Aphra Behn

As I begin in earnest my research and work to write about Lady Mary Wortley Montegue I have decided to read lots of biographies.  I hope it will reveal a way clear for me to do justice to this woman whose life I believe will interest a wider audience.  I have recently completed “Reconstructing Aphra. A Social Biography of Aphra Behn” by Angeline Goreau.

Aphra Behn is credited with being the first woman to earn her living by her writing. She lived from 1640-1689.  Yes!  In the 17th century a strong, literate, adventurous woman participated in the intellectual conversations of her time in London.  She wrote many successfully performed plays and was well known, then.  If any English Majors have even heard of her it is probably by knowing of the book called Oroonoko.  That book, she claimed, was a biography of an educated African slave who lived in the colony Surinam at the same time she was there as a young woman.   The veracity of it has long been questioned.  The author of this biography has done enough research to make a convincing claim that Oroonoko was a real person.  But, even if not, then this is a early work of fiction: a novel long before Daniel Defoe “invented” the novel.

What interests me the most about this woman who wrote, earned a living, experienced adventures in the world and was known by other writers of the era is how completely she has been sidelined and mostly forgotten, instead of celebrated. This is obviously the same issue I have with Lady Mary’s reputation.

The Restoration period was a time of what was referred to as ‘loose morals’.  No doubt people reacted to being freed from the religious strictures imposed by Cromwell and his administration.  The Restoration refers to the return of the monarchy.

Aphra Behn, perhaps the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, was educated and well traveled when she settled in London. She had been to debtors’ prison once and did not want to return.  Thus, she used her skills to earn a living.  She wrote bawdy, witty plays like most of her fellow writers.  As the era waned she was increasingly condemned for her lewdness.  “It is curious that the first woman to write professionally for the English Stage began her career when the morality of English Drama was at its lowest.”  Damning with faint praise by the Cambridge History of English Literature, indeed.

She was tough minded and unapologetic.  This is the epilogue to her play Sir Patient Fancy.  “I here and there o’erheard a coxcomb cry,/ Ah, Rot it —’tis a woman’s comedy,/One, who because she lately chanc’d to please us,/With her damn’d stuff, will never cease to tease us,/ What had poor woman done, that she must be/Debarred from sense, and sacred poetry?…/As for you half-wits, you unthinking tribe,/We’ll let you see, what e’er besides we do,/How artfully we copy some of you:/And if you’re drawn to th’life, pray tell me then,/Why women should not write as well as men.” Clearly she could give as good as she got!

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf pays tribute to her.  “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.  It is she – shady and amorous as she was – who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.”

Research is such a pleasure, especially when I get introduced to these brave accomplished women.  I plan to share them as they become known to me.

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thoughts on time

I am interested in how notions of what I have always taken for granted are, in fact, things, thoughts, ideas that have changed over history.  Time.  Time as we keep track of it is relatively new.  I don’t mean in the Einsteinian sense.  And I long ago learned about the different calendars (Julian vs. Gregorian).   No, I am surprised to learn that keeping track of daily time has been standardized for barely 100 years.  For context, let me say my father would be over 100 years old if he were alive.  So, suddenly in my ripe late middle age I’ve learned that time, as I’ve always known it, is a modern invention.

As with so much in history it came about slowly.  In the Middle Ages ‘liturgical time’ competed with ‘merchant time’.  During the Renaissance the Medici’s and The Church were intolerant of expressions of the future.  They seemed to actually want to monopolize time.  The biggest changes came with the Industrial Revolution beginning in the 18th century. The needs of capital and the mechanization of work replaced the rhythms of the natural world. Time was no longer something ‘passed’ as something ‘spent’.

This is my period of interest, where my attention is focused.  This is the period of time where Lady Mary Wortly Montagu and  Jane Austen reside. It strikes me as curious that I haven’t noticed a different kind of time there.

