Aphra Behn

'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', wrote Virginia Wolf. Yet Aphra Behn lived in the 17th century, during the self same period as Samuel Pepys.

She made no reference to her own date of birth (circa 1640) or to her family name (although 'Johnson' has been suggested) and  nothing is known of her husband, Behn. Yet this outspoken playwright and novelist from East Kent, seems to have been one of the first of English women to prepare the way not only for women's rights, but for the right of freedom in general.

She was probably brought up as a Catholic and educated in a convent in France, for she was fluent in French and made many translations from French into English. She hated hypocrisy and was very much against the bondage of arranged marriages for wealth and status, which her first play 'The Forced Marriage' fully exposes.
During the trade war (1665) with the Dutch, she was sent to Holland to spy for King Charles II, but as it seems she was never requited for her services, she produced her first plays in 1670, "forced to write for bread, and not ashamed to own it", she declared.

She boldly countered her many critics for she was often targeted for her liberal and royalist opinions. At one time she was even arrested for 'abusive reflections' regarding the king's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth (who was a Whig thus also subject to satire which would include her own).
She courageously expressed her opinions openly on religion, science and philosophy, as a women, and expounded her views on the natural force of love, in contrast to the meaningless, conventional rules of society of the XVII century. She even expressed the sexual feelings of women and their need for, and right to, true love. Her male critics denounced this as 'coarse and impure'.

She was also totally against slavery, and this long before the slave trade had ever reached it's peak, yet her novel 'Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave' was destined to outlive her and continue to greatly influence public opinion against slavery in general.

'Oroonoko' was an African prince hero. He was very handsome, courageous and cultivated, speaking several languages, yet he was treacherously enslaved himself, with the woman he loved, and was to die a horrible death through torture.
Aphra Behn wrote 'Oroonoko' as if she were an observer to what was taking place. Perhaps it is based on fact. In any case it's probable that she spent some time in Suriname where much of the story took place, before the country was taken over by the Dutch.
It's a story of loathsome treachery, showing up the hateful hypocrisy of the kind of Europeans who were (and perhaps still are) convinced that their education, religion, and what they consider to be their 'advanced civilised status', gives them vast superiority and unlimited rights over African natives.

Here's a short, but revealing excerpt:

'(...) They are extreme modest and bashful, very shy and nice of being touched. And though they are all thus naked, if one lives forever among 'em there is not to be seen an indecent action or glance; and being continually used to see one another so unadorned, so like our first parents before the Fall, it seems as if they had no wishes; there being nothing to heighten curiosity, but all you can see you see at once, and every moment see, and where there is no novelty there can be no curiosity. Not but I have seen a handsome young Indian dying for love of a very beautiful young Indian maid; but all his courtship was to fold his arms, pursue her with his eyes, and sighs were all his language; while she, as if no such lover were present, or rather, as if she desired none such, carefully guarded her eyes from beholding him, and never approached him but she looked down with all the blushing modesty I have seen in the most severe and cautious of our world. And these people represented to me an absolute ideal of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin. And 'tis most evident and plain that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive, and virtuous mistress. 'Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world than all the inventions of man. Religion would here but destroy that tranquillity they possess by ignorance, and laws would but teach 'em to know offence, of which now they have no notion. (...)
They have a native justice which knows no fraud, and they understand no vice or cunning, but when they are taught by the white men. (...)'

Aphra Behn may be less known than other writers of her time, such as John Dryden, but as a 'female pen' she is certainly to England's credit. And it's also to England's credit that when she died in 1689, she was buried in Westminster Abbey.

  Text © Mirino (PW). Source- (with thanks) The Norton Anthology English Literature. March, 2010


rob said...

What an interesting woman she was! Thanks for sharing!

Mirino said...

Thank you Rob, yes, I also thought it appropriate for 'le Jour de la femme'.

A hundred years after Behn's death, the popular writer Hannah Moore referred to the work 'Oroonoko' (which was reprinted, translated, dramatised, imitated and certainly effective in the long battle against the slave trade) :

"No individual griefs my bosom melt,
For millions feel what Oroonoko felt'

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that women identify more with such cruel injustice, for they were (and of course still are in certain Muslim communities) victims of injustice themselves.

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