Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Aphra Behn (1640–1689)
Aphra Behn (1640-1689)Edit
Aphra Behn (1640–1689) was a pioneer in women’s literature during the seventeenth century. A Restoration era playwright, poet, novelist, and fiction writer, Behn is notable for becoming the first English woman to earn money through writing (English author). Her works are remarkable for their protofeminist (Gilbert 3-4) portrayals of politics, power, and sex (Todd), considered radical during the seventeenth century. Behn began her career as a playwright after a brief stint as a spy for Charles II (English author). Throughout her career, Behn published a large body of work in a variety of forms (Bowditch and Hobby 268-269). Though her reputation and legacy immediately succeeding her death was troubled, due to the controversial and radical nature of her works, she re-entered prominence in the twentieth century (Todd). Behn's reputation today is based upon her status as a women's writer in a patriarchal world, where it is asserted that her plays would not have been considered controversial were they written by a man. Today, Aphra Behn exists in literary history as a notable and much studied canonical figure of women’s writing.
Behn’s life, particularly her early life, is a topic much speculated upon, with verified information scarce. Some scholars argue that this was perhaps Behn’s intention, to remain obscure or mysterious (English author). Much scholarship theorises an Aphra Johnson, born in 1640 to a barber Bartholomew and his wife Elizabeth (Todd), is most likely a young Behn (Britland 33). Not much is known about Aphra Johnson until she reportedly travelled to Surinam with her family in the early 1660s (Britland 36). Upon her return to England in 1664 (Britland 36), Behn was reported to have married a merchant by the name of Johann Behn (Todd). Though the relationship did not last long, with Johann Behn dying soon after (Writer and Poet). In the late 1660s, Behn was recruited as a spy by “Charles II’s intelligence officers to travel to the Low Countries” (Britland 36). There is little evidence indicating whether her missions were successful, however they are notable for causing financial problems, with Behn returning to London “unrewarded” (English author) and in debt (English author). Behn was threatened with prison, though it is unclear whether she was jailed or not. Information and scholarship about her life at this point and up until her emergence as a literary figure, again scarce.
Soon after her return to England, Behn began her career as a playwright to support herself financially. Scholar Arifa Ghani Rahman posits that Behn was open about her desire to write “for money and fame” (Rahman 2). In the years following the premiere of her first play in 1670, Behn would write and create a large body of work, though her reputation was troubled among the public.
Behn died on the 16th of April 1689 after a period of ill health (Todd). She is buried in Westminster Abbey (Writer and Poet), which had only recently become the resting place of honour for poets, despite her being politically out of favour with the monarchy at the time of her death.
Behn is known for her large body of work spanning a variety of forms from plays to poems, novels, and translations (Bowditch and Hobby 268-269). She created over seventeen known plays including her first, The Forc’d Marriage (1670), which opened to great success (Bowditch and Hobby 265). Her fiction work included The Fair Jilt (1688), and her notable short novel Oroonoko (1688) (English Author). In addition to these, she published Poems upon Several Occasions (1684) and several translations (Bowditch and Hobby 268-269).
Scholarship on Behn’s work consistently makes note of the criticism she faced during her time, due to the controversial themes explored in her writing. Scholar Rahman explains that Behn’s work often examines “the possibilities of female agency in a male dominated world” (Rahman 1) and explores topics such as power, politics and sex (Todd), with an emphasis on the female experience (Rahman 1). Her play The Rover (1677), for example, examines issues such “female agency in heterosexual relationships in relation to money and parental/patriarchal authority.” (Rahman 1). These were bold issues for anyone, no less a woman, to explore in the seventeenth century. The societal expectations of female writers at the time were that their works be of “modest subject matter” (Todd) and written in a feminine manner (Todd). Behn’s work operated in direct opposition to these expectations and garnered her a reputation for being overly explicit, outspoken, and too masculine. According to scholar Janet Todd her plays were “denigrated as unladylike and bawdy” (Todd) and the only work deemed appropriate enough for consideration was Oroonoko (1688). Todd posits that Oroonoko (1688) was the work that re-entered Behn into public consciousness in the late twentieth century, as it became part of the “new literary canon” (Todd). It is noted for its exploration of slavery and imperialism, as well as its influence in developing the novel as a form (English author). With Oroonoko (1688) bringing attention to Behn and her wider work, she began to be studied by modern critics and academics as an early writer of protofeminist literature (Todd).
Behn wrote up until her death, with her final plays being The Widdow Ranter (1690) and The Younger Brother (1696), both performed posthumously (Bowditch and Hobby 265).
Though early critics may have excluded her from literary history due to her controversial and radical writings (Todd), Aphra Behn is today regarded in much modern scholarship as a pioneer for women’s writing and a major literary figure. As a Restoration era writer, she is credited as hugely influential; a competent poet, a “major force in the development of the early British novel” (Todd), an authoritative voice in Restoration theatre and an early demonstration of the influential power of the arts (Todd).
In feminist and women’s literature scholarship, Behn is regarded by many as an important canonical figure. Scholar Nora Gilbert posits that though Behn did not explicitly state her “interest in the rights of woman” (Gilbert 3), her exploration of radical topics regarding the female experience, especially during a time in which this was frowned upon, establishes her as an important early protofeminist writer (Gilbert 3-4). Her ability to overcome the social barriers presented to her as a woman in a male dominated industry, and her significant achievements such as becoming one of the first women to be paid for her writing, further solidifies her position as “a pioneer in the fight for women’s emancipation” (Rahman 2).
In her famous essay, A Room of Ones Own, Virginia Woolf mentions Aphra Ben declaring that '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.' Here Woolf does not make reference to her specific works, but is commenting on the fact that Behn wrote as a paid professional (Williams and O'Conner).
Though her reputation during her own time was negative, with Janet Todd positing Behn was “either ignored or vilified” (Todd), her reputation today is that of an influential Restoration writer and a ground-breaker for women’s literature.
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Rahman, Arifa Ghani. “Negotiating Masculine Circles: Female Agency in Aphra Behn’s Work.” Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, vol. 12, no. 4, July-Sept 2020, pp. 1-9. doi: doi.org/10.21659/rupkatha.v12n4.03
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