I recently posted about the lack of female authors in the Canon of Great Literature. After I posted it, someone suggested Aphra Behn to me. It was a name I was vaguely familiar with but someone I knew little about. As it turns out, Behn is a fascinating character. She was, by all accounts, a trailblazer for both women and women authors who would follow her. She was the first English professional female writer as well as being one of the first women to openly address sex and sexuality in her writing.
She was born in 1640, and unlike many women writers of the time, she doesn’t seem to have come from a wealthy family. Her father was a barber and her mother a nurse. Although a radical in other areas, Behn was staunchly conservative in her politics. She was an ardent supporter of the restored King Charles II and believed in the Divine Right of Kings. This allegiance to the king led to a fascinating twist of fate.
Upon the death of her first husband she found herself penniless. She applied to the court for assistance (she was already known and liked by Charles II). Subsequently, Behn was employed by the court as a spy and sent to Antwerp. Here she was to use her womanly wiles ingratiate herself with the enemies of the throne. Her codename was Astrea, and she would later use this as her writing name. However, she was never paid for her services or had her substantial expenses reimbursed. Subsequently, she was thrown into debtor’s prison, although her stay was brief as someone paid her debts and she was released. This was to be the beginning of the next extraordinary chapter in her life.
Determined never to be poor again, she began writing with an eye to getting paid to do it. In the mid-17th century, the notion of a woman not only writing, but writing and expecting to get paid for it, was akin to lunacy. However, she achieved it. She said herself, later in life, that she was “forced to write for bread and not ashamed to own it.”
So what about the actual writing? The poem I read by her is one of her most well-known, “The Disappointment”. First of all, as with all Renaissance verse, it can take a while to get used to the language. But there’s no doubt she was a talented writer. There are some lovely couplets in this poem. But what is especially striking is how sexually explicit it was for its time (and for the gender of the author). It’s basically about a man trying to get his lover to give up her virginity. She demurs as much as possible but eventually gives in, only to find that her lover has gotten so excited that he can’t … “perform”. And while the act is couched in flowery language, it leaves little to the imagination. Try this one for size:
“Her timorous hand she gently laid
(Or guided by design or chance)
Upon that fabulous Priapas,
That potent god, as poets feign;
But never did young shepherdess,
Gathering of fern upon the plain,
More nimbly draw her fingers back,
Finding beneath the verdant leaves, a snake.”
What’s fascinating about this poem is that – at a time when the libertine ruled, women were used and discarded, and men had the upper hand, in this poem it’s the woman who has the upper hand – her sexuality is her power. The poem’s language becomes more and more sexually-charged with each verse, until it reaches its climax. Sadly, the shepherd, however, does not. And by the end of the poem, he is left in “silent grief…”
“He cursed his birth, his fate, his stars
But more the shepherdess’s charms,
Whose soft bewitching influence
Had damned him to the hell of impotence.”
Of course, all this licentiousness gave her critics a stick to beat her with. Throughout her life – and for years afterwards – Behn was painted as some kind of harlot. Alexander Pope wrote of her:
“The stage how loosely does Astrea tread
Who fairly puts all characters to bed”
One critic said:
“No one equalled this woman in downright nastiness … She was a mere harlot, who danced through uncleanness and dared them [the male dramatists] to follow.”
Although, in many cases, it seems it wasn’t her sexual frankness that they objected to; it was often her politics or indeed simply that she was a woman doing what was regarded as a man’s job (and getting paid for it!)
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