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some things I didn't know about aphra behn

This spring I have spent a lot of time on the Huntington Library website as a way to distract myself from the continued cataclysm we are all living through. The Huntington Library is a gem of a rare books and special collections library, an illustrious research and educational institution, and an incomparable art museum, located in San Marino, CA. Its prodigious collection of 11 million items, dated the 11th to the 21st centuries, is situated across multiple buildings that sprawl across a gorgeous botanic garden setting. I have written elsewhere on my blog about my one visit there, in 2016, for a printing history conference.

This year in my virtual exploration of the Huntington’s programming, most of which is still online, I discovered a 6-week course on Aphra Behn, the 17th century English playwright; this is offered through “Huntington U.” The class meets one day a week on zoom for about an hour and a half and is taught by the incomparable Elaine Hobby of Loughborough University in the UK, a professor of 17th century studies and an Aphra Behn scholar.

I had heard of Aphra Behn before taking this class, but my knowledge of her was sparse, and I was curious about who she was. Outside of academia she is largely forgotten, and the historical record has very few details of her life. Therefore, one of the critical questions we consider each week in this class is what we can learn about Behn from her writing itself, since this comprises a substantial amount of material.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned from Elaine’s insightful guidance as we explore extracts of Behn’s work and consider her oeuvre in the context of the political situation in England during her lifetime.

1. Aphra Behn lived during the 1600s in England, a period in which the English Civil Wars were fought, 1642-1651, pitting those in support of the crown against those who wanted parliamentary rule. The king, Charles I, was executed, his son, Charles II went into exile, and Britain was turned into a commonwealth for a time, governed by Oliver Cromwell. The English monarchy was restored in 1661 when Charles II came out of exile to take the throne and reign over England, Scotland, and Ireland. This period is known as the Restoration era. Behn was born in 1640 and died in 1689 at the age of 40, so her life spanned both these turbulent political periods. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that Behn may have married one Johann Behn, but soon they either separated or he died. She kept the surname Behn for the rest of her life. She is buried in Westminster Abbey.

2. At one point in her life, Aphra Behn was a spy for King Charles II, working to support the monarch in his ongoing conflicts with the Dutch. She wrote letters to the king’s administrators detailing her missions and the expenses she incurred. The National Archives in the UK holds 19 of the letters she wrote as a spy; we read one of these missives in class. In this letter we learned that she was sent to Antwerp, Belgium, specifically to meet William Scot, an English soldier living abroad, to convince him to act as an agent for Charles II. We also learned that she quickly spent the money she was given for the trip, and despite repeated entreaties for more money to cover her many expenses, it took some time before she received the funds she needed to return home. I thought this was astonishing for a woman to travel alone, especially as a spy, at a time when women’s lives were rigidly controlled by societal strictures and mores. But Elaine said that other women served as spies as well, and that women could often pass unnoticed and were therefore freer to undertake such work. Learn more about this from this excellent video (featuring Elaine Hobby) put out by the National Archives and this 2017 article in the Smithsonian.

3. When Behn returned to England for good, she started to make her living from writing, as a way to stave off debtor’s prison. She quickly established herself as a great wit, as her plays, many of them comedies, were staged throughout London to great acclaim. She also wrote poems, short stories, novels, and translated works from French into English. She was prolific: overall she wrote around 18 plays, four novels, three short stories, and collections of poetry, as well. She signed her name as A. Behn throughout her writing career. It’s interesting to note that female authors who came after her, and I’m thinking especially of the Brontë sisters writing a century and a half later, used male pseudonyms to disguise the fact that their works were authored by women. So I really admire Behn’s insistence that she be afforded recognition for her gender and her work.

4. Many of Behn’s plays are considered to be bawdy, a word I have often seen used to describe her work, as she didn’t flinch at describing female sexual pleasure. But she also focused on the plight of women—she wrote equally of prostitutes, courtesans, and aristocratic women and was sensitive to their efforts to survive amid male inconstancy. Here she can be quite clever with her characterization: female characters are often plotting against their male counterparts, something easily achieved when the men are all besotted with pursuing beauty and the female form and often don’t realize they’re being deceived. One particular ingenious tactic is found in the prologue to her play The Forc'd Marriage. Elaine Hobby explained to us that before each play, it was customary for a male actor to appear on the stage to deliver the prologue to instruct the audience before the play started. In The Forc'd Marriage, while a male actor is reading out the prologue, a female actor appears and interrupts him and finishes the prologue. I think this rather nicely represents what Behn does in all of her writing: a female perspective interrupts and takes over the all too commonplace, prevalent male perspective in the world of letters. She very intentionally gives the female perspective a dominant role in her works and in doing so, upends the traditional male view and the traditional male gaze.

4. I had never read any of Behn’s works before this class. Each week we read excerpts from several of her poems, short stories, novels, and plays. My favorite is perhaps the excerpt we read from The Emperor of the Moon—both for its comedy and for its ingenious invention of being able to bring people onto the stage at one point in “flying machines.” The storyline is briefly this: Dr. Baliardo knows that his daughter and niece are in love with two young men of whom he doesn’t approve. He is greatly intrigued by the moon and believes there is a civilization there, and he wishes his daughter and niece to marry the emperor and the prince of the moon. His daughter and niece dupe him into thinking that their earth-bound beloveds are in fact the emperor and the prince of the moon, and he approves of the unions. This kind of duplicity was not new to drama—after all, Shakespeare wrote of many farcical episodes where men and women freely deceived each other in order to manipulate the outcome that they hoped for with the person they loved. What Behn does differently I believe is this: she positions the women in her stories to be the smarter protagonists, and because the men are so controlled by their lust, or they are gullible like Dr. Baliardo, they don’t realize they are being deceived. Again, Behn bends her stories to empower her female characters to manipulate this casual behavior of men in order to attain some control over the eternal love conundrum.

5. In 1696, seven years after her death, a collection of her work entitled The Histories and Novels, Of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn, in One Volume was published. Elaine notes that recent scholarship questions the authorship of some of these pieces; she says that some of the pieces don’t carry Behn’s signature plotting and wit. Elaine also told us that she doesn’t believe that Behn wrote the “Memoirs” included in this collection, and instead attributes this to someone else entirely. Released in numerous editions over the years, once the errors in attribution were made, they unfortunately became established in the canon.

6. Some of these inaccuracies are now being corrected with new scholarship; there is an incredible depth of recent scholarship about Behn that continues to grow and which illuminates her work and her life, thanks to Elaine Hobby and other academics and historians studying the 17th century and the Restoration era in particular in England. Elaine has an extensive bibliography of texts she has authored that examine literature of the 17th century in England and the contribution of women writers at this time. Currently she is at work, with a number of colleagues, on a critical compendium of Aphra Behn that Cambridge University Press is publishing. Aphra Behn: Volume 4: The Plays 1682-1696 is the first volume to have been issued; it covers the last of her plays to be published and performed, obviously some of them posthumously.

7. A quick Google search turns up some tantalizing finds of Behn’s work being staged today. The Emperor of the Moon seems to be a popular story for modern audiences, as well as The Rover, perhaps her most respected play, about men and women in Naples enjoying carnival together. Some theatre companies produce plays about Aphra Behn herself.

Engraving by Robert White based on a portrait of Behn by John Riley, 1684.


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