‘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,’ Virginia Woolf asserted. Aphra Behn (c. 1640-89) was the first Englishwoman to make her living ‘by her pen’, as we used to say. Now, nobody makes her – or his – living by the phallic and virile pen. Linguistic and cultural structures no longer combine in exhibiting the exciting transgression, the impudent androgyny, of the man-woman who picks up her pen to write, for the she-writer, like the he-writer, will feed symbols through the word processor, a brooding matrix-box far more uterine than penile. Aphra Behn was a shady lady who muscled into the men’s preserve, and was called a whore for her pains. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own fails to make quite clear how truly successful Behn was in her time. She may not have been Judith Shakespeare, but she got play after play on the stage, her poems appeared in diverse publications, and there was a strong demand for her prose fiction.
That Pickering and Chatto have chosen to publish Behn’s Works is a sign of her rehabilitation over the past twenty years or so. The existence of the Penguin selection of her writing acknowledges the status of works that have been taught in classrooms with some regularity in recent years. Oroonoko is the best-known novel and The Rover the best-known play; and the selection also includes a novella, a couple of stories, another play and some poems. The appearance of the Penguin is a sign that Behn has truly ‘arrived’. She is now acknowledged as a real contributor to Restoration literature and Restoration cultural style. We shall not, for instance, understand Dryden well if we do not understand Behn – and Behn proves to be no mere footnote but a writer of vivacity and considerable complexity.
Behn has one of the most unclear biographies in English literature. It is very difficult not to mythologise Aphra while reconstructing her lifestory, a sign that Aphra Behn herself was singularly successful in mythologising herself. The split between her apparently low birth and apparently high connections has never been satisfactorily resolved. The idea floated by Angeline Goreau, that Behn may have been the illegitimate child of a high-born woman, certainly accords with the few puzzling facts at least as well as anything else.
Behn, everyone now agrees, really did visit Surinam. In England, at some point, she married (or may have married) a Dutch merchant, possibly older than her, a Mr Behn who probably died soon after the marriage. On the other hand, the whole marriage may have been a figment, to give respectability to a young woman living on her wits. Behn genuinely served as a spy for Charles II in Antwerp, and discovered the hard way that the government was very reluctant to pay its employees. (Like other gentlemen of Behn’s acquaintance, Charles was better at promise than performance.) Behn then managed to survive in Restoration London as a literary creature, taking advantage of what was in effect a new medium, the reconstituted English stage, which now featured actresses as well as actors. She wrote plays, wrote poems, had love affairs. She was an admirer of that witty poet, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and wrote an elegy on his death.
Large was his Fame, but short his Glorious Race,
Like young Lucretius and dy’d apace.
So early Roses fade, so over all
They cast their fragrant scents, then softly fall,
While all the scatter’d perfum’d leaves declare,
How lovely ’twas when whole, how sweet, how fair.
One of her poems indicates that she knew the late Earl very well indeed; in pensive mood, she is suddenly and vividly reminded of the departed Rochester:
When lo the Mighty Spirit appear’d
All Gay, all Charming to my sight ...
In every part there did appear,
The Great, the God-like Rochester,
His Softness all, his Sweetness everywhere ...
The soft, the moving Accents soon I knew
The gentle Voice made up of Harmony;
Through the Known Paths of my glad Soul it flew;
I knew it straight, it could no others be,
’Twas not Alied but very very he.
The shade of Rochester – more than shade, ‘very very he’ – manifests his veritable identity by correcting her verse, ‘Careful of the Fame himself first rais’d’. Clearly, Behn wishes to suggest that it was Rochester who first encouraged her poetry – which is as likely to be true as not. Rochester is exalted and at the same time co-opted to serve as a kind of muse to Aphra, an aggrandisement that might be off-putting were it not balanced by the sadness of the solitary speaker (‘My Stars in vain their sullen influence have shed’) until ‘the lovely Phantom’ appears to her. The relation to Rochester is all yearning desire, desire based on impossibility. The only bridge between yearning and impossible goal is – as so often in Behn – the ironic unreal bridge of writing itself.
In dealing with Rochester, Behn not only ignores the deathbed conversion described and widely promoted by that writing bishop, Gilbert Burnet, but also all the opprobrium flung at Rochester’s head. Much more than Lord Byron, Rochester was considered mad, bad and dangerous to know. His own relatives were disgusted with him, and showed it in perpetuity by leaving his burial place without a monument – never was an Earl interred so hugger-mugger. In her poems on Rochester, Behn does not bother with the reputation, the strictures, the sarcasms and the moralising. She flings a gauntlet at detractors by declaring that Rochester is like Lucretius – the archetypal atheistic poet is her hero’s prototype.