Time was standardized for the railroads in Britain on December 11, 1847.  They chose Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) which is still the worldwide prime meridian.  The USA and Canada lived with nearly 100 individual time zones until they too acknowledged GMT in 1883!  British colonies around the globe protested ‘colony time’.    Daily Savings Time created another issue.  Since I’m not a fan of it I will not go into that history, except to say in 1918 the Mayor of Bangor, Maine (a man after my own heart) actually declared local time secession in protest of the newly created standard time and daily savings time.  I’m more of a time passing, natural time girl.  That does not, of course, account for how I’m always early wherever I go, wear a wrist watch and even have a ‘dress up’ watch.

I love that before all official standardization (which is most of recorded time!) people kept time by calling noon the moment that the sun was directly overhead wherever they happened to be, or the day began when it was light enough to see the veins in a person’s hands.  It could be measured by something called a ‘pissing while’, or the time it takes to cook rice.  I found an old recipe from my husband’s grandmother in Kansas who measured how long to bake her pies by the amount of cobs needed to heat the oven.

My favorite item is that in 1835 a man named Henry Belville carried a chronometer through London giving out the correct time to the clockmakers.  His granddaughter continued the business of traveling from Greenwich to London to sell the exact time during the Second World War.  Unlikely, but true!

The more things change, the more they stay the same

This expression came to mind most recently while I was reading about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She was a woman of profound intellect with many literary accomplishments. She was, for her times, a ‘mover and shaker’.  And yet, we hardly know her.

One accomplishment that draws me to such a fascinating woman from the late 17th and early 18th century is that she is responsible for bringing knowledge of small pox inoculation to England.  She had had the disease and it left her scarred.  When she was living in Turkey in 1717 she learned about their custom of inoculating children.  She had her young son engrafted then and there.  When she returned to London she shared the information with friends, some of whom had their young children inoculated.  In 1721 London experienced another epidemic of small pox and Lady Mary watched many of her friends become afflicted and die. She began to advocate more wildly for prevention, but physicians disagreed about whether prevention or treatment was more important.  A power struggle ensued between the College of Physicians who cared for the wealthy members of society and the Apothecaries who cared for and treated the poor.  The apothecaries were charged with “quacking about in the office of physicians.” (I completely LOVE that the use of Quack in reference to false and ignorant medical skills goes back to 1659, so says the OED!)  From arguments of treatment to who administers that treatment and ultimately to religious leaders disbelief the gamut of disrespect and paranoia sounds sadly familiar to the modern ear.  I’m thinking of reactions to HIV/AIDS and, more recently, Ebola.

Reverend Edmund Massey actually preached an “anti-inoculation sermon”.  Warning that inoculation “negates the two spiritual functions of disease”: divine punishment and divine testing.  A popular pampleteer, William Wagstaffe, complained that this medical procedure came from ‘non-physicians’ and was “stemming from a country inferior.”  He could not support an “experiment practiced only by a few Ignorant Women, amongst an Illiterate and unthinking people.”  He suggested that inoculation was a poison and “an artful way of depopulating the Country.”  The opposition press to the Royal family protested that it was “female inspired and Turkish.”

In response to this outpouring of prejudice the (male) physicians who were medically progressive and advocates for inoculation decided to undermine and bury the important contribution that women played in bringing this Oriental prevention to England.  They chose to accentuate the scientific aspects only.

Thus, it has taken me 300 years to learn that Lady Mary was the progressive voice of saving lives and bringing inoculations to the West.  Who else don’t I know about, yet?

Lady Mary Wortley Montague and the Turkish baths

I am reading a biography of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Isobel Grundy. It is the most detailed and academic biography I’ve ever read, filled with footnotes and references.  These are gifts to me as I work to bring into focus what it was like for a woman to travel in 1717.

Today my intrepid, aristocratic Lady Mary has finally arrived in the Ottoman Empire. Her first visit to Eastern culture is in Sofia, capital of present day Bulgaria.  When she visits the Turkish bath house a transformative phase in her life begins.  She is delighted beyond all measure.  Grundy says, “As usual, Lady Mary was alert to what was and what was not different.”

Inside the five domed stone building where the women’s bath was but one marbled room with sulfurous hot springs she viewed 200 women.  They were naked, relaxed, drinking fruit juice, embroidering, plaiting one another’s hair, and all around appeared entirely comfortable.  Their good humor and friendliness welcomed her.  Egalitarianism was noteworthy since she did not know the status of one woman from another.  She did observe the absence of small pox scars which was something she had recently been afflicted with, and she also noted the lack of red marks from tight stays in clothing.

