Who is Aphra Behn?
It all started some weeks ago. I happened to be visiting Wikipedia and glanced at the 'Feature Article' of that day. It was on the novel Oroonoko (1688) written by one Aphra Behn (1640?-1689) who is described as "the first professional female dramatist and novelist" in English history and also as someone who worked as a spy for Charles II. Her historical significance as a writer was only part of what attracted me. The notion of a 'she-spy' practicing her art in cavalier times fired my imagination, which I had recently been feeding with swashbuckling movies, and I resolved to get to know Aphra better.
To that end I hunted for the biography The Secret Life Of Aphra Behn (1997) by Janet Todd. My own local library service (City of Monash) lacks this book so I had to go and get it from another (City of Yarra). Once it was in my hot hands I began perusing it and have enjoyed it very much. The biography blends the best elements of both non-fiction and fiction, much as did Aphra herself, and it is the key source for my own writing herein.
Exploring the life of someone from so long ago can be a very difficult task and many gaps in the record have to be filled by speculation. Evidence of the past is subject to the ravages of time. The Great Fire of London in 1666, for instance, destroyed much documentation. Furthermore, writings are coloured by the prejudice and sensitivity of those writing them, so any comment or description of a person must be understood with that in mind. Aphra was a figure of some controversy living in a time dominated by faction and intrigue.
Aphra incorporated elements of fact into her works of fiction, sometimes to make a play or novel more relevant to its audience, and sometimes to effect a kind of propaganda for the causes she supported. Conversely, Aphra may well have incorporated elements of fiction into writings of fact, such as letters to friends and colleagues, in order to present a well-cultivated self-image, and to further her own needs in some way. And if her public and private writings can be difficult to interpret, then what of her secret writings as a spy? Some correspondence between her and her spy-masters survives to this day, but how much of her activity was never documented because of its covert nature? As a some-time spy, and as a woman engaging in the power-play of a male-dominated society, Aphra had to become adapt at disembling.
Some of what follows is true, and all of what follows may be true. Aphra was born and spent her childhood during the Interegnum (the time of 'Commonwealth' existing between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II). She was a commoner whose father was a barber and whose mother was a wet-nurse. They lived in Kent. At sometime in her childhood she became the companion or playmate for the child of some local minor nobility. It was from this experience that she got a familiarity with writing and literature. It was then that she may well have developed a fascination with the status and manners of the nobility.
By the time she was twenty, the monarchy had been restored, and in that time she may have had some small hand in the Restoration as a covert messenger for agents supporting the return to power of Charles II. Later, Aphra visited the New World colony of Surinam and observed the lives of British settlers alongside those of African slaves and Native Americans. She may even then have been there in the capacity of a spy. On her return voyage she wed a merchant mariner but seems to have been widowed a relatively short time later.
Following this she went to Flanders on the Continent and was definitely there as an agent of Charles II. At the time war was brewing between England and the Netherlands and her mission was to extract information on Dutch military plans from an exiled Englishman, in exchange for a full pardon and return to his homeland. Seems this fellow vasilated and prolonged her mission, much to her frustration and the taxing of her limited purse. There may have been other times in the 60s that Aphra acted as a spy for the Crown and her destinations may have included Paris and Venice. She was always prepared to serve in hope of the honour and reward that may follow such action, but the Crown often neglected to pay its dues. By the 70s Aphra had turned her hand to the writing of plays for the resurgent theatrical scene in London.
Aphra focused on romantic comedy and explored the lives and mores of young men and women living in a libertine age. Many of her heroes were 'rakes' but so were many of her heroines. Much of this libertine storytelling drew on her own observations and experiences of the theatrical scene which overlapped with the fringes of court society. She had a number of relationships, as evidenced by letters written by and for her, but whether they were affairs as we think of them, or simply affairs of the heart, or both at different times, is a personal matter for Aphra herself.
Into the 80s she worked less on plays and more on the newer format of the novel. Her work also became more politicised in response to a more politicised time in which forces were moving to push for one successor or another for the throne. She never succeeded in becomming part of the courtly society she admired and supported as a propagandist. However she did win fame and notoriety in her day and participated in many poetic debates with rivals both in public and private.
My 'crush' was very much the product of the scantest of descriptions combined with my own fanciful notions. So, for me, the Aphra of Wikipedia became a "witty playwright by day and daring spy by night" almost in the manner of comic book characters. How do I feel now that I have explored a comprehensive scholarly work on the same historic figure? How would we get along if we were to meet? Aphra is described as affable and gregarious so that is an good start. She has a passion for conversation which is even better.