One of the things Behn had learned from Rochester and his contemporaries, that mob of gentlemen who wrote with (apparent) ease, was how to work metamorphoses. Restoration writing also tends, especially in its poetic aspects, ‘to elevate and surprise’ – in the words of that parody of John Dryden, the poetaster and dramatist, Bayes, in Buckingham’s The Rehearsal. Behn, too, wants to elevate and surpise. But the surprise element consists at least in part in shocking or irritating the reader. Almost every one of her poems contains something that will annoy somebody. That in itself qualifies Behn as a true Restoration writer – along with John Milton, who, although he had no value for royalists such as Behn or Dryden, or âmes damnées like Rochester, had, like them, a considerable knowledge of the powers of irritation. You do not have to work overtly as a satirist to take advantage of the power of poetic language to cause discomfiture, to break us out of the reality we usually wish to accept, or are resigned to accepting.
Aphra Behn can be described as a late baroque poet. Unlike rococo artists, she really has some belief in the grand style – just as, despite her contretemps with Charles II, she really had some belief in monarchy; and no faith at all in Whig puritans. That these two things, baroque style and monarchism, don’t necessarily go together we can see if we look at Milton, yet Milton, too, had no love of the middle class and despised its notions of propriety and decoration. Milton saved up his monarchism for heaven, and defended chopping the head off the living and inadequate King, but he had a baroque eye for the grandeur usually associated, if not with courts, then with Continental and Catholic theology and art. Aphra Behn, on the other hand, may have been a Roman Catholic. Todd thinks that, if so, she converted somewhat late in life; it seems, however, at least as likely that Behn had Catholicism in the background, but found it safer not to allude to this openly in England during the Cromwellian era or its immediate aftermath. Whether or not she actually was a Roman Catholic, she had absorbed the imagery and theatricality of Continental Catholic religious observance. These elements are often used audaciously, as in ‘To Lysander at the Music-Meeting’, in which she describes watching the man she is in love with, while they are both at a concert:
Your Bosom now and then a sigh wou’d move,
(For Musick has the same effects with Love.)
Your body easey and all tempting lay,
Inspiring wishes which the Eyes betray,
In all that have the fate to glance that way:
A carless [sic] and a lovely Negligence,
Did a new Charm to every Limb dispence:
So look young Angels, Listening to the sound,
When the Tun’d Spheres Glad all the Heavn’s around:
So Raptur’d lie amidst the wondering Crowd,
So Charmingly Extended on a Cloud.
The female observer’s erotic watching gives her the power of the gaze – a power which post-Lacanian critics have taught us to associate with the male prerogative in life and art. Behn seems conscious of her reversal of the sex roles, making ostentatious the power of her pleasure in looking at a male who is in a sweet state of innocence, sensibility, unselfconsciousness. The preposterousness of the situation is elucidated in the crowning image here of the ‘young Angels’, who become angels on a ceiling rather than angelic beings in heaven – baroque angels lounging about on gilded clouds, so ‘Charmingly Extended’. We are reminded that images of heaven are erotic. This description is a strong example of the comic baroque, one that could hardly be bettered by Dryden, who may have learned from Behn as well as from male poets what could be done for comedy in the baroque line.
In her fiction, as in her poems, Behn enjoys describing the beauty of both men and women. In particular, she enjoys description when her characters are dressed up for some special occasion – often a bizarre occasion. Clothing is almost always seen as a disguise of some sort, and at the same time as an announcement, a self-chosen spectacle. In her novella, The Fair Jilt (reprinted in modernised spelling in the Penguin), the central characters have to get dressed for their trials, and for their executions. Miranda, the heroine (or villain) of the piece, has had her sister poisoned by her page. The page is sentenced to be hanged ‘and the princess to stand under the gibbet, with a rope about her neck, the other end of which was to be fastened to the gibbet where the page was hanging; and to have an inscription in large characters upon her back and breast, of the cause why; where she was to stand from ten in the morning, to twelve’. On the execution morning, the page Van Brune appears
fair as an angel, but languishing and pale ... He was dressed all in mourning, and very fine linen; bare-headed, with his own hair, the fairest that could be seen, hanging all in curls on his back and shoulders, very long. He had a prayer-book of black velvet in his hand, and behaved himself with much penitence and devotions.
