“The play had no other Misfortune but that of coming out for a Womans: had it been owned by a Man, though the most Dull Unthinking Rascally Scribler in Town, it had been a most admirable Play. Nor does it’s loss of Fame with the Ladies do it much hurt, though they ought to have had good Nature and justice enough to have attributed all its faults to the authours unhappiness, who is forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.”
— Aphra Behn (1678)
“There are strong marks of Genius in all this lady’s works, but unhappily, there are some parts of them, very improper to be read by, or recommended to virtuous minds, and especially to youth. She wrote in an age, and to a court of licentious manners, and perhaps we ought to ascribe to those causes the loose turn of her stories. Let us do justice to her merits, and cast the veil of compassion over her faults.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)
“Mrs Behn wrote foully; and this for most of us, and very properly, is an end of the whole discussion.”
— William Henry Hudson (1867)
“We cannot but admire the courage of this lonely woman who, poor and friendless, was the first in England to turn to the pen for her livelihood, and not only won herself bread but no mean position in the world of her day and English literature of all time.”
— Montague Summers (1915)
“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.”
— Virginia Woolf (1928)
“Without a knowledge of Aphra Behn’s work our conception of English literary history is incomplete. Her place can’t be filled by anyone else. There remains quite simply a gap and, without Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister in particular, we are led to suppose that the eighteenth-century novel sprang unmothered from the thigh of Robinson Crusoe.”
— Maureen Duffy (1986)
There are, of course, any number of quotes I could have used to illustrate the changing fortunes of Aphra Behn, but these for one reason or another caught my eye. Clara Reeve encapsulates for us the growing divide between Behn’s writing and her reputation, while speaking late in the 19th century, William Henry Hudson gives us Behn at her nadir, her writing so “foul” neither it nor she warrants discussion. It was Montague Summers via his study of Restoration drama who began to rehabilitate Behn’s reputation, but although he edited and reissued her works, he seems like Virginia Woolf to have been as interested in the woman as in the writer. Indeed, for Woolf, all that really mattered was Behn’s position as a professional female writer: what she wrote was far less important than the fact that she wrote at all.
Half a century later, Behn had become a powerful symbol for feminist academia, a rebuttal to the entrenched male-centric view of the evolution of the novel, with its mulish insistence upon Defoe or Richardson or Fielding as “the” father of the novel. (Maureen Duffy’s choice of the tart term “unmothered” speaks for itself.) Today, so charged is the idea of Aphra Behn that there is occasionally some difficulty in shifting the mounds of baggage to one side, in order look at her writing upon its own merits.
I stress, “shift”, not “dispose of”: we certainly do not want to lose sight of the historical importance of Aphra Behn, whose self-carved career was quite unique, and whose belated foray into fiction would prove enormously influential in the direction taken by subsequent English prose writers. Although Behn had few if any role models, she would be an inspiration for two succeeding generations of female writers, poets and novelists in particular; until the tightening morals of the 17th century made Behn and her followers personae non gratae; and even then, when she herself became almost literally unmentionable, Behn’s writing continued to exert its influence.
I don’t intend here to get into Aphra Behn’s biography: that job’s been done, and done well. Janet Todd’s comprehensive work was preceded by Maureen Duffy’s breakthrough 1977 study, The Passionate Shepherdess, and by Angeline Goreau’s Reconstructing Aphra, from 1980; while numerous other works discuss her life and works. Instead, we’ll be confining ourselves to the historical, social and literary forces that prompted Behn, a poet by choice and a playwright by need, to begin writing fiction.
When Charles II reopened the London theatres at the beginning of the Restoration, two dramatic companies divided the audience and the spoils: the King’s Company, which produced predominantly established plays; and the Duke’s company, which focused upon new works. Naturally, it was to the latter that Aphra Behn attached herself in the late 1660s. Her first play staged was The Forc’d Marriage, produced in 1670. From there, Behn had regular successes for over a decade – mixed with a few failures – while she also gained a reputation as a poet and expanded her circle of literary and artistic acquaintances. At the same time, the personal attacks upon her gained force and virulence, and Behn expended much energy in (largely justifiable) complaints that she was condemned for “immorality” for material that, had it been written by a man, would have passed without comment. Throughout her writing career, there was an ambivalence about Aphra Behn’s attitude to her own professional standing that showed itself in her need to prove that she could “mix it with the boys”, while remaining acutely sensitive to, and desiring recognition for, her position as a female writer.
Behn’s social origins are murky at best, but it does not seem that she could have been more than middle-class by birth, and was very likely less. Throughout her personal and professional life she exhibited royalist / Tory tendencies combined with a healthy contempt for “the mob”: a stance that probably reflected her simultaneous effort to distance herself from an unsatisfactory past while, in effect, writing herself into a new existence. It was certainly also part of an attempt to get a foot in the door at court. Behn never did quite manage this, although she became a friend and collaborator of the Earl of Rochester, and was much admired by John Dryden. She had no particular religious feeling; her adherence to monarchy had nothing “divine” about it; she believed, rather, in the desirability of a central authority. However, as with many royalists of the time, we imagine, Behn’s theories about monarchy had to survive the reality of Charles; particularly in the wake of her unhappy experiences as an agent for his government.
