Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (July 10, 1640April 16, 1689) was a prolific dramatist of the Restoration and was one of the first English professional female writers. Her writing participated in the amatory fiction genre of British literature.

Early life

The personal history of Aphra Behn, one of the first Englishwomen credited to earn their livelihood by authorship, [Montague Summers. "The Works of Aphra Behn". London: William Heineman, 1913] is difficult to unravel and relate. Information regarding her, especially her early life, is scant, but she was almost certainly born in Wye, near Canterbury, on July 10, 1640 to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham. The two were married in 1638 and Aphra, or "Eaffry", was baptized on December 14, 1640. Elizabeth Denham was employed as a nurse to the wealthy Colepeper family, who lived locally, which means that it is likely that Aphra grew up with and spent time with the family's children. The younger child, Thomas Colepeper, later described Aphra as his foster sister's. In 1663 she visited an English sugar colony on the Suriname River, on the coast east of Venezuela (a region later known as Suriname). During this trip she is supposed to have met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, "Oroonoko". The veracity of her journey to Suriname has often been called into question; however, enough evidence has been found that most Behn scholars today believe that the trip did indeed take place.

Though little is really known about Behn’s early years, evidence suggests that she may have had a Catholic upbringing. She once admitted that she was "designed for a nun" and the fact that she had so many Catholic connections, such as Henry Neville who was later arrested, would certainly have aroused suspicions during the anti-Catholic fervor of the 1680s (Goreau 243). Her sympathy to the Catholics is further demonstrated by her dedication of her play "The Rover II" to the Catholic Duke of York who had been exiled for the second time (247).

Though Behn was sympathetic to Catholics, she was firmly dedicated to the restored King Charles II. As political parties first emerged during this time, Behn was a Tory supporter. Tories believed in absolute allegiance to the king, who governed by divine right (246). Behn often used her writings to attack the parliamentary Whigs claiming "In public spirits call’d, good o’ th’ Commonwealth…So tho’ by different ways the fever seize…in all ’tis one and the same mad disease." This was Behn’s reproach to parliament which had denied the king funds. Like most Tories, Behn was distrustful of Parliament and Whigs since the Revolution and wrote propaganda in support of the restored monarchy (248).

Life in England, writing career, work as a spy

Shortly after her return to England in 1664 Aphra Johnson married Johan Behn, who was a merchant of German or Dutch extraction. Little conclusive information is known about their marriage, but it did not last for more than a few years. Some scholars believe that the marriage never existed and Behn made it up purely to gain the status of a widow, which would have been much more beneficial for what she was trying to achieve. She was reportedly bisexual, and held a larger attraction to women than to men, a trait that, coupled with her writings and references of this nature, would eventually make her popular in the writing and artistic communities of the 20th century and present day. [http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/%7emamaes/17a.html 17thwomen ] ] [http://feminism.eserver.org/theory/papers/memoir-of-aphra-behn.txt/document_view Feminism and Women's Studies: Memoir of Aphra Behn ] ] [http://www.aestheticrealism.net/aesnyc141/Aphra_Behn_NH.htm Aphra Behn: or, What Is Triumph in Love? A consideration based on the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel ] ]

By 1666 Behn had become attached to the Court, possibly through the influence of Thomas Culpepper and other associates of influence, where she was recruited as a political spy to Antwerp by Charles II. Her code name for her exploits is said to have been "Astrea", a name under which she subsequently published much of her writings. The Second Anglo-Dutch War had broken out between England and the Netherlands in 1665. She became the lover to a prominent and powerful royal, and from him she obtained political secrets to be used to the English advantage.

Behn's exploits were not profitable, however, as Charles was slow in paying (if he paid at all) for either her services or her expenses whilst abroad. Money had to be borrowed for Behn to return to London, where a year's petitioning of Charles for payment went unheard, and she ended up in a debtor's prison. By 1669 an undisclosed source had paid Behn's debts, and she was released from prison, starting from this point to become one of the first women who wrote for a living. She cultivated the friendship of various playwrights, and starting in 1670 she produced many plays and novels, as well as poems and pamphlets. Her most popular works included "The Rover", "Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister", and "Oroonoko". Amongst her notable critics was Alexander Pope, against whom she has been defended.

