Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea

The Inspiration and Legend of Aphra Behn

Figure 1 Aphra Behn 1640-1689 The first female to make a living as an author/ playwright.

You may have never heard of her, but the career of Aphra Behn was a turning point in the history of female authors. Although there were many female poets before Behn, there were none that relied solely on the income from their work to provide for themselves. Behn  lived a mysterious life as a widow, writer, poet, playwright and spy. After her husband died she decided she did not need to rely on marrying again to make a life for herself, but instead decided to make her own career. This was unheard of for a woman of her time! But Behn successfully wrote many plays and lived off of the money she earned from them.

Often thought of as lewd and scandalous, women today are still thankful that Behn broke boundaries restricting women. Virginia Woolf states in her essay, A Room of One’s Own, “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.” So according to Woolf, Aphra Behn is responsible for earning all women the right to speak for themselves. This is a huge credit to give just one woman, especially coming from another inspirational woman herself, Woolf.

Figure 2 The grave of Aphra Behn outside of Westminster Abbey. She was honored enough to be buried outside of the abbey, but not enough to be buried inside like her male equivalents.

With works such as Oronooko, which is often thought of as the first English novel, Behn firmly placed her make on English Literature. But along with that mark there came jealous and sexist criticism because she was a woman. Her poem “The Disappointment” and play The Dutch Lover, depicted sexual scenes that shocked the public because women were not supposed to think about such things! Alexander Pope, wrote in Imitations of Horace, “The stage how loosely does Astræea tread Who fairly puts all characters to bed.” Astræea was the nickname Behn gave herself while working for King Charles II in Antwerp. In this quote, Pope is saying that Behn is loose on her morals, and cheapens her works by putting all of her characters to bed.

Despite the harsh criticism, Behn continued to write until her death in 1689. She was often treated unfairly, jailed for debt and sometimes never compensated for her work. Whether or not Behn had set out to do it, she paved a path for all women to speak their mind. Although her work has been swept under the rug over the centuries, academics have and will continue to uncover the details of Behn’s life and pass her legend on to future generations.

By Nicole Looper –  6 December 2013

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This entry was posted on December 6, 2013 by in Aphra Behn, Restoration.
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