Our guest this month is Janet Todd, an internationally renowned scholar and biographer, expert on women’s writing and feminism and the author of two novels, Lady Susan Plays the Game and Man of Genius. She is a Professor Emerita at the University of Aberdeen and Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. Her pioneering biography of Restoration writer Aphra Behn has recently been released in a new, updated and revised edition. Here she tells us why Behn is still such an important figure.
Dramatist, poet, novelist, translator of science and romance, spy and political propagandist, the first English woman to earn her living by her pen, Aphra Behn is still astonishing. Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘All women together ought to let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn…For it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’
She was fortunate in her historical moment: the Restoration, that period following the end of the Puritan republic and re-establishment of monarchy in 1660. Charles II returned to a country tired of austerity and moral restraint. He reopened the theatres and encouraged women for the first time on to the public stage. By the end of the decade his court had a taste for wit and bawdry, for plays of sexual adventurousness and quick repartee. Aphra Behn would excel in this mode, achieving a series of theatrical hits which pitted sharp, independent, sexy women against attractive often violent, sometimes absurd, rakish men.
The Restoration delighted in masks and self-fashioning as many people remade their pasts to fit new allegiances. Little is securely known of Behn’s personal life. Probably she was born to a barber father and wet-nurse mother and probably she married a German merchant, who promptly disappeared from her life. Late in her career she published a story set in the English slave colony of Surinam, whose detailed depiction argues her presence there. I speculate that this is an early glimpse of the working Aphra and that she was on her first mission (code-named Astrea) as a secret agent for the King: to bring in a dangerous dissident in hiding there. This man was again her quarry when she securely enters history as a spy in Antwerp in 1666. Her espionage was unappreciated by the royal government: she returned poor to London and may even have spent time in debtors’ prison.
But by now she’d found her true vocation: as author. In 1670 her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, a tragicomedy of sex and abusive power, was staged in London. Seven years later, The Rover began her series of popular, fast paced sex comedies featuring the ‘gay couple’ and pitting ‘virgin’ against ‘whore’ as players in the sexual game. Set in the Neapolitan carnival and based on an earlier, unwieldy play, Thomaso, The Rover shows nostalgia for a cavalier past of simple loyalties, and glories in intrigue and repartee, while also exploring feminist topics –the double standard and exploitation of sexuality and marriage. Like all her plays it makes full use of theatrical resources and the talents of particular actors, for example her friend Elizabeth Barry, who played Hellena.
Set in present London, Behn’s later comedies are darker and more cynical. Sir Patient Fancy left adultery unpunished and hypocrisy rewarded, while The City Heiress allowed a poxed rake to degrade and humiliate a rich, passionate widow. In 1681 she made a second version of The Rover. It’s a harsher and more farcical play than the first, reversing the plot outcome so that the rake-hero chooses the whore over the virgin and avoids the ‘formal foppery of marriage’.
Beyond plays, Aphra Behn published poetry: long pastoral romances and shorter racy pieces suggesting amorous feelings towards men and women. These depicted homosexuality, bisexuality, female orgasm, male impotence and venereal disease, topics forbidden to female writers for many centuries to come. They give tantalising hints of a life among louche, free-thinking friends who included the courtier-satirist Earl of Rochester, university scholars and ‘scribbling women’. For many years she had a troubling relationship with a bisexual lawyer John Hoyle, described as libertine, atheist, and violent; perhaps his shadow fell across her darker depictions of rakes in her later plays.
Charles II died suddenly in 1685 and was succeeded by his brother, the Catholic James II. Political turmoil followed as people turned against his authoritarian rule. Aphra Behn remained devoted, writing eulogies to him and his queen. Apparently her loyalty paid inadequately for she had to borrow £6 against the proceeds of her next play, The Luckey Chance, the last of her intrigue comedies. But taste had moved on, and, though one of her best, it was attacked on two counts: being bawdy and by a woman. Behn always claimed she wrote in sexy mode because it was popular and needed no great learning. Now she went further, providing a spirited defence for her trade and gender: ‘All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me…to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in…I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero.’ She deserved ‘Fame’ for she had had more plays performed on the Restoration stage in her lifetime than any other dramatist, man or woman.
By now she was ‘very ill’ and had ‘been dying this twelve month’. Yet, always needing money, she continued writing furiously, turning in her last years to prose and translation. In two of her most famous stories she revisited the world of her exotic youth: The Fair Jilt set in Antwerp and Oroonoko in Surinam. Her loyalty continued as she hymned James II even as his kingdom was being usurped by the Dutch William of Orange and his wife Mary. With James in exile, she managed a poem in praise of Mary as his daughter, but never one for William. She had little time to be pressured by the new court: five days after the coronation she died.
Aphra Behn knew her worth; in one of her last poems she yearned for ‘immortality’. Initially she received the wrong sort. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, culture turned more prudish and restrained, Restoration comedies appeared too risqué, and later women had to be more guarded in expression. Behn became a byword for unfeminine immorality. Twentieth-century feminism resurrected her but, with her royalist politics and playful exploitation of gender, she proved a difficult figure to assimilate.
Rightly so, for there is no one like Aphra Behn.
Portrait of Aphra Behn by Mary Beale.