For this she was scorned, and she endured criticism and even arrest at times. Another similarly free-thinking female novelist of a more recent era, Virginia Woolf, declared that "all women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn," according to Carol Howard's essay on Behn in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.
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It is likely that Behn was the infant girl Eaffry Johnson, born in late according to baptismal records from the church of St. Michael's in Harbledown, a small village near Canterbury, England. This region of England, Kent, was a conservative, insular county during Behn's youth, but the English realm itself was anything but calm during her era; Behn's fortunes and alliances would be tied to the series of political crises that occurred during the seventeenth century, and her literary output drew from and even satirized the vying factions.
First came a Civil War that pitted Puritans against King Charles I; the monarchy was abolished with the king's beheading in Until England was ruled by Puritan revolt leader Oliver Cromwell , and upon his death in the monarchy was restored; hence the term for the era in which Behn wrote, Restoration England.
Behn was likely the daughter of a barber and a wet-nurse, and through her mother's care for the children of local landed gentry, the Colepeppers, Behn probably had access to some educational opportunities. Literary scholars agree that Behn most likely left England as a young woman with her family in when her father was appointed to a military post in Surinam, on the northeast coast of South America.
It was an arduous journey, and some evidence suggests that Behn's father did not survive the trip. In any event, Behn, her mother, and sister stayed on at the English settlement for a time until a return trip home was possible, and the experience provided the basis for her most famous literary work, Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave. This novel, published only near the end of Behn's career in , chronicles the tale of a cultivated, intelligent West African prince who speaks several European languages.
He falls in love with a West Indian woman named Imoinda, who is also the lover of his grandfather, the king.
Imoinda is sold into slavery, and Oroonoko is kidnapped by the English and brought to Surinam as a slave. Imoinda is also in Surinam and becomes pregnant by him. Oroonoko then leads a slave rebellion-an actual event from the era-but is captured, and falsely promised freedom for Imoinda and her unborn child. When this is rescinded, he kills her so she and his child will not fall into enemy hands, and dies by rather barbarous means in English hands at the conclusion.
Some of the villains and heroes were actual names from the period, English men who held posts in Surinam before it became a Dutch colony. Literary historians trace the development of realism in the novel back this volume. Realism is a literary style that uses real life as the basis for fiction, without idealizing it or imbuing it with a romantic bias, and it became prevalent in the nineteenth century. Behn's Oroonoko has also been termed groundbreaking for its depiction of the institution of slavery as cruel and inhumane, making it one of literary history's first abolitionist proclamations.
Behn has been praised for her characterization of Oroonoko, a just and decent man who encounters some very cruel traits among his white enemies; critics point to him as European literature's first portrayal of the "noble savage. England's troubles with Holland played a decisive part in Behn's fortunes as a young woman. Following her return to England in , she met and married a Dutch merchant by the name of Hans Behn.
Though it has been hinted that her brief marriage may have been her own fiction-widows were more socially respectable than single women during her era-other sources indicate the unfortunate Hans Behn died in an outbreak of the bubonic plague that swept through London in Later, many of Behn's works satirized Dutch merchants, the cultural icons of the era when Holland was growing rich from trade and giving birth to the first class of savvy capitalists.
Behn may have been well-off herself for a time, and became a favorite at the Court of Charles II for her ebullient personality and witty repartee. But then Behn's fortunes took a turn for the worse. It appears that she suddenly became destitute-perhaps after her husband died-and in was summoned into the service of the King as an agent in the war against Holland. She went to Antwerp to renew contact with a former lover, William Scot, who was a spy in the city; Scot was an Englishman who was involved in an expatriate group who once again wanted to abolish the monarchy.
Behn's mission was to get him to switch sides, and to send reports on behalf of Charles II back to England in invisible ink using the code name "Astrea. Yet her English spymasters left her virtually abandoned in a foreign enemy nation with no money-for a woman in the seventeenth century, this necessitated a very distressing and extreme crisis. She probably borrowed a sum, managed to return to England, and still was unremunerated by Charles II. Her numerous pleading letters, which still survive, were met with silence. She landed in debtor's prison in , but at this point someone paid her debt and she was released.
It was at this juncture that Behn resolved to support herself. She moved to London, and took up writing in earnest-not a revolutionary act at the time for a woman, but to expect to make a living at it certainly was. In Behn's day, a woman possessed no assets, could not enter into contracts herself, and was essentially powerless.
Financial support came from a woman's father, and then her husband. Some well-born women escaped such strictures by becoming mistresses; others did so by entering a convent. The Restoration was a somewhat debauched period in English history, however, and its libertine ways were well-documented. Behn's ambitions coincided with the revival of the London stage; the Civil War had darkened the city's already-famed theaters in the s and the London plague further shuttered them, but as England regained stability Charles II re-instituted the two main companies.
Behn began writing for one of them, Duke's Company at Dorset Garden, and her first play was produced in September of The Forc'd Marriage; or, The Jealous Bridegroom ran for six nights, a successful run, since playwrights usually went unpaid until the third evening's box-office take. The plot concerned a romantic comedy of errors, which was standard fare for the day. Behn would pen a number of works for the stage over the next dozen years. Most were lighthearted tales of thwarted love and cavalier seduction.
