Aphra Behn was the first professional English female author who was able to make a living to secure herself through her writing during Restoration England. She produced works in various genres such as plays, poems, novellas, and epistolary romances with her witty as well as sarcastic style. Behn was born in 1640 and died in 1689.
Aphra Behn witnessed major political changes since she lived during the hectic period of the English Civil War which lasted for a long period between 1642 and 1651. Upon seeing the hypocrisy and moral corruption in the Restoration period due to a libertine monarch she wrote scandalous works that reflect contemporary events, rather courageously since her subject matters varied from slavery, gender, race, and the issues in the Restoration society. Yet, it was no doubt, not easy to gain a such career in a problematic society that is formed after a more problematic one. As she was one of the influential literary figures during the Restoration period, who was rediscovered later by Virginia Woolf herself, it is important to illustrate Behn’s unconventional, interesting, and inspiring life along with the major works of her literary career in the Restoration period.
Aphra Behn was born in 1640, during the reign of King Charles I, in Kent, England. Even though her early life as well as her familial past is not undoubtedly clear, it is claimed that she was a daughter of a barber and his wife. She was self-educated and self-thought. It is understandable by looking at her composition style that Behn is familiar with the content of Greek and Roman mythology, classics as well as the structure of poetry and drama. Her voyage to Suriname, which was a land occupied by British people located in northern South America, inspired Behn to write her best-known prose work, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave based on her experience in the exotic land. As an early form of an English novel, it mainly narrates how a misfortunate noble figure was made a slave, his struggles, and his love affair with a woman named Imoinda. African prince Oroonoko’s beloved was described with her angelic beauty along with her delicate virtues belonging to a Roman Goddess by Behn’s rich descriptions.
“This old dead hero had one only daughter left of his race; a beauty that, to describe her truly, one need say only, she was female to the noble male; the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her person as he, and of delicate virtues. I have seen a hundred white men sighing after her, and making a thousand vows at her feet, all vain, and unsuccessful; and she was, indeed, too great for any, but a prince of her nation to adore.” (Behn 14).
African prince is playfully tricked, captured, and brought to Suriname where he is enslaved to be sold as a slave to Europeans. By her best-known prose work Behn became a revolutionary figure in terms of the development of the novel genre in English literary history since Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave is referred to as the first British novel even though Robinson Crusoe which was written by Daniel Defoe in 1719 has officially owned the title. However, Oroonoko is an important novel since it touches upon the themes of colonialism, slavery, and abolitionism which are the themes that would appear in English and American novels later. The work also inspired the development of noble savage. It is a character type that was later explained by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher.
Aphra Behn returned to England around 1644 after her voyage to Suriname. She married a merchant named Behn. Her husband either died or they got separated. So, she searched for probable ways to secure herself financially. Her wit enabled Behn to eventually find herself a place at the court of King Charles II during the Restoration period as a spy. She was sent to several countries by the king. Yet, she was not paid for the occupation and had been imprisoned for debt in the debtors’ prison for a while. Thus, she decided to write to support herself financially. She gained independence by rejecting the conventional women’s role in the Restoration society through her writing as well as her literary voice even though she received criticism from her male contemporaries. Her success in writing plays was a steady step for Behn to gain academic success.
‘’The Rover. or, The Banished Cavaliers is the most frequently performed and read of Aphra Behn's plays. First performed by the Duke's Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1677, the play was initially published anonymously’’ (Burke, 118). Thanks to the success of her well-known play The Rover, Aphra Behn is today widely known as a playwright rather than a novelist even though Oroonoko is considered a pioneer in the development of the English novel and the term noble savage. In The Rover, Behn comments on marriage, love, and courtship considering gender roles and the role of the female during the Restoration Period. It tells the story of cavaliers, the supporters of King Charles I, who are banished from England. Unable to return to their country they pursue enjoyment in a carnival in Naples where they fall in love and have various adventures. There is interesting imagery of masks used by Behn in the play.