The description mingles an 18th-century attention to detail with a 17th-century valuation of the intensity of the theatrical moment. The princess Miranda appears for the execution of her sentence in a garb that shows her flouting the imposed significance of the moment. Spectators crowd to see her, and she does not disappoint them:
All the windows were taken down, and filled with spectators, and the tops of houses, when, at the hour appointed, the fatal beauty appeared. She was dressed in a black velvet gown, with a rich row of diamonds all down the fore-part of the breast, and a great knot of diamonds at the peak behind; and a petticoat of flowered gold, very rich and laced; with all things else suitable.
Part of the point here is that Miranda is behaving with gorgeous effrontery. In exhibiting her fatal attraction she creates her own pageant-show, full of props, not at all ‘suitable’ to penalty or penance, including the ‘great velvet cushion’ on which she stands while tied to the gibbet. Behn admires Miranda’s sense of theatre, which enables her to take a mortification and turn it into glory. That flamboyant sense is a mark of Miranda’s aristocratic nature – as distinct from the humility shown by the unfortunate and mournful page, beneath her in degree. Of course, the audience in the story feels sympathy for Van Brune and execrates Miranda. Nevertheless, she gets away with it, and leaves in ‘a rich embroidered chair’, with her lover Tarquin as devoted as ever. Nowadays, we have almost forgotten the aristocratic command of show, which enabled people to go to execution as if they were going to the Academy Awards.
A lot of Behn’s stories are very violent, and execution seems a fairly normal fate in her work, as indeed it was not abnormal in her world. The climax of The Fair Jilt is a comically abortive execution, an incident adapted from a real event. In Oroonoko, the hero’s death is saliently grim: the African prince is tortured and burnt at the stake by a crowd of jeering white people, but proves his true nobility by the calm contempt with which he takes his dismemberment – Oroonoko may be dismembered but not deconstructed. He remains the prince still. He understands honour, which makes him great, noble if archaic.
Oroonoko’s great error, one may believe, is his falling prey to Whig propaganda. He began to believe what he was told about the enlightened liberal Westerners, and the value of the contract. What he finds out is that the English inhabitants and slave-owners of the Surinam colony are as violent and bloodthirsty as any tribe on earth, and that contracts are not considered applicable to foreigners, women, people of colour or ‘the heathen’ – i.e. people of a different religion to that nominally obtaining in Western Europe. If Oroonoko is, like Charles I, archaic, the Regicides who, by and large, rule Surinam have created the model of a bad society, an ill-governed and desperately disorganised colony based on greed and bluster, destined soon to fall to both Dutch and Indians. History, Behn knows, is written to the orders of those who consider they know what it means because they are its masters. Sold into slavery in a foreign continent, after having been tricked and trapped aboard the slave vessel, Oroonoko no longer has power over himself, his identity or even his name:
Mr Trefry gave Oroonoko that [name] of Caesar, which name will live in that country as long as that (scarce more) glorious one of the great Roman, for tis most evident, he ... acted things as memorable, had they been done in some part of the world replenished with people and historians that might have given him his due. But his misfortune was to fall in an obscure world, that afforded only a female pen to celebrate his fame ...
‘The great Roman’ is ‘glorious’ only because he happened to live in a place with a full complement of ‘people and historians’. Of course, Julius Caesar was ‘glorious’ because of his success; if he had been tricked and enslaved in a far-off land, ‘an obscure world’ where he was killed, who would have written of him? Yet even great ‘Caesar’ (whichever one it may be) has in a sense no name, because the name can be transferred, given between jest and earnest to a slave whose real name is ‘very barbarous and hard to pronounce’ according to those who are masters now. The use of ‘Caesar’ for a slave indicates both recollection of history and a contempt for it, ‘Caesar’ is tsar of nothing. ‘Oroonoko’ itself seems a South American name; it cannot really be an African name – the princely hero seems to have no name that he can call his own, a fate usually reserved for female characters like Roxana and Evelina in novels of the period just dawning.
We can look forward to further volumes in the Pickering series, for we need well-edited and clear copies of most of Behn’s plays, and much of her fiction. The appearance of Volume Three will elicit a new respect for Behn as a writer of fiction. She is too often thought of as a one-novel author, and her works are often hard to classify. Apart from Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister (reprinted by Virago), the prose works are largely novellas. Much of Behn’s fiction is experimental, and coloured by her expressive theatricality. Her stories are also related to the older tradition of Western fiction which the Anglo-American fixation on the realistic novel that started, we’re told, with Defoe, has obscured.