Aphra Behn died on April 16, 1689, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Below the inscription on her tombstone read the words: "Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality." [http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/images/behn_aphra.jpg] She was quoted as once stating that she had led a "life dedicated to pleasure and poetry."

tatus among other writers throughout history

In author Virginia Woolf's reckoning, Behn's total career is more important than any particular work it produced. Woolf wrote, "All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." [Woolf, Virginia. "A Room of One's Own". 1928, at 65] . After a hiatus in the 19th century, when both the writer and the work were dismissed as indecent, Behn's fame has now undergone extraordinary revival. She dominates cultural-studies discourse as both a topic and a set of texts. [http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com/bookbind/pubbooks/damrosch_awl/chapter4/medialib/behn.html] ] . Much early criticism emphasized her unusual status as a female writer in a male-dominated literary world; more recent criticism has offered more thorough discussions of her works. [Walters, Margaret. "Feminism: A very short introduction". Oxford University 2005 at 24 (ISBN 0-19-280510-X)]

In an age of libertines, Behn undertook to proclaim and to analyse women's sexual desire, as manifested in her characters and in herself. She has since become a favorite among sexually liberated women, many of bisexual or lesbian orientation, who proclaim her as one of their most positive influences.

Today, the affinities between Behn's work and that of Romantic writers seem more pronounced than the different level of publicly acceptable discussion of sexuality. [http://hal.ucr.edu/~cathy/behnrev.html Review of Todd's edition of Behn's Works ] ] It has been written that "Behn's writings unveil the homosocial role of male rivalry in stimulating heterosexual desire for women and explores the ways in which cross dressing and masquerade complicate and destabilize gender relations. Behn also analyzes female friendships and, more rarely, lesbianism". One source of speculation has been the identification of Behn with some of her characters. For instance in The Rover, the similarity in names between Behn and the prostitute Angellica Bianca is interesting.

"I, vainly proud of my personal judgement, hang out the Sign of Angellica"

In several volumes of writings by author Janet Todd, Behn's explorations of some of the key issues in Romantic studies, such as the role of incestuous and homosocial bonding in romance, the correlations between racial and gender oppression, female subjectivity, and, more specifically, female political and sexual agency are detailed.

The noted critic Harold Bloom calls Behn a "fourth-rate playwright" and notes her resurgent popularity as a case of "dumbing down." [ [http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2003/09/24/dumbing_down_american_readers/ Boston.com / News / Boston Globe / Editorial / Opinion / Op-ed / Dumbing down American readers ] ]

She appears as a fictional character in the Faction Paradox novel "Newtons Sleep".

Her exploits as a spy, and the misuse of the intelligence she gathered is alluded to in Patrick O'Brian's novel "Desolation Island".

Aphra Behn’s writing is unique for its time because of her use of the narrator’s voice and her innovative use of visual deceptions in her plays. According to Dawn Lewcock, Behn’s narrative voice is "sometimes as the dispassionately passionate observer in Oroonoko, sometimes in an ironic aside with the implicit assumption of a common understanding with her readers, as in her shorter novels and longer poems" (66). She takes on a narrative voice that is characteristically her own by using a removed but somehow still involved narrator in Oroonoko and changing to a different, ironic voice in other works. For Francis F. Steen, Behn’s narration can be dangerously frank: "…Behn openly reveals what by rights should be the secrets of her trade. Must not her common readers be kept in the dark about this secret coalition between the author and state power? Is her openly professed loyalty tantamount to a betrayal?" (93) The possibility of rejection and failure is increased by her honesty in a matter that other playwrights of the time would not concede to the audience.

Behn’s plays were also novel because she used visual cues in a way that they had never before been used. Dawn Lewcock comments on this ingenuity, saying "What is unique to Behn is not only her appreciation of the visual effects of a performance but also the way that she uses this to affect the perceptions of the audience and change their conception and comprehension of her plots and/or her underlying theme as she wishes by integrating the theatrical possibilities into her dramatic structure" (66-67). Lewcock goes on to explain this with the mistaken identities present in The Amorous Prince where disguises play a crucial role in the plot of the play.

Behn's minor poetry, as collected in her Poems Upon Several Occasions (1684), is a veritable treasure-trove of her unabashed ideas about sexuality. These poems were written in the pastoral tradition, which she characterizes as specifically sexual. The world of the pastoral, which she fills with amorous shepherds and shepherdesses, creates for her a space in which to explore the nature and virtues of free love.

