“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”, acknowledging her importance Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own.
Behn is regarded as one of the most influential dramatists of the late
seventeenth century, was also a celebrated poet and novelist. Even centuries
passed, the name Aphra Behn and her writings are still in demand. Among the
early British women writers, Aphra Behn (1640- 1689) is a newly-sung hero, the
first professional women of letters in Britain who paved a new way in the
British literary history. She broke the cultural barriers and served as a
literary role model for the later generations of women writers.
today likely to link Behn with various topics like religion, politics, advent
of novel, English imperialism and Restoration stagecraft. The
professionalization of literary studies that take hold in the 1950s certainly
marginalized Behn and later on she was put into the scene by the light bearers
of New Criticism. Behn’s status as England’s first professional woman author raises
many concerns, knowing the fact that singularity of her achievement without
ascribing notions of gender identity seem limiting, both historically and
theoretically. This issues can be included in women’s literary history, Restoration
and eighteenth century cultural studies as well.
history of Aphra Behn is in scant, maybe she deliberately obscured it. It is
believed that Behn had a Catholic upbringing. Rising from obscurity, she came
to the notice of King Charles II, who employed her as a spy in Antwerp,
Netherlands, incurring debts in her work, which unpaid she served a stint in
debtor’s prison. As a result of this, she turned to making a living out of
contemporary reputation as a poet was no less stunning than her notoriety as a
dramatist. She was heralded as a successor to Sappho, inheriting the great
gifts of the Greek poet in the best English tradition. Behn was
apostrophized as “The Incomparable Astrea,” an appellation based on
the code name she had used when she was Charles’s spy.
first performed play, The Forc’d Marriage
appeared in 1670. The play was a popular and financial success- an
encouragement start. This was followed by The
Amorous Prince and her sole tragedy, Abdelazer.
After this, she turned to writing witty comedies of sexual intrigue such as
The Town Fop, The Debauchee and The
from writing numerous plays at a time, when women were censured for taking up
writing as a career, Behn also wrote a short novel, Oroonoko.
the source of the texts, whether her plays, a political or personal occasion,
an adaptation or translation, or an emotional or psychological exploration,
Behn’s verse style is particular and identifiable, with a very distinctive
voice. Musicality is another important characteristic of Behn’s verse. Behn’s
poem seems to be more classical when comparing with her predecessors and
Behn is a radical writer, who championed the cause of women and their sexual
desire at a time when it was believed that women should be seen and not heard.
Women such as Behn who wrote or acted on the stage were seen as whores.
Undeterred by this stereotypical typecasting, Behn manages to break new ground.
known as the first professional woman writer in English, Aphra
Behn has now emerged as one of the major
figures of the Restoration. The Restoration theatre gave women an unprecedented
public presence and identity. Her writing was frank about the situation of
women in the Restoration England. The most popular form of drama was the
Restoration Comedy which poked fun at puritan values and often featured
adultery, courtship and sex. It was a time of an emerging literary
professionalism, with the reading public growing rapidly as a result of the
increased number of printers. In Behn’s career, we see her carefully, if not
always successfully, aiming at the constantly moving target of audience taste.
best known play, The Rover was so
famous that King Charles II’s mistress and famous actress Nell Gwyn came out of
retirement to play the role of whore, Angelica Bianca. The play centers around
two pairs of lovers, Helena and Willmore, Florinda and Belvile. The Rover or The Banished Cavaliers is a revision of Thomas Killigrew’s play Thomaso or The Wanderer in 1654. This play was widely received by the English
to Restoration poet John Dryden, it “lacks the manly vitality of Killigrew’s
play, but shows greater refinement of expression.” Behn has faced some
troubles from the publisher of Killigrew’s for adopting his work. There are
four major plotlines and among these three are adapted from Killigrew’s work.
This work was written during a period at which Cavaliers were expelled and they
were leading an impoverished life of exiles. The Carolian comedy has reached
its maturity by the time The Rover was
published. Behn presented the drama different from Killigrew’s version by
changing its tone. Killigrew’s humor depends upon a vulgarity that is entirely
absent from Behn’s plays.
The Rover explores issues of
love, courtship and marriage and often include witty social comments and sexual
violence. The plots are interwoven with a lot of subplots. The prologue and
epilogue of the play are presented in rhymed couplets. Other than the love
affairs of the main characters, the affair of Blunt and Lucetta is brought to
the scene. Along with this there is a parallel courtship between Valeria and
Frederic too. The comedy of the period is well portrayed through two
contrasting love affairs which is projected in the play, that is, the serious,
matured love of Florinda and Belvile and wild and witty love of Wilmore and
Hellena. The play can be a best example for Restoration comedy tradition.
Restoration drama was very notorious for displaying gruesome scenes on stage.
Rape and adultery are shown on stage in this play. Even it contains dialogues
which treats sexuality with utter frankness. The play presents a dramatic world
dominated by the two principal patriarchal definitions of women, but in which
the boundary separating one from the other has become blurred. In the case of
both Florinda, the play’s quintessential “maid of quality,” and the prostitute
Angelica Bianca, the role reversals arise out of contrasting bids to move from
subjection into subjectivity. Behn’s female characters are portrayed as
complex, fully developed and strong willed ones. They reflect Behn’s concern
with the position of women in a society by appearing to be strong, independent
women who recognized their identity. The
Carnivalesque atmosphere of the play is a synonym for the epitomic level of
revelry and intense celebration.
Rebellion against forced marriage is an
age-old comic theme which employed in this play. The forced marriage here is
planned by Don Pedro between Florinda and Don Antonio. Florinda articulates her
defiance of paternal authority, her condemnation of “ill customs” which make a
woman the “slave” of her male relations which presents this comic motif as a
clash between the absolutist concept of marriage. Heroes of Behn’s plays are
usually rude. The male characters are given less importance compared to the female
characters. Restoration England considered women as mere commodities. The
female characters of Behn are depicted as financially independent.
The play was well received by the
Restoration audience however, it contains many sexual implications, scenes and
dialogues. Her plays were as popular as those of Wycherley and Congreve. She was greatly criticized on moral grounds
since, the critics argue that her play is not according to the decency of the
age. The Rover is a well written
Restoration Comedy. The Rover uses the Restoration theatre archetype of the
witty, womanising rake. It is also considered as a feministic play as it brings
out the liberation of women. It is an astonishing play for a woman to have
written at that time, although there are limits to the women’s agency.