If you believe that, before Defoe, there is nothing (except perhaps Don Quixote) it is hard to factor in the traditions of the 17th century. Even Behn’s new editor pays (at least thus far) no real attention to D’Urfé’s L’Astrée, for instance, although it was from that work that Aphra Behn derived her code name and nom de guerre, ‘Astraea’. Behn’s fiction, like that of D’Urfé, is psychologically ruminative, while dealing with people who know how to conduct themselves in states of even bizarre extremity. One beats tedium vitae by rising to the occasion, even if the occasion is one of horror. Behn’s most comic verse and prose is consecrated to those who do not rise to the occasion, especially men who suffer from impotence. Most governments and institutions (including marriage) are absurd, have clogged wings, can rise to no occasion.
Behn has absolutely no trust in organisation. When males bond in politics or war, they are usually incompetent, pettifogging, greedy, treacherous and stupid. Men can be misled by the bluster of other men. Both in the novel Oroonoko and the play The Widdow Ranter, we see the ill government of a failed and directionless colony. The colony in the second case is Virginia – the abode of redneck tobacco-planters, small retailers and ex-convicts, as Behn portrays it, and not the haven of Virginia Gentlemen. The American Indians are treated heroically, as is the heroic Indian fighter, Bacon, but both the Indians and the chivalrous hero are despised and misunderstood by the colony’s males, who can neither do without heroism or absorb it. Bacon (a historical character) seems strangely akin to Cooper’s Hawkeye, the man who belongs to an older world of honour, self-reliance and aristocratic loyalty to one’s word. Bacon is going to be eliminated just as surely as Oroonoko.
In all of her writings which touch politics or current affairs (that is, in a great many) Behn reflects a curious sense of belatedness. If she was born in 1640 or later, then she grew up in a period she learned to call the Interregnum, living in an island of history after the great events had taken place. The new young generation of Restoration wits share a sense of coming after, of being, as we would say, post-war; there is a deal of ‘postness’ in the works of Rochester, for instance. Coming after the great time, coming on the scene when everything is compromising or slowly degenerating, one may yearn to have been part of an original action, a spectator of the first time. In Behn, as in Milton, such a yearning is often ultimately expressed as a yearning for a time of primitive innocence. The Fall came, and we knew we were naked. And then we got clothes, law and missionaries – all of which we would rather be without. The only real alternative to extravagant dressing is going naked. That is what the Indians do in Surinam, ‘so like our first parents before the Fall’. Compared to them, the narrator herself looks weirdly overdressed, primitively adorned with plumage: ‘I had a taffeta cap, with black feathers, on my head,’ says the narrator of Oroonoko, of her outfit for her trip up the Amazon. She and her costume exemplify folly, contaminating the beauty of the jungle and its inhabitants.
Aphra Behn has been a puzzle to generations before our own, not just because she was a ‘woman writer’ but because her political temperament has seemed so foreign. She is neither what we call ‘right-wing’ nor what we call ‘a liberal humanist’. Her scepticism is rarer than her feminism. In Behn’s view, governments may be inevitable, but they are tyrannies, competent or incompetent. She has no faith in progress, which possibly shocked the 19th century more than did her blazoned sexuality. She had wide sympathies, but little pity, strong curiosities and not much belief in anything. If there was something she did believe in, it was experience, which makes her a Lockean before Locke; but the experience she truly values is emotional experience. She values it for its intensity and honesty, not for any redemptive quality. She seems sceptical about any redemption or reformation; very bad people can have brilliantly intense love affairs. She does apparently believe that if someone tells the truth, we murder him or her in one fashion or other. Rochester, like Oroonoko, is a passionate hero who bites the dust.
The Works of Aphra Behn replaces the Montagu Summers 1915 edition of her work. Time has brought new material to light, so, as one would expect, Todd’s version represents a considerable advance on Summers’s, though she acknowledges that ‘it is difficult to match the literary and anecdotal knowledge of the Restoration he reveals in his attributions and end-notes.’ Todd’s own work is admirably scholarly, if a bit narrow. She seems to have tracked all printings and manuscripts to their lairs, at least judging by the first of the promised six volumes, which contains Behn’s poems. Todd’s notes are concise and clear, but she exhibits no desire to range; there are few reminiscences of other Restoration poems and the ‘General Introduction’ tilts sharply to the side of brevity.