By indexer
144 days ago

Aphra Behn

When asked for the name of the first woman writer of note in English, many people would plump for Jane Austen and then be hard pressed to think of anyone earlier. However, a hundred years before Jane Austen was born, Restoration England flocked to see the plays of Aphra Behn, who was lauded in her time but has been largely forgotten about ever since.

Her early years are shrouded in some degree of mystery, but she was probably born around 1640 and was probably called Aphra (or Afra) Johnson at birth. She came from Kent, but there is no agreement on exactly where. There is a baptismal record of an Eaffrey Johnson, born on 14th December 1640, the daughter of a Canterbury barber, and this could have been her. Aphra Behn preferred to think of herself as coming from a noble background, but her writings proved that she had a vivid imagination.

It is known that in 1663 she sailed to Surinam, then a new British colony, in South America. She was accompanied by her mother and siblings (an older sister and a younger brother), but it appears that her father had died by this time. Her reason for going to Surinam could have had something to do with espionage, as she would appear to have been a royalist agent shortly before Charles II regained the throne in 1660. It is entirely possible that her mission was to extract “pillow talk” from a suspected enemy of the King, as there was certainly mention in the colony of her loose morals.

The following year she was back in London, where she married Johann Behn, a Dutch merchant, who was dead within two years. Having acquired his name, she stuck with it.

England was at war with The Netherlands from 1665 to 1667 (one result of which was New Amsterdam becoming New York). Aphra Behn was sent to Antwerp as an agent to try to persuade her Surinam conquest to become a double agent. Whatever the result, she soon found herself in serious debt and had to borrow money in order to return to England. To pay off those debts she either had to continue her career as a spy, which clearly had its dangers, or find another source of income.

It is possible that she had already started to write when in Surinam, so writing for the London stage, at a time when demand was at an all-time peak, was an attractive option. The people had been starved of entertainment during the Cromwell years of the Commonwealth, when the theatres had been closed, so they more than made up for it after the Restoration of Charles II, the “merry monarch”. The theatres were re-opened, new ones were built, and plays were needed to fill them. The main genre was comedy, particularly with sexual intrigue as its theme. Aphra Behn was able to use her experience of exploiting sex as a political weapon to good advantage.

Her first London play was “The Forced Marriage”, staged in 1670 for the Duke’s Company, and this was followed by at least another 19, not counting a number of probable collaborations with other playwrights. She clearly had a talent for this trade and a command of the medium of the theatre. It is known that there were other female dramatists at the time, but none of them had the same staying power or popularity.

Her most popular play was “The Rover”, (published in two parts in 1677 and 1681) a comedy of sexual manners set in Naples and Madrid during the Stuart exile. It was twice performed before royalty but it attracted accusations of plagiarism (it was based on another playwright’s work but not copied from it) and bawdiness, a charge that had some measure of truth to it, but this was a bawdy age in any case.

As well as plays she also wrote poems, and may well have been the editor of “The Covent Garden Drolery”, an anthology printed in 1672 that contained four of her own poems.

Her private life seems to have been colourful, to say the least, with liaisons noted with people of both sexes. She was associated for at least ten years with John Hoyle, a lawyer who was known to be bisexual. Her close stage portrayals of libertines and amoral characters seem to have owed much to her personal knowledge of many such people. She was also in the circle of the Earl of Rochester, many of whose poems were later suppressed for their pornography, and some of Aphra Behn’s later poems were of a distinctly risqué nature.

In her later plays, Aphra Behn adopted a more political tone, allying herself with the Royalist party (who later developed into the Tories), and speaking out strongly against the ambitions of the Duke of Monmouth (who was later to lead an armed rebellion against Charles’s brother and successor James II). These plays led to accusations that she was using the stage for propaganda rather than entertainment.

However, her best-known work today is “Oroonoko, or The History of the Royal Slave” which is notable for being possibly the first novel to be written in English, or it is at least a close forerunner of the novel. It appeared in 1688, shortly before her death, but relies on her early experiences in Surinam. It is also remarkable for being an early protest against the slave trade.

The hero is an African prince who is sold into slavery in Surinam, where he incites a slave revolt, is betrayed and eventually executed, all in an effort to rescue a beautiful female slave. Another notable feature of the book is its portrayal of the moral superiority of native African and South American people when seen against the corruption of European slave owners and colonists. These concepts were far ahead of their time.

This was not Aphra Behn’s only work of prose fiction. When the demand for new plays started to wane, she wrote “Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister”, the first part of which was published in 1684. This sounds like a scandalous title, and the plot was in fact based on an actual scandal, but for “sister” one should read “sister-in-law”, so this is not a story about an incestuous relationship. However, there is plenty of sexual intrigue here, although Behn’s female characters are much more complex and rounded than in most of her plays. “Love Letters” eventually ran to three volumes and 1,000 pages, and was extremely popular. It is interesting to compare it with the work, some 60 years later, of Samuel Richardson, who also used exchanges of letters as the medium of fiction, but was far more genteel with his subject matter. Indeed, Richardson was one of several writers who castigated Behn for being unfeminine in her portrayal of women as sexual beings.

In her later years Aphra Behn concentrated more on poetry, and produced several long poems and works that combined poetry and prose. The death of Charles in 1685 and the accession of James II, who was more openly Catholic, made her stock-in-trade of sexual comedy less commercial. There is evidence that she found herself in financial difficulties as well as increasingly poor health. She continued to write throughout James’s short reign, but viewed the coming accession of William III with some trepidation. As it happened, she died on 16th April 1689, five days after the joint coronation of William III and Mary II. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, but not in Poets’ Corner.

Aphra Behn’s reputation suffered a nosedive after her death, as indeed did that of most of the playwrights of the Restoration period, for the simple reason that their age had passed and a new era of relative gentility and Augustan order was to follow, to be succeeded not long after by Victorian prurience. Twentieth century feminism was not impressed by female writers who wrote in a masculine style for a male audience, so there was no chance for Aphra Behn to become a feminist heroine.

Today we live in a more liberal age and are re-discovering some writers from the past whose talents were previously ignored out of embarrassment for their subject matter. Maybe Aphra Behn is one such writer who deserves a second look.
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sanjad Nice article
Shavkat @sanjad c",)