For example, "The Golden Age," which in many ways is a call to regress back to a state of peace, of quiescence, like during the reign of Elizabeth I. This time has been hyperbolically compared to the "Golden Age" of the ancients by the Elizabethans, and the name was used to describe both periods. Because the term is so steeped in history, politics, and lore, Ovid's description of the "Golden Age" seems necessary. From the Metamorphosis:

Golden, that first age, which, though ignorantof laws, yet of its own will, uncoerced,fostered responsibility and virtue;men had no fear of any punishment, nor did they read of threatened penaltiesengraved on bronze; no throng of suppliantstrembled before the visage of a judgeor sought protection from the laws themselves.As yet no pine tree on its mountaintophad been chopped down and fitted out to shipfor foreign lands; men kept to their own shores... without warfare, allthe nations lived, securely indolent.No rake had been familiar with the earth,no plowshare had yet wronged her; untaxed, she gaveof herself freely, providing all essentials." I.126-43

However, Behn does much more with the term "Golden Age." Saying that it refers to only a time of prosperity in English history or a mythic paradise is vastly insufficient. What Behn creates is a pastoral world of free love, where sexual play can occur in a place outside of the Court and society, untrammeled by the customs of politeness. It is an unbound place, without inhibition.

The pastoral has always been a form in which writers can explore the culture from which they depart. In "The Golden Age" (as in her other pastoral poems), all the joys, difficulties, and foibles of sexual love can be explored without consequence. The speaker inverts Ovid's "Golden Age" into a sort of lesbian paradise, where men are impotent, and where women reign. In Ovid, there were no agricultural practices: "no rake had been familiar with the earth." Behn uses the idea to conflate the image of the earth with the image of women. In Ovid the earth is being invaded, in Behn, it is women. The "stubborn plow" of a man had not made any "rude Rapes" with a woman. Women reproduce, though, without men's "Aids." Men's "snakes" are impotent, their "spightful venom" not being injected into women, leaving the "Nymphs" (the women) to "innocently play." In Ovid, the world is "without warfare"; in Behn, warfare is replaced with the conquest of men's bodies into women's. The world of politics, power, and sex are all combined into one masculine, heterosexual issue. The language she uses unifies all three by using words that combine elements from each, dissolving their definitions. This corrupt world is described using masculine terms and by employing symbolic imagery. There are no "Rapes, Invasions, Tyrannies" in her golden age; sex is not forced for "Glories name." These double meanings—linking sex and war—pepper the first half of the poem.

In Behn's golden age there is no such thing as deviant love, for "that was lawful all, that Pleasure did invite." Her imagined world is not strictly without men, but sex is entirely on women's terms. Women, in this world have complete sexual control and agency. In section 6, the maid gives only "kind Resistance" to the her male lover, who is able to perform only with the help of the gods. For her, "Trembling and blushing are no marks of shame, / But the effect of kindling Flame." The Shepherdess' lover does not "Rape" or "Invade" with his "Rough Plow," injecting her with "spightful venom," but is "permit [ed] " to "win the prize." Women have complete control—it is they who win.

The last section tells the purpose for imagining such a place. The speaker has been wronged, which prompted her to write the poem in reaction. The section has a distinct carpe diem feeling, indirectly urging "Sylvia" to accept her love, for, the speaker says, "when the fresh Roses on your Cheeks shall die ... Eternally will they forgotten lye." This poem rejects a strictly heterosexual social order in favor of including bisexual and homosexual love, reversing the household dynamic of female subordination to her male "counterpart." She achieves this with masterful, witty poetry that is at once fun to read and thought-provoking.

Or take her poem, "The Disappointment." Her rejection of any sort of modesty—scandalous for a man, unthinkable for a woman—destabilizes the accepted norms of gender and sexuality of her time. In much of her poetry, Behn works to unmask sex from the oppression of censorship, separating it from respectability, to reveal it for what it truly is: a real life force that can (and must) be scrutinized as well as laughed about. In this way, her pastoral poetry, when read as a whole unit, is something akin to a discussion. By reversing, confusing, and confounding sexuality/gender, Behn liberates her young swains from traditional, conservative restraints. The pastoral is an ideal method of carrying out this liberation, though it itself presents many problems for Behn. The pastoral is a male-dominated tradition, making it difficult for her as a woman poet to write about her uninhibited sexuality. In "The Disappointment," Behn may be using the pastoral against itself, wielding its conventional tropes in such a way that it is rendered, quite literally, impotent. Gender roles are reversed, and the prototypical pastoral figure, the shepherd, cannot perform the one duty all his peers do in many other pastorals. As in "The Golden Age," in "The Disappointment" women are the active lovers, and men the passive. The attention shifts from male to female, from penis to vagina. It is Lysander who is the victim of himself, and Cloris who established dominance over her lover. This frees up space within the green world of the pastoral for Behn as a woman writer to express herself.

