Daily Archives: March 11, 2013

Our Friend Behn

File:Aphra Behn by Peter Lely R.jpg

“One hour of right-down love is worth an age of dully living on.” Aphra Behn


Aphra Behn was the first woman to make a living by writing in the English language.  As it is Women’s History Month, and this is a library blog, it’s only right that we salute the saucy and enigmatic mother of English writing.

Top Ten Reasons Why Aphra Behn Pretty Much Rules

  1. She was a spy!  Aphra’s early life is unknown, but we do know that she spent some years in her 20s as a spy for Charles II in Antwerp.  What a great way to inform your writing!  Another great way to inform your writing is to find yourself in debtors’ prison, because you paid your spy expenses out of pocket, on promise from the king that he would repay you.  The king never repaid Aphra, and indeed she was imprisoned.  Way to look out for a lady patriot, Charles II!
  2. She was practical!  Like many other notable women (consider J.K. Rowling),  Aphra Behn’s road to legendary status began by simply trying to pay her bills.  She started writing to dig herself out of debt.
  3. She remains mysterious! Little is known about Aphra Behn’s origins, and many details of her life are intriguingly uncertain.  Was she Catholic?  Yikes!  It’s no fun to be Catholic in Restoration England.  Did she live in Venezuela for a time?  Or did she just fake it so she could write Oroonoko?   We can’t know for sure.  It is also believed that she may have even faked a marriage, to earn herself some credibility.
  4. She was scandalous!  Madonna wasn’t the first female artist accused of lasciviousness.  This Restoration writer had to take jabs from her male contemporaries, but she didn’t let that stop her!  Alexander Pope wrote: “The stage how loosely does Astræea (Aprha’s pen name) tread/Who fairly puts all characters to bed.” Essentially, Pope called Ms. Behn a loose woman.
  5. She was open about sex! Despite such insults from Pope, Aphra Behn wrote poems, plays, and proto-novels that directly addressed sexuality from a women’s perspective.  For example,  in “The Disappointment,” she quite candidly describes a particular encounter that left much to be desired for the woman in question. 
  6. She was really open about sex! Behn even went beyond the hetero-normative norm. The poem, “To the Fair Clarinda,” is one such example, and the meaning  has been debated to death in academia.  Is it about lesbian love?  Gender-bending?  Decide for yourself.
  7. Other writers loved her too! Virginia Woolf extolled her virtues. “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” — Virigina Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.
  8. She was a comic!  You’re welcome, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler!  Aphra Behn was most successful when writing light comedies such as The Rover.  Her plays contained such zingers as :”patience is a flatterer, sir, and an ass, sir,” and “there is no sinner like a young saint.”
  9. Despite all the controversy in her life, she went and got herself a proper burial!  Aphra is buried in Westminster Abbey, with the epitaph: “Here lies proof that wit can never be defense enough against morality.”  Who wouldn’t want that on their gravestone?
  10. She was a woman who wrote women as complex beings.  When we talk about literature, or art, we often bemoan that fact that representations of women are incomplete.  Aphra Behn is proof that there are definitely (fun!) exceptions to this rule.

Happy Women’s History Month!



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