Aphra Behn

Aphra_Behn_by_John_Riley_E.jpg

For some reason the writers of my childhood, all British of course, all regarded being ruled by Kings as natural, desirable and romantic and being ruled by themselves as unthinkable, and this was particularly the case in relation to the English Civil War (1642-1651). I’m thinking of Children of the New Forest, all those Bonnie Prince Charlie stories, and the execrable Scarlet Pimpernel, which we were expected to read (uncritically!) in high school. I’m proud to say that I was an unnatural child and took the side of Cromwell and Robespierre, and of even more obscure figures like Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers.

Which is by way of coming to Aphra Behn (1640-1689) who was a novelist, a feminist and, sadly, a royalist.

I am of course slowly(!) making my way through Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel. At this rate WG will be able to start her reading some time next year and still beat me to the end. Spender writes that when she started Mothers she thought she would find that Behn was the first woman writer, but as we saw in an earlier post she was able to push that honour back another half century, to Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish. Spender still claims that Behn was the first woman to earn her living by writing, but she also makes that claim for Wroth.

Excesses of all kinds were forbidden during the Commonwealth, but the opposite was true under Charles II following the Restoration in 1660. Theatre flourished –

The popularity of the stage and the revitalisation of drama – and ‘immoral’ and bawdy drama at that – reflected the shift in interest and taste, and suggested new realms of literary possibility.

Aphra Behn’s writing reflects these times and mores, but Spender argues that ‘immorality’ also gave the male literary establishment the fig leaf it needed to ignore her. So, despite her 13 novels (and reams of plays and poetry), Daniel Defoe who wrote Robinson Crusoe 30 years later, is generally credited with the invention of the novel. Behn was also accused of having no Latin or Greek, but as she herself pointed out, neither did Shakespeare.

Behn’s early life is unknown but it seems she sailed to Suriname in the West Indies – the setting for her most famous work, Oroonoko – in the late 1650s or early 1660s; returned to London in 1664; married Mr Behn, a merchant who died or departed soon after; was a spy for Charles in the Netherlands in 1666; incurred debts for which she was briefly imprisoned; began writing poetry and then comic verse plays, the first of which, Forc’d Marriage was produced in 1670.

She turned to writing novels after wearing out her welcome in the theatre – her plays often attacked prominent Whigs (politicians seeking to impose limits on the power of the King). Spender says this was a natural progression as there were only two playhouses in London, so limited opportunities for production, and dramas were often circulated as scripts.

This meant that Aphra Behn was quite used to thinking of the presentation of her dramatic stories in printed form. It also meant that the reading public had been prepared for prose stories in print through their familiarity with published plays.

Behn was a successful professional writer who both anticipated the desire of her public for bawdy romantic comedies and was still able to present the issues that interested her – the abolition of slavery, the lives of ordinary people, and a woman’s perspective on relationships rather than deeds.

 With her representation of the world which is distinctly not that of the dominant sex, Aphra Behn symbolises the nature and extent of the omissions while women are excluded from the literary canon. In her choice of subject matter, her commentary, and her style, she illustrates some of the differences in outlook between women and men; even her sense of humour – which frequently makes men the butt of the joke – contrasts markedly to the forms to which we are accustomed, and in which it is the humour of men that prevails.

Spender gets angry a lot. Justifiably I know, but wearing.

… when Aphra Behn became the first woman to seek commercial publication, she plunged right into the problem that has plagued women writers ever since. The problem of having to obtain the approval of men.

Behn believed and wrote “that justice called for a single moral standard for both sexes”, but remained aware that men’s occupation was obtaining a paid place in the world, while women’s was obtaining a man who could support them. Spender does not say “Behn’s first novel was …” but provides a list of works by and about her which goes on for two and a half pages. From it I gleaned that her novels were –

The Adventures of the Black Lady (1684)
Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, a True History (1688)
Agnes de Castro, or The Force of Generous Love (1688)
The Fair Jilt, or The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688)
The Unfortunate Bride, or The Blind Lady a Beauty (1688)
The Lucky Mistake (1689)

The Novels of Aphra Behn (1905) includes all the above plus –

The Nun
The Lover’s Watch
The Case for the Watch
The Lady’s Looking Glass to Dress Herself By
The Lucky Mistake
The Court of the King of Bantam

That’s twelve novels, Britannica adds –

Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1683) an epistolary novel of which Spender writes “Attributed to Aphra Behn, but not included in her ‘Works'”.