The poem is about male impotence—a common theme in Behn's poetry. In this comic tale, two pastoral lovers attempt to satisfy their lust to no avail. The title cleverly reflects the theme. If we dissect the word "disappointment" we get an ingenious pun in "dis-a-point-ment": the state of having one's "point" taken away. The state of each lover is given here: Cloris is "disappointed" while Lysander is "dis-a-point-ed."

These are just two examples of her hundreds of amorous poems, songs, ballads, and dialogues that fill Poems Upon Several Occasions. Behn's fierce courage as a poet, publishing her poems and prying into the exclusively androcentric sphere, is a testament to the audacity that today has made her among the most important Early Modern writers.



*"The Forced Marriage" (1670)
*"The Amorous Prince" (1671)
*"The Dutch Lover" (1673)
*"Abdelazer" (1676)
*"The Town Fop" (1676)
*"The Rover", Part 1 (1677) and Part 2 (1681)
*"Sir Patient Fancy" (1678)
*"The Feigned Courtesans" (1679)
*"The Young King" (1679)
*"The False Count" (1681)
*"The Roundheads" (1681)
*"The City Heiress" (1682)
*"Like Father, Like Son" (1682)
*"The Lucky Chance" (1686) with composer John Blow
*"The Emperor of the Moon" (1687)Posthumously performed
*"The Widdow Ranter" (1689) [ [http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/45/ Online etext] ]
*"The Younger Brother" (1696)


*"The Fair Jilt"
*"Agnes de Castro"
*"Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister" (1684)
*"Oroonoko" (1688)

hort Stories

*"" (1688)

*"" (1700)


*"Poems upon Several Occasions" (1684)


Biographies and writings based on her life

*cite book | title = The Passionate Shepherdess | author = Maureen Duffy | year = 1977 The first wholly scholarly new biography of Behn; the first to identify Behn's birth name.
*Angeline Goreau, "Reconstructing Aphra: a social biography of Aphra Behn" (New York: Dial Press, 1980). ISBN 0-8037-7478-8
*Angeline Goreau. "Aphra Behn: A scandal to modesty (c. 1640-1689)" in Spender, Dale (ed.) Feminist theorists: Three centuries of key women thinkers, Pantheon 1983, pp. 8-27 ISBN 0-394-53438-7.
* a biography concentrating on the political activism of Behn, with new material on her life as a spy.
*cite book | title = Aphra Behn - The Incomparable Astrea | author = Vita Sackville-West | year = 1927 | publisher = Gerald Howe A view of Behn more sympathetic and laudatory than Woolf's.
* One section deals with Behn, but it is a starting point for the feminist rediscovery of Behn's role.
*"What Is Triumph in Love? with a consideration of Aphra Behn", Nancy Huntting

Other sources

* Hobby, Elaine. "Virtue of necessity: English women's writing 1649-88". University of Michigan 1989
* Summers, Montague (ed.). "Aphra Behn: Works". London 1913
* Lewcock, Dawn. "Aphra Behn studies: More for seeing than hearing: Behn and the use of theatre". Ed. Todd, Janet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
* Steen, Francis F. "The Politics of Love: Propaganda and Structural Learning in Aphra Behn's Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister." Poetics Today 23.1 (2002) 91-122. Project Muse. 19 Nov. 2007. [ [http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/poetics_today/v023/23.1steen.html Project MUSE ] ]
* Todd, Janet. "The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn." Columbia: Camden House, 1998. 69-72.


External links

* [http://aberdeen.ac.uk/cems/graphics/womens_writing.jpgPortrait from University of Aberdeen]
*gutenberg author|id=Aphra_Behn|name=Aphra Behn
* [http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/behn.htm Aphra Behn's Grave, Westminster Abbey]
* [http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/b/behn/aphra University of Adelaide biography and etexts] (a source for the list of works)
* [http://www.lit-arts.net/Behn/ The Aphra Behn page at list-arts.net]
* [http://www.sukipot.com/angellica/ The Sign of Angellica: An Aphra Behn Site]
* [http://www.classicistranieri.com/english/indexes/authb.htm The Complete Works of Aphra Behn] on e-book
* [http://people04.albion.edu/jts10/dp/ Some of Behn's minor poems]

NAME=Behn, Aphra
DATE OF BIRTH=July 10, 1640
DATE OF DEATH=April 16, 1689

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