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Spy Games: The Intrigues of Aphra Behn

Or is it the intriguing Aphra Behn?

In the 18th century? Dramatist. Poet. Early Novelist. Spy. In the 20th century? Feminist icon. Professional writer. Bad Ass. Aphra Behn is many things, both to Restoration and eighteenth-century literary development and to feminists. Needless to say, whether she is read by her contemporaries or ours, she’s always causing a bit of a stir.

images
Aphra Behn 1640-1649

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. ~Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I began as a scholar of the romantic poets. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was understood that the great English romantic poets were Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But today they are Felicia Hemans, Charlotte Smith, Mary Tighe, Laetitia Landon, and others who just can’t write. A fourth-rate playwright like Aphra Behn is being taught instead of Shakespeare in many curriculums across the country. ~Harold Bloom, “Dumbing Down American Readers”

Okay, so I had to begin by talking about Behn in 20th c. terms, because the drastic contrast between Woolf’s warm celebration of Behn and Bloom’s cold dismissal gestures to the central role Behn claims in how we approach literature and history. I have to lay my cards on the table now and say I find Bloom’s phallocentric and dismissive canon of romantic writers nothing short of infuriating and degrading, particularly to women. Like Swift’s invective against Haywood as an “infamous scribbling woman,” Bloom’s claim that these romantic women poets “just can’t write” suggests that his fear is not about the quality of writing at all, though he seems bent on throwing out these rash, qualitative statements. (PS all the poets he lists will be featured on this site, because they are absolutely wonderful. Especially Smith, who was one of the reinventors of the sonnet before Wordsworth. So boo you, Bloom. Boo you.) Bloom’s parallel list of male vs women writers is a harsh critique of feminism in academia–indeed, implicitly Bloom is saying that feminist literary practice has “dumbed down” American readers. Yet, while he calls her a “fourth-rate playwright” compared to Shakespeare, Bloom unknowingly does something very uplifting for Aphra Behn here–he invites us to put her on the level of comparison with Shakespeare. Thanks, Bloom.

Behn was, after all, a wonderful playwright of Restoration comedy. She was also a clever poet, taking on the likes of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, in converseational poems like The Disappoinment (compare to Rochester’s The Imperfect Enjoyment). She is also credited more and more of late with being a leading figure in the development of the novel, with her prose works like Oroonoko and Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister. Though little is known about her life, Behn also makes quite a fascinating figure because she was, in fact, a spy for Charles II. Her mission impossible moves come into play quite a bit in her amatory fiction and comedies as games of intrigue–peering through peepholes, hiding in gardens, switching places, wearing disguises, etc. Behn is also known, however, for actively carving a space for the professional woman writer. When (mostly male) critics of her comedies called her work improper, for example, she responded heatedly in a preface to The Lucky Chance:

And this one thing I will venture to say, though against my nature, because it has vanity in it: that had the plays I have writ come forth under any man’s name, and never known to have been mine, I appeal to all unbiased judges of sense, if they had not said that person had made as many good comedies, as any one man that has writ in our age; but a devil on’t, the woman damns the poet.

Well, Behn would certainly have something to say about Bloom’s “fourth-rate playwright” label. In truth, while comedy was deemed an even more inappropriate genre of drama for women to work with than tragedy, Behn established herself as one of the leading Restoration comedians

***

What makes her even more scandalously infamous, however, is her explicit exploration of female sexual desire and her depiction of witty, transgressive, and resistant women. Whether she’s dealing with Lady Julia Fulbank in The Lucky Chance, who fools her old, greedy husband and secretly seduces her unknowing lover Gayman, or the wondrous Helena and Angellica who give the rake, Willmore, a run for his money (and his life) in The Rover, Behn’s contribution to great female stage roles–as well as her contribution to poetry, the novel, and postcolonial interest–is something that ought not to be overlooked.

Good Reads:

Behn, Aphra.  Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684).
—. The Lucky Chance (1686).
—. Oroonoko (1688).
—. The Rover (1677).

Todd, Janet. The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1600-1800. Columbia: Columbia UP, 1992.

A few delicious snippets:

From The Rover:

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This is one of my favorite scenes: Angellica, the courtesan, is cornering Willmore, the rake, at gunpoint. Notice how the (phallic?) gun scene is staged in the bedroom (behind Willmore). Love it.

 

Act III, Scene VI

FREDERICK.   Why, how the devil came you so drunk?
WILLMORE.    Why, how the devil came you so sober?

(^^ my proof that Captain Jack Sparrow was borrowed from Behn.)

From The Disappointment:

XI.

 
Cloris returning from the trance
Which love and soft desire had bred,
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.
 

XII.

 
Then Cloris her fair hand withdrew,
Finding that god of her desires
Disarmed of all his awful fires,
And cold as flowers bathed in morning dew.
Who can the nymph’s confusion guess?
The blood forsook the hinder place,
And strewed with blushes all her face,
Which both disdain and shame expressed:
And from Lysander’s arms she fled,
Leaving him fainting on the gloomy bed.
  
 
 
 
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About Rachel

Doctoral Candidate in Literature

One comment on “Spy Games: The Intrigues of Aphra Behn

  1. Pingback: Who was The Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot…..? | jamesgray2

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2013 by .

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