Very very she

Margaret Anne Doody

  • The Works of Aphra Behn. Vol. I: Poetry edited by Janet Todd
    Pickering & Chatto, 481 pp, £55.00, September 1992, ISBN 1 85196 012 0
  • Oroonoko, The Rover and Other Works by Aphra Behn, edited by Janet Todd
    Penguin, 385 pp, £6.99, November 1992, ISBN 0 14 043338 4

‘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.

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