Thursday, September 8, 2011

Aphra Behn.... Who?

I want to introduce you to an author I had never heard of until about two years ago.  In the words of Virginia Woolf, "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."  Aphra Behn was an author and playwright during England's Restoration Theatre of the late 1600s.  Although she was not technically the first female playwright, she was the first woman in history to make a career of writing.  Behn was a trailblazer for female authorship, boldly presenting her bawdy work to the public.  The few women who also wrote at this time had a tendency to include an apologetic prologue in their literature, but Behn, on the other hand, exploded against criticism in her aggressive prologues and demanded that people take her seriously.  The result?  Audiences loved her.  She spit out fifteen plays, keeping up with the popular playwrights, George Etherege and John Dryden, as a dominant figure in the era.

Shredding the "docile woman" image, she wrote about twisted romances, sexual encounters, and dueling swordfights that her audience adored.  The Rover is my favorite piece, but I must confess it's also the only one I've read in full.  Some summaries indicate that the story focuses on a group of Englishmen who go to a carnival in Italy.  I think that it is more accurate to say it is about a group of women who outwit their men and (mostly) get their way.  In the beginning of the story, Florinda has been set up in an arranged marriage against her will, and Hellena has likewise been forced into a convent.  Valeria, their cousin, takes part in all their schemes but plays a lessor role to the story.  There's also Angellica, a beautiful cortezan who falls in love with the rover himself, Willmore. 

The plot is full of tricks, masks, liasons, fights, and love.  The men battle among themselves over the women, and the women deceive the men in a number of different ways.  She gives us a traditional pair of admirable lovers - Florinda and Belvile - as well as some stranger couples.  But the best part of the play is undoubtedly the witty dialogue.  I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by just how clever Behn is.  Hellena, the destined nun, is my favorite character, for I think she is easily the smartest.  But even Angellica is fascinating, and Behn adds some dignity to prostitution.  I started reading her work out of a sense of duty, but I found myself cracking up and falling in love with her style.  Allow me to share a small sampling of my favorite quotes from The Rover:

"Marriage is as certain a bane to love as lending money to friendship."  - Willmore
After forcing Willmore to make a promise she knows he won't keep, "Now what a wicked creature am I, to damn a proper fellow!" - Hellena
"[Men] have generally so kind an opinion of themselves, that a woman with any wit may flatter 'em into any sort of fool she pleases." - Lucetta

I urge you all - men and women alike - to add Aphra Behn to your bookshelves. She is funny, bawdy, and immensely significant.  And as if she wasn't already cool enough, history indicates that Behn also acted as a spy for the English government before she began her career as a playwright to pull herself out of debt.  Convinced yet?  :)


Amateur Reader said...

First English woman to make her career in writing! The amazing Christine de Pizan precedes Behn by 250 years.

Very interesting to hear about The Rover. I have read the prose Oroonoko, but not any of her plays.

Melody said...

I'm intrigued--thanks for the intro!

IngridLola said...

Interesting! I've heard her name before he but never knew much about her. Thanks!

Amy said...

Wow, @Amateur Reader, I'm interested to learn more about Christine de Pizan. Thanks!