Behn’s most successful play was The Rover, first produced in 1677. It became a favourite not just with London audiences in general, but at court – and particularly with the Duke of York, who met with Behn after seeing it and praised her work. This encounter seems to have left Behn quite star-struck, and it is from this time that we can date her increased willingness to take a political stance in her writing. Two of Behn’s more successful plays from this period, 1681’s The Roundheads and 1682’s The City Heiress, support royalism and the legitimate monarchy, which as so often in the Tory works of this time is presented as ludicrously virtuous, while suggesting that interference with natural succession and other Whiggish notions will inevitably lead to disaster. The former went so far as to equate the Exclusionists with the rebels of the 1640s.
It is important to realise, however, that over the course of the turbulent decade following the “revelation” of the Popish Plot, and in particular through the events of the Exclusion Crisis, Behn’s primary loyalty was not to Charles, but to James. This explains her increasing hostility towards the Duke of Monmouth – which, however James might have felt about it, Charles certainly did not appreciate. Behn’s new political persona saw her invited to write the prologue and epilogue for a play called Romulus And Hersilia, and in the wake of the dismissal of the charges of high treason against the Earl of Shaftesbury, she let rip. Her prologue attacked the Whigs in general, while her epilogue focused on Monmouth. As a consequence, both Behn and the actress speaking the lines were arrested and asked to “show cause”. There were no further consequences, however, so presumably Charles meant nothing more than to give Behn a good dissuasive scare. It didn’t entirely work, as we shall see, but it did make her change her tactics.
This turn of events is often given as the reason Aphra Behn as good as stopped writing plays, but in fact the political situation that gave Behn her last dramatic successes was about to overwhelm her career. Audiences that had flocked to the theatre in the early Restoration to celebrate the depoliciticising of entertainment began to dwindle in the late 1670s as religious and political division again became rife. During this period, the King’s Company was also mismanaged; and in 1682, a decision was made to merge the King’s and the Duke’s into the single United Company, with the former management of the Duke’s in charge. Despite this, probably for pragmatic reasons, the new company adopted the King’s philosophy of staging predominantly classic and established plays. Very few new plays were commissioned, and a great many playwrights, Aphra Behn among them, were left with little prospect of being able to earn their living in that direction. As a fulltime professional, Behn had little choice but to look for alternative sources of revenue. The poetry she had always favoured was not very remunerative, and nor were translations, but she worked at both of these. Another possibility was fiction.
Behn was a reader as well as a writer, of European texts as well as English. She was familiar with the market and knew that, in fiction as in drama, sex sold. The apolitical plays she staged prior to The Roundheads had failed: people wanted political material. Yet political material could be dangerous, even if favouring the “right” side, as Behn had learned the hard way.
Behn’s literary solution to her dilemma was nothing short of a stroke of genius, one which drew heavily upon existing forms and texts yet created an identity all of its own. Published letters were an established genre even before the success of The Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, which were translated into English in 1678. Whether real or fictional, these impassioned letters, focused upon the emotions of the writer to the exclusion of all else, were a literary revelation. Behn took her cue from them but went them one better, using letters to show both sides of an illicit love affair. In doing so she created a new form of fiction, the epistolary novel, which would dominate English prose writing throughout the 18th century.
But Behn didn’t stop there. Melded with the story told via letters, which provided the reader with plenty of sex, is a healthy dose of politics. In this, Behn resorted to the use of another established literary form, the roman à clef. In the 16th and much of the 17th century, this “disguised” form of writing was a means of examining great issues: of analysing, and criticising, nations, governments, peoples, mores; but as the 17th century wore on this form became increasingly a means of expressing a particular political viewpoint, or criticising a particular person – or exploiting a particular scandal – and of doing so more or less with impunity.
While many of these romans à clef strike us today as ludicrously transparent, as well as outrageous in content, there was apparently some kind of arrangement in place, at least a tacit one, that protected the booksellers and authors responsible for these works from legal repercussions, as long as all concerned adhered to the convention of pretending they were talking about “somewhere else”. During the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis in particular, as we have seen, in this way the most incredible accusations were thrown variously at the king and his court (and his brother), and at the enemies of the king and his court (and his brother), apparently without consequence.
And again, Aphra Behn took note. She was nervous about her new venture – which would finally be published anonymously, just in case – and the prospect of being somehow “protected” by employing a particular form of writing was naturally attractive. Behn’s work would eventually stretch to three volumes, of which only the first is in the classic epistolary form; but in its entirety, it is a roman à clef, the re-telling of a story that had scandalised the whole of England through the years 1682 – 1863, and which (no doubt to Behn’s eventual delight) would erupt again in 1685. As material for her first published attempt at prose, the story must have seemed to Behn almost too good to be true, offering illicit – and illegal – sex, outrageous doings amongst the aristocracy, and the opportunity to launch a scathing attack upon the enemies of the Stuart monarchy. Early in 1684, Aphra Behn published the first part of what is now widely regarded as the first true “modern” novel, Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister.
[To be continued…]