Who was Aphra Behn? The name has passed by me in literary period histories numerous times, and I’ve always thought, “Oh, yes, research for a more convenient time. I’ll have to look her up some day. Important and groundbreaking woman writer, you say? (What an unusual name!). Yes, I guess I’ll have to read her sooner or later.” Perhaps the best brief information which I can supply that simultaneously informs and tantalizes the reader comes from Wikipedia sources, for all the blurb on the book says is that she was “a Restoration poet, novelist, playwright, feminist and spy, considered by many to be the first English professional female writer.” And as the reader may or may not know, she wrote the first epistolary novel, Love-Letters Between A Nobleman and His Sister, decades before Samuel Richardson first wrote (and got first credit for) his three epistolary novels. To quote some tidbits from Wikipedia for convenience’s sake: Aphra Behn was a contributor largely to the “amatory fiction genre of British literature.” She and two other writers even less famous by name (Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood) were referred to as “the fair triumvirate of wit.” But all of Behn’s fame, such as it is, is constituted around her adult life: her early life is more or less a mystery, and features parents of the names of Cooper, or Johnson, or Amis, or Johnston. One certain fact is that she had some relation to Francis, Lord Willoughby, who was responsible for her real or imagined family trip to Surinam, which trip provoked her most famous work, a novel, Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave. In 1664, she had a short-lived marriage to Johann Behn, a man of German or Dutch extraction. She may or may not have been Catholic (she said at one point that she was meant to be a nun), but she was definitely a Stuart monarchist and Tory supporter when the parties Tory and Whig emerged. A bit later, she was drafted as a spy for Charles II to Antwerp, her code name being Astraea, which she also published under afterwards. Charles, however, didn’t pay his spy, and she was forced to borrow money to return home, where she was placed in a debtor’s prison until an unidentified benefactor in 1669 bailed her out. After this, she wrote as a scribe for the King’s Company, and from 1670-1689 crafted plays, novels, poems, pamphlets, and one translation of a French popular astronomy guide. She died on April 16, 1689 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Though her writings were disdained as improper during the Victorian era, during the 20th century and since, she has been seen as an important feminist influence and writer upon such issues as slavery, race, gender roles, and sexual desire (sometimes including same-sex groupings and a staple of her own time, transvestitism on the stage). Now to qualify and expand these remarks with some of my own and others’, based upon three different genres of her writing which I myself read.
Lest you run away with the idea that she is easy to read, be warned: her writing is full of errors of various kinds, not excluding errors of fact regarding racial and ethnic issues and misspellings and words capitalized for emphasis which we no longer treat so in modern English. In fact, the modern reader would probably find Shakepeare, an earlier writer, easier to read because he has been so modernized in most versions in print. Nevertheless, I chose to read “The Unfortunate Happy Lady: A True History” (a sort of early short story before the form existed formally, in which the paradox in the title is carried out in the fiction); “The Younger Brother; or The Amorous Jilt” (a Restoration comic play, one of her best known, played for the first time posthumously); and her novel Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave. The three different forms, though each example has its faults of writing, show the width of her life experience and sources of reference, and the ease with which she was able to enter into others’ experiences. I will deal with each briefly here, just to give the reader whose curiosity has been whetted by this strange writer a taste of what she could do.
In “The Unfortunate Happy Lady,” Behn writes a story with a happy ending (I’m not giving you much of a spoiler here, since she herself prevaricates with one in her title). This concerns a daughter of a family who, her fortunes being left in the care of her dishonest brother, finds herself put by this brother in a bawdy house where she is deprived of her share of the family fortune and left to work out her own compromise with the powers that be. That’s the unfortunate part of her “history,” though many people might take leave to doubt, by the time they finish the storybook ending, that it’s actually a “true history.” The lady has good luck, however, because the very first of her intended seducers is a gentleman (and this bit requires that one imagine a gentleman to be a single gentle man who yet might visit a bawdy house and still be a good person, not I suppose the absolute widest stretch of the imagination). He chases her around the room for a bit but then condescends to hear her story, whereupon he becomes less inflamed with passion and more inflamed with moral outrage that her brother could treat her so (this provides an interesting psychological link, for those concerned to follow it up where it leads, between moral outrage and envy at someone else’s moral freedom from restraint, a link which Freud must surely have mentioned in conjunction with judges and Pharisees somewhere in his works!). I found this story mildly enjoyable, and it was certainly the shortest work of the three, and supplied the fewest stops and halts for the reading eye trying to penetrate anachronisms in language.
