Aphra Behn was an eccentric, wise woman who was well ahead of her times of 17th Century England. She had quite a sumptuous career before she started writing: she was a spy for England but when King Charles II didn’t pay her for her work in Antwerp, she got sent to debtor’s prison.
Not one to feel victimized and “stuck” in prison, Mrs. Behn (she was married for perhaps a year to Mr. Behn before he died) started writing plays while there. Upon her release she officially became the first professional woman writer in English literature. Some may argue other women wrote before her, but she was the first independent woman to write who actually worked in order to make her living.
Aphra’s first literary success was for the plays she wrote.
Her dream, though was to be remembered for her poetry. Instead, her plays and her novella, Oroonoko, are now considered her most important and influential work. Oroonoko was a story of an enslaved African prince. It is now considered an important beginning to the development of the English novel.
She had quick success in The
in1670. It was an immediate success – well loved and made Behn a financially
successful woman as well. It was
followed in 1671 by The Amorous Prince.
Five of her plays were produced in the next five years
Her biggest financial success came next, via The Rover which was produced in 1677. Nell Gwyn, the famed actress and mistress to King Charles II, came out of retirement to play the role of the whore, Angelica Bianca ('white angel'). The Duke of York (he later became King James II) was another fan of the play.
As Aphra continued to write, her plays became more and more sexual in tone and she was even more gossiped about in the papers and in the circles who tittered and gasped yet somehow continued to support her productions. I wonder if they wore costumes so as not to be seen? Women involved in the theater were also rumored to have a second career in the world’s oldest profession, so she was fighting a battle on several sides.
Playwright Robert Gould wrote of Aphra and other women writers "Punk and Poetess agree so Pat,/ You cannot well be This, and not be That.” The pious Alexander Pope said, “The stage how loosely does Astræea tread/ Who fairly puts all characters to bed.”
Her book of poetry, Poems Upon Several Occasions, was published in 1684. She continued to become more and more successful until her death . She was laid to rest after her death on April 16, 1689 in the Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey. I think this would have made the baudy, over the top, fun loving Aphra very, very happy.
Centuries later, Virginia Woolf further eulogized her, writing:
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.
This post is the first of 26 in a series I will be writing and sharing in April,2013.
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