Meet the Spy Turned Writer: Aphra Behn

By on Oct 1, 2017 in Glimpse at History | 0 comments

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Aphra Behn’s early life and career is largely shrouded in mystery. However, whatever little is known about her sounds quite fascinating and would seem unbelievable to a lot of people in this age as well. A women who not only wrote for money in the seventeenth century England but was also professionally successful and also part of public gossips and scandals. Before her death in 1689, Aphra Behn had profusely contributed to all literary forms – plays, poems, fictions, etc. Aphra Behn - First English Female Playwrighter

Yet a series of factors contributed to her emergence and acceptance as a writer. England in the 17th century was going through a series of political and social upheavals. The first civil war and subsequent public execution of Charles I in 1649 had almost marked the end of monarchy. Oliver Cromwell and his Republican regime in the years coming ahead were particularly severe on any form of public entertainment such as theaters which were seen as den of vices and immorality by the fervent Puritan sect. Many popular theaters were either shut down or burnt.

However, in 1660 with the restoration of monarchy and Charles II attempt to revive aristocratic culture, playwrights and artists again found themselves in favor. Aphra Behn entered the literary scene in these circumstances. Although much of her life remains unknown, she is believed to have traveled to Suriname in 1650s. As per the general speculation, her father was a barber. It is perhaps her modest background which allowed her access to world of socio-cultural excesses since for a noble ‘women of virtue’ this transgression would have been beyond imagination.

Aphra Behn’s wit and talent brought her immediate recognition. Moreover, her staunch royalist attitude along with firm belief in monarch’s undisputed power brought her close to influential people. Charles II send her as a spy in Antwerp in Netherlands. She was living under the pseudonym of Astrea and her main task was to engage William Scot, son of former regicide Thomas Scot who was executed in 1660.

However, her services went completely unpaid and she quickly ran into huge debt. Aphra Behn somehow managed to return to England with the help of her friends but upon her return to London she was imprisoned for debt. After she came out of prison, Behn started supporting herself as writer. Aphra Behn's Return to England

She initially wrote poetry and worked as a scribe for King’s Company and Duke’s Company. Her first three plays, “The Forc’d Marriage”, “The Amorous Prince” and “The Dutch Lover” didn’t enjoy any success in the box office. After a brief pause of couple of years, Aphra Behn returned to the literary scene. She started writing comic plays and her two plays, “The Rover” (written in two parts) and “Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister” brought her commercial success.

Apart from her plays, Behn’s most well known work in the area of fiction is her short novel, “Oroonoko”. The novel touches upon the complex themes of race and slavery. It is based upon the story of enslaved African Prince by the same name whom Aphra Behn claims to have known in Venezuela (this fact is historically not established). Besides, other things, “Oroonoko” can also be seen as an early predecessor of the English novels.

Aphra Behn’s writing was often seen as bawdy and debauched by the literary critics of the age. However, her wit and celebration of life in her plays and other literary works made her quite famous. One reason perhaps for the harsh criticism she received from literary coterie is her support of crown and feudal system which the progressives of the age felt was a deterring factor in her works as well. In spite of her criticism, Aphra Behn was one of most prolific writers of the age and even received respect from fellow authors like poet laureate John Dryden.

The Victorian writers also looked down upon her. They felt that her works are based upon “loose morals” and “low humor”, designed to cater to low and middle classes. Even other women writers and critics such as Julia Kavanagh have called her a”disgrace” who wrote in the style of a male author to gain fame and money.

Virginia Woolf is arguably the first female author to recognize and accept the legacy and contribution of Aphra Behn in the rise of female writing in English literature. In her renowned novel, “A Room of One’s Own”, Woolf emphatically acclaims,

“All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds…”

Modern critics and contemporary writers share a mixed response to Aphra Behn’s work. However, there is hardly and doubt that she was one of the most successful commercial playwright and writer of the restoration age even though she spent the last few years of her life in penury and sickness.

Aphra Behn was not only witty and quite explicit in her use of sexual overtones but also very aware of the vulnerable position of women and transactional nature of relationship between man and woman. In her play “The Rover”, the two female protagonists, Florinda and Hellena. Florinda, the virtuous one, is always vulnerable and constantly in danger of being ravished by the male counterparts. Don Pedro, brother of Hellena and Florinda wants to dispose off both sisters to keep the entire family estate to himself.

Hellena is in complete contrast to her sister. She despises the life of nun designed by her brother for him to gain control of her property. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to go down the way of a cheap prostitute, symbolized by the courtesan Angeliica Bianca. She is full of life and vitality like Behn herself. Even though she is attracted to Willmore (hero of the play), she clearly dismisses his sexual advances –

“And if you do not lose, what shall I get? A Cradle full of Noise and Mischief, with a Pack of Repentance at my Back?…”

Aphra Behn was herself dismissive of the two models available for the women of her age – Virtuous Nun and Prostitute. She herself set new standards as one of the first professional writers and crossed the boundary from private to public sphere which was till then a taboo for women. Her legacy continued with 19th century female novelists and writers like Jane Austen, Bronte Sisters, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning who enjoyed both fame and professional success.

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