Oroonoko or, The Royal Slave - Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn was the first English woman to support herself by writing, by dint of plays and tales of sentiment and sensation like Oroonoko (1688). It is a heroic novel, featuring a most manly, noble, handsome, warlike, proud, incorruptible, and altogether perfectly perfect hero; and a purely pure, beautiful, virtuously passionate heroine. So far, so 17th century; the thing that is peculiar about it is that these main characters are Africans, from some imaginary country. Behn must have been an admirer of the pagan virtues of the ancient Romans, because that's what she projected on her hero Oroonoko, who resolutely refuses to convert to Christianity, and indeed none of the Christians in the story look good next to him. That was the most surprising thing about the book to me. Behn in this story is looking away from her own world and imagining what perhaps might be better in pagan Africa or savage South America (she thinks the natives there would be very innocent and simple, but morally better for that). Mind you, it is all a matter of fantasy, her depiction of the newly-discovered world outside Europe.

One thing this is not, is an anti-slavery book. Behn has no objection to slavery per se, she just thinks that her hero and heroine don't deserve to be enslaved because of their natural royal nobility. (Oroonoko even looks superior because of his straight nose and narrow lips.) It's true that most (not all) slaveowners are depicted as dishonorable and brutal, but Behn also indicates that most slaves are low characters only fit for that station -- and has Oroonoko agree with that sentiment. The good slaveowner in this story recognizes the merit of the hero and gives him liberty in all but name, and also is refrains from raping the heroine because he sees her virtuousness! Frankly, our Englishwoman doesn't have the least foggiest idea of the real psychology of slavery.

If I've managed to convey some idea of the sheer ludicrousness of this story, it will explain why I say that it makes great fodder for dissertations (Lore Metzger's introduction to this edition is certainly interesting), but isn't something that I can recommend to casual readers.