Friday, 11 November 2011
I have heard of Aphra Behn, of course, as the first women who earned a living from her writing. What I didn’t know about her was she was born Aphra or ‘Eafrey’ Johnson, and spent a year in Surinam, Dutch Guiana in the West Indies, where her father was given a diplomatic post, although he allegedly didn’t survive the journey. Aphra returned to London as a widow, claiming her husband was a Dutchman called Johan Behn, but nothing is known of him, so his existence is still in debate. Perhaps Aphra simply tried to avail herself of the freedom a widow had over a single woman in the 17th Century.
At this time, the Anglo Dutch War was not going well and a group of Cromwellian exiles in Antwerp were working with the Dutch to undermine the Restoration regime. Aphra was employed by Charles II as a spy, and under the codename, ‘Astrea’, was sent to Antwerp with instructions to reacquaint herself with a former suitor, William Scott, son of the regicide Thomas Scott who was executed in 1660, and discover what the Dutch were up to.
William was eager to ingratiate himself with the English government, but he didn’t know very much so Aphra left Antwerp with very little information. Maybe as a result of this, her expenses were not paid by the infamous William Chiffinch, Charles II’s advisor, administrator of the ‘Secret Service’ budget and reputed pimp to the king.
This led to her borrowing the money to enable her to return to London in January 1667, but also resulted in her spending some time in gaol for debt as she had no means to repay it. Perhaps King Charles was told of her fate, or another benefactor stepped forward, but Aphra’s debts were finally discharged and she was released sometime in 1669.
Understandably, Aphra left the world of espionage and wrote plays for the theatre. The Forc'd Marriage was first performed in 1670 by The Duke's Company, followed by The Amorous Prince, in 1671. The Dutch Lover (1673), Abdelazar, (1676), The Town Fop, (1676), The Debauchee, (1677), and The Counterfeit Bridegroom, (1677).
In March, 1677, Aphra’s most successful work, The Rover was produced and Nell Gwyn came out of retirement to play the role of the whore, Angelica Bianca ('white angel'), her performance praised by The Duke of York (later James II) who was also rumoured to have been Aphra’s lover.
Nell Gwynn also took the lead as Lady Knowell in Aphra’s next play, Sir Patient Fancy (1678), and The Feigned Courtesans (1679), which Behn dedicated to Nell. Maybe due to the demands of the debauched Royal Court, Aphra’s plays were becoming sexually risqué, with Behn herself being accused of being a libertine. Her friendship with the Earl of Rochester, infamous for his sexual escapades and explicit poetry did nothing to allay this impression. In fact her hero in, The Rover, was said to have been based on Rochester.
Aphra openly expressed her views on love and sex in her writing, and her poetry portrays romantic relationships with both men and women, discusses rape and impotence, puts forth a woman's right to sexual pleasure, and includes scenes of eroticism between men.
In 17th Century Theatre, women were assumed to be of low morals, their success coupled with envy in a traditionally male profession. Ignoring them all, and enjoying the patronage of the King, Aphra continued writing. The tragicomedy The Young King was produced in the autumn of 1679, The Revenge in 1680, followed by The Second Part of The Rover in early 1681, The False Count in November and The Roundheads in December, 1681. The City Heiress was produced in the spring of 1682. Audiences loved her plays with their rampant sexual content, but she had her critics. Alexander Pope, for instance, wrote of Behn:
The stage how loosely does Astræea tread
Who fairly puts all characters to bed.
When The Duke's Company merged with the King's Company to form the United Company, Aphra turned to writing poetry. Poems Upon Several Occasions appeared in 1684, as did Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister.
When Charles II died in 1685 and was succeeded by his brother, the Duke of York, as James II. Behn wrote verses on both occasions, and returned to writing for the stage. The Lucky Chance was performed in 1686 followed by the farce The Emperor of the Moon, which was not successful.
In 1688, Behn published Oroonoko, about a noble slave and his tragic love. Aphra claimed to have based this story on a slave leader she had met during her year in Surinam. It was an instant success, going through many reprints, and was even adapted for the stage by Thomas Southerne in 1695.
By the time James II was forced to abdicate his throne, Aphra was quite ill with rheumatoid arthritis. Her own descriptions of her lame hands and the lampoonists' cruel verses mocking her "limbs distortured" suggest she kept writing despite extreme pain. Aphra died on April 16, 1689, and was buried in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. Two of her plays, The Widdow Ranter and The Younger Brother, were produced and published postuhumously.
The introduction to her "The History of the Nun" has been taken as a suggestion that Behn had romantic relations with Hortense Mancini, another of Charles II’s mistresses and notoriously bi-sexual. In it she says:
.......how infinitely one of Your own Sex ador'd You, and that, among all the numerous Conquest, Your Grace has made over the Hearts of Men, Your Grace had not subdu'd a more intire Slave; .............. the honour and satisfaction of being ever near Your Grace, to view eternally that lovely Person, and here that surprising Wit; what can be more grateful to a Heart, than so great, and so agreeable, an Entertainment? And how few Objects are there, that can render it so entire a Pleasure, as at once to hear you speak, and to look upon your Beauty?
Aphra was unapologetic on the subject of her explicit writing, saying she was: ‘forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.’
Virginia Woolf wrote of Aphra:
All women together ought to let flowers fall upon
the tomb of Aphra Behn, ...for it was she who earned
them the right to speak their minds.