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Remember the Ladies: Aphra Behn

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely

Aphra Behn [Aphara] (22 March 1640? – 16 April 1689) was a British playwright, poet, translator and fiction writer from the Restoration era. As one of the first English women to earn her living by her writing, she broke cultural barriers and served as a literary role model for later generations of women authors. Rising from obscurity, she came to the notice of Charles II, who employed her as a spy in Antwerp. Upon her return to London and a probable brief stay in debtors’ prison, she began writing for the stage. She belonged to a coterie of poets and famous libertines such as John Wilmot, Lord Rochester. She wrote under the pastoral pseudonym Astrea. During the turbulent political times of the Exclusion Crisis, she wrote an epilogue and prologue that brought her into legal trouble; she thereafter devoted most of her writing to prose genres and translations. A staunch supporter of the Stuart line, she declined an invitation from Bishop Burnet to write a welcoming poem to the new king William III. She died shortly after.

She is famously remembered in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Her grave is not included in the Poets’ Corner but lies in the East Cloister near the steps to the church.

One of her poems, “The Willing Mistress,” ends with these lines:

“A many kisses he did give
And I returned the same,
Which made me willing to receive
That which I dare not name.
He did but kiss and clasp me
round…
And laid me gently on the
ground;
Ah who can guess the rest?”

Such lines scandalized many readers, as did her celebration off lesbianism in “To the Fair Clarinda,” and her lampoon on impotence in “the Disappointment.” Although she was the first woman in England to support herself by writing, in later years she was mostly forgotten, as were most of her literary contemporaries, whose rakish style was considered indecent in the later Victorian period.

When she wasn’t forgotten, she was attacked. Even her defenders admitted that “a little too loosely she writ,” and her enemies spared no venom. …“if Mrs. Behn is read at all, it can only be from a love of impurity for its own sake,” and that “it is a pity her books did not rot with her bones.” (from Remember the Ladies, Kirstin Olsen, 1988)

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