But once we start discussing anything substantive issues may arise. Aphra was a committed royalist and stern critic of anything 'republican'. We need to understand this in the context of her life and times. The republic of Oliver Cromwell had been a regime of Puritans - imagine a nation ruled by the same wowsers and killjoys who vex us to this very day! Even a secular republican such as I may welcome the rule of an hereditary monarch if it was the only alternative to the oppression of such moralisers. And the Stuart monarchs were never the absolutist rulers they wished to be and had to accomodate the power of Parliament. So there, maybe, we could find some accomodation of opinions. Still it went further than that. Aphra resented notions of democracy and was very suspicious of 'the mob'. But then for her those who opposed monarchy did so only for the sake of personal aggrandisement, and the common masses were merely a tool for them to advance themselves. Peace and prosperity only arose from the stability that comes from having one universally accepted ruler.
It was with this in mind that Aphra supported the succession of direct legitimate heirs. Under such a schema James II (son of Charles I) should succeed Charles II, but many Protestants could not accept this because James was Roman Catholic and represented the risk of a return to Papist power in England. They, then, supported the eldest illigitimate son of Charles II, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, as successor. All the manouvering and plotting of the 1780s over the matter of succession served only to frustrate Aphra, for whom religion had never been particularly important. She may have been Protestant, but only nominally so, and was something of a 'free-thinker' in the mould of many libertines and other children of the Enlightenment. It was fine to invoke gods in poetry, but in matters of both personal and political life, I am sure Aphra would have liked the Divine to simply butt out. It was the here-and-now that mattered and life should be lived to the fullest. If ever we had political differences I am sure we could always agree-to-disagree and divert to other matters.
Aphra embraced life and forged paths that women had rarely if ever walked at that time. In reaction to the inhibitions of the Interegnum, the Restoration era was more free and accepting of new and different ways of thinking and acting than many other eras had been. Nonetheless, it took a brave and brilliant woman to partake fully in such a life, and to challenge traditional assumptions. She always lamented the fact that, as a woman, she was deprived of the Classical education in Latin and Greek that her male counterparts had, but more than compensated for this by her commanding fluency in the vernacular. She wrote with the assumption that she could write as well as they did, despite prejudices to the contrary. However she suffered regular lampoons and criticisms, based more on her gender than on the quality of her work itself. It seems that what offended others was not simply that her writing depicted some risque topics, but that it was a woman who had been holding the pen. Aphra, then, was a strong and enduring person to live the life of a professional writer "writing for bread and not ashamed to own it". This is someone, it seems to me, well worth knowing and having the company of, but, there is the matter of oppressive time confining us forever in separate eras. In which case one can always resort to the time-honoured practice of admiring from afar; admiring, and promoting to others.
Presenting the Past
Why is it that I had never known of Aphra till this chance glimpse on the Internet? It seems that many others are ignorant of her too. I have been surveying friends and, with a few exceptions, she is a stranger to us, and we are a well-informed sort. Those who did know of her did so because of specific expertise in literature or history or feminism (e.g. Virginia Woolf, in her own writings, added Aphra to the roll-call of feminist heroines). But then Aphra is just one of a host of figures from history and there is only so much limelight for any one personage. But if sober academia can only give so much space to Aphra, then what of pop-culture?
As far as I can tell, there has never been any movie made of the life of Aphra Behn, which is a pity, as it is a story worth adapting. What kind of film do I fancy would do justice to the life of Aphra? I suppose we could always get the BBC to make some worthy, if stodgy, costume drama, focusing purely on personal relations and private introspection. But for me another way is more promising, and more reflective of the way Aphra did things herself. Her life was interesting, but in her own writing she made life seem more interesting, more exciting, more outlandish, than it may truly have been. For me, then, the way to go is to have a swashbuckling adventure, in which the mature-aged Aphra, played by one actress, tells a small gathering of close literary and theatrical friends, anecdotes from her younger days.
Love Arm'd]. Aphra's friends could occasionally interject to comment on some inconsistency in her tale, to have her brush it aside with some quick-witted retort.
With the recent success of Pirates Of The Carribbean, the swashbuckler is back on the menu, and I think it is time we took liberties with the biography of Aphra and turned her into a modern heroine of the silver screen. I think this sort of thing is very in keeping with the way things were done in her day and would be a lot of fun. What I would like to offer, then, to Aphra, is yet another mask to wear, and I am sure she would wear it well.
I am aware that The Libertine starring Johnny Depp is currently in selected cinemas. This is a dramatisation of the life of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a contemporary of Aphra, with whom she was acquainted. Given my current interest in that era I really have to go see this movie. Depp is apparently superb in it (which is hardly surprising). I have since seen the movie and it is fascinating but way too gritty. The screen depiction for Aphra would need to be just that bit more polished.
I finally penned my own short historical fiction drawing on the life of Aphra Behn and presenting it with a dash of swashbuckler and even a dose of 'bodice-ripper'. Take a look at it here.