The second piece I read (and I’m persuaded that had I seen a production of it it would have fared better in my judgement) was the play, “The Younger Brother; or, The Amorous Jilt.” This piece exasperated my patience, but not perhaps by its own fault. I simply have read too many other and better bits of Restoration playwrighting which are easier and less exhausting to read. In this piece on nearly every page there is an aside by one character or another, first of all. Then, there is a proliferation of characters in disguise so eagerly thrown off repeatedly that it’s hard to take up the readers’ “willing suspension of disbelief” and agree to the fiction that others on stage didn’t know who they were when they were in others’ clothes. Finally, the characters one and all seem to be visited with a kind of casual attitude towards standards of faith and piety of various kinds, not just the “amorous jilt” Mirtilla, but all, even the parent who repeatedly tries to run one son through with a sword and at one point or other wants to disinherit both sons. It’s a fine excursion into the staples and set pieces and stereotypical actions of Restoration comedy, but it has rather the nature of an imitation of too many plays watched in too rapid succession one after the other, and none of them very original. It’s again mildly amusing.
Where Behn has her greatest success among the three works I examined is with the novel Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave (and I note that these were the only three I had time for in my review of famous women precursors, which I took up a week or so ago with Colette, and which I will continue with Mrs. Gaskell next). I would first caution the reader of my post to be aware that fashions in political awareness and humanity, like fashions of any kind, age and date, and Aphra Behn was for her time a relatively keen enthusiast of a movement to end slavery. Her sympathy was many times expressed outright, and moreover the entire slant of her novel was bent toward showing the outrageously unfair and inhumane treatment of one slave in particular. Nevertheless, in the book the nobility of this slave in character terms was tied to his being royal in lineage terms, a caste preference, and she several times seems to be siding with the white colonists in their fear of their black slaves and the native Americans with whom they also have dealings. The Africans and native Americans are judged to be beautiful or the reverse often according to how close they come to white standards of beautiful limbs and features, though Behn often comments on the attractiveness of these peoples, “except for” whatever characteristic she finds objectionable. This is per the writings of her times by other commentators as well, and I suppose that it’s possible that the Africans and native Americans were thinking similar thoughts in reverse, that is, finding the white colonists appealing or the opposite according to native standards of beauty. The ending is tragic, as of course it had to be, for she was seemingly unable to concede a victory against the white colonists by a slave revolt, though some revolts in history were successful at establishing black colonies elsewhere that were independent of the white colonists and their control. That is to say, the only way to control white sympathy for her main black character, the prince Oroonoko, was at the time to have him die heroically in vastly outnumbered conditions, in a brutal and repugnant sacrifice of the prince at the stake which, if it is true, is as horrific if not more so than many lynchings in the later established American South. My best advice for the reader who wants to penetrate this book to its depths is to get a copy of the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Joanna Lipking; this edition has numerous essays and fragments of accounts of the time which add to the experience of the fiction itself, a short novel of only about sixty-five pages.
And this concludes my perhaps too brief and first encounter and my introduction for you of Aphra Behn, a remarkable woman in anyone’s terms, more than 324 years after she herself passed out of this world. While I cannot say I liked her without reservation, I can without restriction say that it has enriched my knowledge of people and of literature to have read her. I hope you will cast among her works for some that suit you (and there are many) and be equally surprised and provoked to thought.