The first Collected Novels (with a Life) came out in 1696 and others subsequently in 1771, 1886 and 1905, so I’m not sure how Behn managed to be omitted from the canon. Wilful blindness probably, as in Australia with Spence, Praed, Cambridge, Martin. Vita Sackville West wrote a biography in 1927 – Aphra Behn, The Incomparable Astrea – and Virginia Woolf wrote glowingly of Behn in A Room of Ones Own (1928).

The Nun may in fact be two novels – The Nun, or The Perjured Beauty and The Nun, or The Fair Vow-breaker – they, along with The Fair Jilt, portray convents as little more than brothels and are, according to Spender, laugh out loud funny.

Oroonoko, a short novel which was also made into a popular play, draws on Behn’s experience of Suriname (sometimes disputed but almost certainly genuine) with detailed descriptions of flora, fauna and scenery. Oroonoko had been a prince in Africa, he and his wife are enslaved and transported. He escapes, kills his wife rather than allow her to be tortured, is captured and hacked to death (So no happy ending, then!). Sackville-West suggested, “Oroonoko resembles those seventeenth century paintings of negroes in plumes and satins, rather than an actual slave on a practical plantation.” But,” Spender writes, “nonetheless we are provided with a horrific portrayal of slavery. There is no doubt we are intended to deplore its practices.”

Project Gutenberg (here) has the works of Aphra Benn in six volumes plus Love Letters. Looking on Goodreads, Penguin Classics has published at least Oroonoko and Love Letters.

 

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, Pandora, London, 1986

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8 thoughts on “Aphra Behn

  1. Oh dear, Ms Spender would not be pleased with me. I’ve read Oroonoko because it’s in 1001 Books, but as I said in my review at Goodreads, ‘truth be told it’s a bit of a pain to read’. And I didn’t care for the melodrama either.

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      • Yes, but I also noted that it wasn’t influential. As far as I could tell, it wasn’t a book that made other people take up the cause. And (just thinking of this now) maybe the reason Uncle Tom’s Cabin did engage people’s sympathies was because it was about ordinary people, whereas Oroonoko is, as you’ve noted, tarred with the royal brush.

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      • Interestingly Oroonoko the play ran in both England and then the US. I guess there were always lots of people not benefiting directly from slavery who felt free to be against it.

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  2. I don’t think so Bill – not only do you have a head start but you have a persistence that is currently lacking in my plans to read Spender’s book, much as I want to.

    I was taught at university, as you’ve noted, that Defoe wrote the first novel. While I sort of accepted it, I was a bit sceptical about how you define the first novel.

    As for Behn, I’ve been trying for some time to remember when I first heard of her, but I think your post has answered that – I suspect it was when I read Woolf’s A room of one’s own way back when. I may also have read about her in feminist magazines in the 1980s. Did you know there was A Cambridge companion to Aphra Behn? Put together by Janet Todd, whom I know through her Austen writing. She’s clearly becoming more and more recognised in scholarly and feminist circles.

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    • I think of myself as an anthropologist of (Australian) feminism – hope the feminists don’t mind, though I’m sure no one asked the Samoans (not that that is an excuse!). So I am planning to study/read Spender, the women she cites, JSMill, the New Woman movement before I get to Woolf – though AROOO has come up in previous posts. It seems odd but I’m enjoying it. On re reading that, I can see it would be more accurate to say that I am an autodidact historian of Australian women’s Lit.

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  3. Very interesting and educational for me, so thanks a lot for this post.

    I’ve never heard of her but since I never studied any kind of literature, I guess I can be excused. 🙂

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