This work is centered around an English regiment living in exile in Italy during the Cromwell era; one of its officers, Willmore, is the "rover" of the title, a libidinous sort for whom Behn seemed to have modeled on the similarly randy Charles II. One of her final plays, The Roundheads; or, The Good Old Cause, was produced in and achieved notoriety for the way in which Behn's pen ridiculed a faction of republican parliamentarians. But Behn's strong opinions landed her in trouble that same year when she was arrested for writing a polemic on the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's illegitimate son and claimant to the throne.
This also coincided with a merging of London's two main theaters and a subsequent decline of the medium. Behn then turned to writing novels. One of her best-known works was published in three volumes between and , and was based on an actual scandal of the time.
Books by Aphra Behn
Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister was a thinly-disguised fictional treatment of the antics of one Lord Grey, who in eloped with his wife's sister; Grey was a Whig, or anti-monarchist, and would go on to play a real-life role in other political machinations between the throne and Parliament. This last work was Behn's fictional saga of Isabella, who breaks her vow of chastity, marries two men, and in the end slays them both. In the twilight years of her brief career, Behn earned a living from Latin and French translations, and also penned versions of Aesop's Fables and poetry-some of which was quite racy.
This is the first of many scenes in which the prince is persuaded towards an emotional or physical action; it happens to be the least verbal and the most positive. For a novel that so clearly espouses a royalist political outlook Oroonoko being so often described in terms of European nobility , the fact that Oroonoko is so easily persuaded from standing on principle is quite troubling. Many times he is persuaded, by others or himself, out of the one foolproof method of asserting agency—terminal violence against the self.
Similarly, having been persuaded to board the slave ship and then physically betrayed by the Captain, promises to commit suicide by hunger and is convinced otherwise by the captain, who promises an absurd contract of liberation: He convinces her quite easily to accept death at his hands, solely so that his enemies might not assert their dominion over him through her.
The incongruity of his actions renders the superlatives of his tragic condition meaningless, so one questions the superlatives of his noble character as described earlier in the novel. At another level of discourse lies a much more problematic persuasion which has come to light more recently as Behn has taken her place in the literary canon. However, as a participant and an acknowledged contributing member of the class the middle class, or parliamentarians, we could say that betrays the noble prince, she herself admits to being persuaded against exercising her power on his behalf, as seen on two separate occasions:.
For I suppose I had Authority and Interest enough there, had I suspected any such thing, to have prevented it. I was perswaded to leave the Place for some time; being my self but Sickly, and very apt to fall into Fits of dangerous Illness upon any extraordinary Melancholy. Both times, she submits herself to the masculine stereotype of female weakness and cannot be persuaded by others or herself to take action on behalf of Oroonoko.
Her assertion on both occasions of innocence through ignorance seems disingenuous given the insinuation of her literary and historical agency into the text itself. These passages tie the idea of persuasion directly to that of agency in the physical as well as socio-political and artistic discourses. There are four common methods by which literary characters gain agency: Agency in Oroonoko is seen mostly through cycles of persuasion and violence—the characters exist and interact as archetypes, and though the cross-cultural interactions and character flaws create tension, conflict resolution by these methods forms the lens granted us by Behn for the examination of interpersonal relationships.
The fact that argument, as opposed to violent chivalric confrontation, rational introspection, or mere denomination, 9 opens the text to a multiplicity of meanings implies that not only can anyone gain agency including women , but that meaning itself is subject to discourse as opposed to essentialist assertions, including the political and anthropological assertions of Behn herself.
It is this purposeful complicity in an ambiguous and self-contradictory prose form that earns Behn her place in literary history. I am referring to the work as a novel, as it is the most convenient word at this time and I do not wish to concern myself with the semantics of categorization at this point. Also, I will refer to Behn in concert with the narrator: Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave. Edited by Catherine Gallagher. The absence of introspection in Oroonoko likewise stems from the archetypical nature of the characters. One could argue that the replacement of individual introspection with verbal i.
Furthermore, the granting of names to many characters Clemence, Onahal, Aboan, Tuscan, etc. The Complete Works of Shakespeare 40 works [Illustrated]. Charles Lamb And Mary Lamb. Familiar Quotations, Vintage Edition Illustrated. The Complete Comedies of William Shakespeare. Works Of Aphra Behn: Works Of John Milton: Works of William Shakespeare.
Works Of Geoffrey Chaucer: The Jew of Malta Annotated. Works Of Christopher Marlowe: The Comedies of Shakespeare. Amores "The Loves" Mobi Classics. The Works Of Ben Jonson. John Wilmot Earl of Rochester. The Wife of Bath. Poems on various subjects, religious and moral. Books for Children by Charles and Mary Lamb. Volpone or the Fox. The Jew Of Malta. Notes to Shakespeare's Comedies.
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A Childhood in Kent
The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. Works of John Fletcher. The Major Works of Alexander Pope. Works of Robert Herrick Poet. Harvard Classics Volume Children's Stories From Shakespeare. Othello Annotated by Henry N.
Who is Aphra Behn? | Great Writers Inspire
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