her potential contribution to the posthumous prose works? Based on preliminary results from a mixed methods approach combining stylometric and corpus linguistic techniques, I offer tentative interpretations of Behn’s prose style and the evidence for her possible contributions to the posthumous fiction. The results highlight the challenges of working with stylistically heterogeneous materials, and point to the complex relationship between authorial style, text-type and the cultural evolution of what we now recognise as ‘the novel’.


Hoover, D. L. (2007) ‘Corpus Stylistics, Stylometry, and the Styles of Henry James.’ Style (University Park, PA) 41, no. 2, pp. 174–203. 

Rosenthal, L. J. (2004) ‘Oroonoko: reception, ideology, and narrative strategy,’ in Hughes, D. and Todd, J. (eds) The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Companions to Literature), pp. 151–165. doi: 10.1017/CCOL0521820197.010.

Stockwell, P. and Mahlberg, M. (2015) ‘Mind-modelling with corpus stylistics in David Copperfield’, Language and Literature: International Journal of Stylistics, 24(2), pp. 129–147. doi:10.1177/0963947015576168.

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