Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Author's Portrait: Aphra Behn

"Aphra Behn," by Sir Peter Lely
oil on canvas, ca. 1670.
Courtesy of the Yale Center for
British Art, Yale University,
New Haven, Connecticut.
There are many interesting figures among writers whose work is in the public domain. Today I want to shed light on an Englishwoman from the seventeenth century who caused quite some polemic among her contemporaries and who was even vilified by later – more prudish – generations for her “indecent” writings. Her work was only rediscovered in the early twentieth century and she was recognised since as a key playwright of the English Restoration, a notable poet and an important pioneer of the modern English novel committed to realism. She also was England’s first professional woman writer and a person surrounded by a certain amount of mystery. Her name is Aphra Behn.

Based on few existing sources biographers assume that Aphra Behn must have been born as Aphra Johnson in Canterbury, England, or close by before 14 December 1640, but her origins remain largely in the dark and nothing can be said for sure about them. Although it’s the most probable supposition, it isn’t even certain that she was called Johnson after all since already her contemporaries ascribed different maiden names to her. That her father was a barber, however, seems to be a fairly established fact passed on to us through the centuries.

Hardly any information on Aphra Behn’s childhood and youth is available. That her knowledge of French and Latin enabled her later on to translate books into English, hints at a good education. It’s also probable that she lived in Dutch Guiana in the West Indies, ie in Surinam, at least for a while because her writings show that she was well acquainted with the conditions there, especially with slavery. It was said that she travelled to Surinam with her parents and siblings during the first phase of the English Civil War in 1663 and that her father died on the way. Other sources suggest that she may have worked as a spy for the English crown there.

By 1664 Aphra Behn was back to England where she married the merchant Johan Behn – provided that he ever existed. No records about the man of Dutch or German descent or about the wedding could be found yet and rumour had it that she invented him altogether to comply with social conventions that discriminated against women, especially unmarried ones, or even to obscure her identity. Most biographers assume, though, that the marriage took place in fact and that Johan Behn died the following year. Soon afterwards, during the second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665-67, she went to Antwerp, Netherlands, as a political spy, but instead of providing her with a living, the activity plunged her into debt. It seems that she never received the money that King Charles II. owed her and she may even have served time in the debtor’s prison. A warrant for her arrest survived.

After the unlucky experience in the service of the King, Aphra Behn set her hopes on writing. She had been making verses all along, but eventually tried her hand at commercially more promising plays since the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell was over and theatres were re-opening at last. As it turned out, she had a talent for it and became the leading playwright of the English Restoration. Already her first performed plays, The Forc’d Marriage (1670) and The Amorous Prince (1671), were a big success. They were followed by another seventeen more or less popular plays: 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), Prologue and Epilogue to Romulus and Hersilia, or The Sabine War (1682), The Emperor of the Moon (1687), and posthumously staged The Widow Ranter (1689) and The Younger Brother (1696). Together with composer John Blow she also wrote The Lucky Chance (1686).

Although some of Aphra Behn’s plays, notably The Rover – Part 1 and Part 2, were much loved by the audience and quite profitable, her work for the theatre never made her rich and she dedicated herself increasingly to poetry and narration. In 1684 she published the much admired volume of poetry titled Poems upon Several Occasions, with A Voyage to the Island of Love and brought out the novel Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister which saw several reprints, too. This early epistolary novel was so popular that the author wrote two sequels to it: Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, Second Part (1685) and The Amours of Philander and Silvia (1687).

The best-known narrative work of Aphra Behn up to this day is the tragic love story of an enslaved African prince around whom revolves the short novel Oroonoko. It first appeared in print in 1688, both as a single edition and in a collection titled Three Histories (along with the novellas The Fair Jilt and Agnes de Castro). Thanks to its realism and its influence on later novels, Oroonoko is seen today as an important milestone in the development of the modern English novel. Also in 1688 the author brought out another volume of poetry Lycidus; or, The Lover in Fashion and the short story The History of the Nun: or, the Fair Vow-Breaker.

The fact that her dramatic work, her poetry and her fiction provided Aphra Behn with a livelihood allowed her as the first Englishwoman ever to call herself with full right a writer by profession – and she was the first who did it with pride which shocked her contemporaries, male and female. Her creative work, however, could never fully relieve her from poverty and debt, and so she like many others in a similar situation also translated French and Latin books into English for a living. The last years of her life were overshadowed by growing pain and stiff as well as deformed joints, probably due to rheumatoid arthritis, but her financial situation forced her to continue to write indefatigably until the end.

Aphra Behn died in London on 16 April 1689 and was buried at Poet’s Corner in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. In the essay A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf called upon “all women together … to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, …, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

The works of Aphra Behn are available online as free e-books on different websits like just for instance Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks. you wish to know more about this important figure of English literature, I recommend the following biographies:

Janet Todd: The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (2013)

George Woodcock: The English Sappho (1989)

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