Grundy says “…to find unadorned, unemproved feminity free from lewdness or narcisssism or rivalry: this was a most happy denial of what her own culture had led her to expect.”

What strikes me to learn, but sadly doesn’t entirely surprise, is that when her letters describing this were published it created a scandal. She was accused of making it up, of not being delicate or lady-like.  As if that was not bad enough, in more recent times she has been accused of snobbery for not joining those women in the bath.

Reactions change according to the norms of the time, but what doesn’t apparently change is the fact that a woman reporter is judged first for her socially aberrant attitudes and then, if lucky, for what she is describing.

Fifty years after reading Lady Mary’s letters describing the Turkish bath, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted this from notes he had made earlier.  Her letters were a powerful stimulus to the imagination.  And they still are!File:Le Bain Turc, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, from C2RMF retouched.jpg

welsh women’s classic literature

When traveling I usually take a book on the plane based on where I will be traveling.  The Count of Monte Cristo was perfect for the year we visited the South of France.  Italian mysteries based in the particular city to be visited (Donna Leon for Venice, Iain Pears for Florence) are wonderfully discovered on the website ‘italian-mysteries. com’.  You can find the who, where and what there. England provides all kinds of choices from Agatha Christy and Conan Doyle to Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, to the moderns like Virginia Woolf (Oh, did I mention Jane Austen?).  But, Wales presented a challenge.  Before leaving home I read the poetry of the favorite son, Dylan Thomas.

Wales is a proud country with an independent spirit and a strong identity distinct from England.  I met some Welsh people and wanted to know more, wanted to feel that difference.  I wasn’t until the last day in Wales that I found a truly Welsh book.  I was in the bookshop of the Cardiff Art Museum. The museum is a wonderful place filled with, among other things, Impressionist art.  A lovely Renoir I had never seen before!  In the late 19th and early 20th century Wales industrialists grew rich shipping mined raw materials around the Empire.  There was money being made and art being bought.

But, back to the bookshop where I discovered “Welsh Women’s Classics”series.  This is an imprint. previously called the Honno Classics series, that publishes out-of-print books in English by women writers from Wales.  I picked up Hilda Vaughan’s “The Soldier and the Gentlewoman.”  It is a beautifully written book from the 1930’s describing life in a rural community just after the First World War.  The tension is built around a woman of the land who has been cheated out of her home by an entail (still a factor in women’s lives well into the 20th century!) and a weak, wounded war veteran who assumes ownership in complete ignorance of the traditions.The use of language, the novel’s structure are wonderful to read.

soldier and gentlewoman cover 001

Unexpected discoveries are the joy of travel!

traveling in wales

Wales is a delightful place to visit! We had a list of things to do which, naturally, was too long for the time we had.  Since neither of us was interested in driving on the wrong side of the road (a trip should be pleasurable, not scary) two places on our list were scratched off.  Public transportation (as wonderful as it is in Britain) could not easily take us up to Dylan Thomas’ home. And getting to and from Hay-on-Wye would have taken one day more than we had available.  I had hoped to get a picture of myself surrounded by uncountable numbers of books, but it was not to be. On the other hand, looking around my study I could probably accomplish that same thing right here!

We did go to Tinturn Abbey.  “Lines Written Above Tinturn Abbey” by Wordsworth might be one of those poems more famous for it’s name than the poem itself.  I read it before leaving for Great Britain and although I thought I knew Wordsworth and that poem….well, it was entirely unknown by me.

We took a train and a bus from Cardiff.  The lovely, small town where we caught the bus is situated in soft rolling hills. The bus driver was friendly and helpful.

tinturn abbey

Tinturn Abbey was looted and destroyed when Henry VIII left the Catholic Church. It is worthy of a visit and a classic poem (title!).  We found beauty and peace among the ruins left behind in this out-of-the-way countryside place.
inside tinturn abbey

My imagination moved into historical eras.  Thanks to Wolf Hall and Ivanhoe Tinturn Abbey was well populated as I quietly meandered through.