‘’Willmore: But why thus disguised and muzzl’d?
Belville: Because whatever Extravagances we commit in these Faces, our own may not be oblig’d to answer ’em.’’ (Behn 2.1 -19)
She uses Naples Carnival masks as symbols or as tools to act freely. Belville and Willmore create a character through masks so that they can act freely, fearlessly, and without taking responsibility for their actions through their newly created appearance. The Rover was influential as a satirical comedy as well as a commentary on the Royalist society presenting a glimpse of libertinism through her commentary on the function of the festival masks and the changing aspect of marriage since it started to lose its importance. Behn aimed to illustrate the ‘’implications of the libertine idea that marriage was an outmoded institution’’ (Hobby). Later, the set of ideas from the political philosophy of libertinism was explored in depth by Behn in her poetical works.
https://www.amazon.com.tr/Aphra-Behn-Secret-Janet-Todd/dp/1909572063 (Recommended Reading)
Even though she was home-schooled and self-taught, her acquaintance with literary figures as well as her success in writing plays led Behn to gain literary success. She enriched her literary circle when she was befriended by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Wilmot, an Oxford graduate courtly poet, was the second earl of Rochester. He wrote harshly satirical poems and love lyrics that reflect the understanding of Restoration society. He also wrote several satirical poems to criticize the monarch and the society which were prominent in the development of the English satire genre. His poem ‘’A Satyre on Charles II’’ directly attacked the court.
‘’There reigns, and oh! Long may he reign and thrive,
The easiest King and best-bred man alive.
Him no ambition to gain renown
Like the French fool, that wanders up and down
Starving his people, hazarding his crown.’’ (Wilmot lines 3-7).
Due to his harsh criticism of the court, the poem was not received well by King Charles II and Wilmot had been sent to exile for a short period. King Charles II, the son of Charles I, was known as the merry monarch. He was crowned in 1661 after the end of the English Civil War. The monarchy was restored under the rule of King Charles II. The reason why he was called the merry monarch is that any kind of entertainment was strictly prohibited by the previous monarch and in contrast, the king supported arts, literature as well and courtly entertainment. On the other hand, he was a dissolute ruler who encouraged enjoyment such as gambling, drinking, and sexual pleasure. Even though the king was married, he enjoyed various sexual pleasures with his mistresses, opposing the former Puritan idea of sexuality and entertainment. As a ruling figure, he had adapted a libertine understanding. Libertinism is a political philosophy. The term ‘’libertinism’’ comes from the Latin word ‘’Liber’’ means free. Thus, encourages the adoption of free thinking without or with less religious belief. It is a style of living that involves principles such as overindulgence, sexual pleasures, and thinking freely. Libertines reject both religious doctrines and righteous authority by giving importance to worldly pleasures. By being a libertine, King Charles II encouraged the courtiers, noblemen, aristocrats as well and artists in the Restoration period to adopt such a lifestyle as a libertine. King Charles and Aphra Behn were similar in their libertinisms. Aphra Behn can also be seen as a female libertine since she was attracted by the ideals of libertinism. As an only woman writer in the period, she had the typical characteristics of a libertine woman, being courageous, independent, and witty. On the other hand, as a woman, she also criticized the libertine life and values of the Restoration period seeing the moral and religious corruption as well as inequalities. She satirized or attacked the Restoration society and its libertine values with her early satirical plays, such as The Rover by which she started to explore libertine identity and lifestyle, and through her poetical works. As a result, Aphra Behn has both adopted a libertine understanding and criticized its principles.
Charles II of England
She started to focus on prose and poetry after the public interest in drama started to decrease around the early 1680s. In her poems, as she did in her prose and plays, Behn reflected satirical subject matters about the society that she lives in. Some of her subject matters were gender, sexuality, love, and injustice. She reflected a libertine understanding, that she also satirized in her poems ‘’On Her Loving Two Equally’’ and ‘’A Thousand Martyrs’’.
