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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