‘’On Her Loving Two Equally’’ is a poem telling the dilemma of a woman in choosing a partner. Yet she cannot decide since she loves both Damon and Alexis equally. She is not happy whenever one of whom is absent but she is well aware that she cannot be with both at the same time since it is seen as immoral for a woman to have multiple partners.
‘’When my Alexis present is,
Then I for Damon sigh and mourn;
But when Alexis I do miss,
Damon gains nothing but my scorn.
But if it chance they both are by,
For both alike, I languish, sigh, and die.’’ (Behn lines 7-12)
Vermeer. A Lady and Two Gentlemen, c1659. - (Gives a glimpse into the poem of Behn)
As salvation, she asks for help from the God of love. Yet, she is still not determined on which man should be discarded from her heart. With this poem, she criticizes male-dominated societies by demonstrating while it is normal for men to have various affairs, it is not for a female to have more than one lover. Also reflects desire and passions in a libertine manner through the poem by showing female sexual desires as well as passionate love.
‘’A Thousand Martyrs’’ describes a man who consumes everyone for the sake of his own sensual and sexual pleasures. It is such a courageous subject matter to focus on since it is a harsh satire and it is not perceived as normal for women to openly write about sexual desires in the Restoration period. ‘’A thousand martyrs I have made / All sacrificed to my desire.’’ (Behn lines 1-2). He can control all the people who come to him willingly. He uses and consumes them for his desires to take what he wants, which is pleasure rather than love. ‘’And tho’ I talked of wounds and smart / Love’s pleasures only touched my heart.’’ (Behn lines 11-12). He feels a great desire for his ability to be able to take what he wants even though his previous lovers were martyrs to him. The speaker takes what he desires without much effort so that he can rise in glory. He also despises those who seek love instead of pleasure.
‘’Alone the glory and the spoil
I always laughing bore away;
The triumphs, without pain or toil,
Without the hell, the heav’n of joy.
And while I thus at random rove
Despis’d the fools that whine for love.’’ (Behn lines 13-18)
The poem also criticizes the double standards in a male-dominated society by stating the hypocrisy of men who will easily have numerous women only for the sake of their pleasures instead of affection. By portraying a male speaker who seeks only pleasure rather than love, she once again presents a glimpse into libertinism with a speaker who is a libertine.
Aphra Behn by Robert White, after John Riley line engraving, 1718
To conclude, the works of Aphra Behn are universal since she touched upon various problems ranging from colonialism to slavery. Behn was able to gain a literary career even though she was born during a problematic time of the English Civil War that followed a more problematic time by the reign of King Charles II who neglected his country. During her time, she was one of the leading playwrights and The Rover was a courtly play that was staged multiple times. Yet, she struggled with ill health and debt in her last years and died in poverty in 1689. She is an interesting revolutionary female author from the Restoration period who defended women's rights and women's power while criticizing male-dominated societies with her mesmerizing and courageous works as well as the libertine side that she both adopted and criticized. Aphra Behn was forgotten for a long time until Virginia Woolf rediscovered her in the 20th century. Woolf wrote a passage about Behn as a tribute to her in the 1929 essay ‘’A Room of One’s Own’’. “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.” (Woolf). Thanks to Virginia Woolf’s rediscovery of Behn, she once again found herself a rightful place in English literary history.
- Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Edited by Joan Lipking. A Norton Critical Edition. 1997.
- Behn, Aphra. The Rover or, The Banish'd Cavaliers. The University of Adelaide, Script.
- Burke, M. Hellen. The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. Edited by Derek Hughes and Janet Todd. Cambridge University Press. 2004. https://www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/the-rover-an-introduction
- The Works of Aphra Behn. Vol. VI. Montague Summers, Ed.
London: William Heinemann, 1915. 189-190.
- Hobby, Elaine. ‘’The Rover: An introduction’’. British Library. 21 Jun 2018.
- Woolf, Virginia. ‘’A Room of One’s Own - Three Guineas’’. Penguin Modern Classics. 2000.