Aphra Amis, |
Mrs. Behn (1640-1689)
She was born at Wye, in Kent.1 While she was still very young the Amis family went to Surinam, West Indies, where Aphra's girlhood was spent. At about twenty-three2 she returned to England and soon thereafter married Mr. Behn, a London merchant of Dutch parentage. At his death, before 1666, she was left nearly penniless. For a short time she was in Holland as a secret political agent for the English court. But her services received scant official recognition and the pay was so meager and uncertain that she returned to England and began to look about for other means of support. The new passion for the theater was not yet exhausted and she turned instinctively to play-writing as her most hopeful resource. During the years 1670-1689 her literary output extended into many other fields and shows continuous work at high pressure. Not only was she one of the chief assets of the Duke's Theater as a playwright, but she also translated French verse and prose; she wrote numerous occasional poems; she edited miscellanies; and she wrote novels. Her comedies had a most flattering contemporary vogue and some of them maintained their popularity well into the next century. She satisfied the taste of the day for rapid, bustling plots, with many and varied characters, and her intrigues were cleverly manipulated, while she surpassed most of her contemporaries in vivacious, easy, rapid dialogue. She is never dull or insipid. Her plays show that she had a vigorous mind, an overflow of spirits, a reckless mental energy. There is apparent a sense of power conscious of itself and careless of precedents or restrictions. In defiance of Ben Jonson, Dryden, and Shadwell she spoke contemptuously of "the musty unities." The material for her plays she took wherever she found it, from preceding plays, from romances, from real life, used it, made it over, and often so improved it that she could justifiably laugh at charges of plagiarism. One charge she could not evade and that had to 129
1 Lady Winchilsea: Circuit of Apollo, note. (Ed. Reynolds Myra.)
2 Behn, Aphra: Works, 6 vols.; Cibber, Lives of the Poets, vol. III, pp. 17-23.
do with the immorality of her writings. Dryden, Shadwell, Wycherley, and Etherege, and the audiences who applauded their plays, seemed to find the vis comica in an open indecency of character, situation, and conversation that is to-day almost unbelievable. And of Mrs. Behn it must be admitted that she vied with the most corrupt. She said, in extenuation, as Dryden also said in answer to Jeremy Collier's strictures, that she wrote to please. She did not consider comedy "a reforming or converting agent," it was meant to be "an entertainment." Her emphasis on the vicious elements of the life about her was a clear case of supply and demand, but it had an unhappy personal result. There early gathered about her name a hostile tradition based on the fact that she was not only a woman writer, but an eminently successful woman writer, and on the further fact that, being a woman, she had not the modest reserve for which the chaste Orinda was idolized, but presented debaucheries in the bold and open manner characteristic of contemporary male playwrights. This hostile tradition, crystallized by Pope in a witty couplet,1 became a commonplace of adverse criticism, and Astrĉa's undeniable talents have sunk into oblivion. A general revival of Mrs. Behn's comedies would be impossible, undesirable, but by the student of social and political history in the Restoration period they cannot be ignored. 130
Mrs. Behn's novels are now as little known as her plays, but in her own day were very popular. Oroonoko, the first and by far the best, was based on her life in Surinam. At a time when French heroic romances, with their high-flown adventures, unreal characters, and stilted dialogue, were the only works of fiction, Mrs. Behn's short, simple, vigorous, and affecting story of real life comes with a startling sense of novelty. 2 The vivid portrayal of the cruelties incident to the slave trade, though probably written without didactic intent, gives the story a modern humanitarian note not unprophetic of Uncle Tom's
1 The Epistle to Augustus, ll. 290-91.
2 Kavanagh Julia. English Women of Letters, vol. I, chap. II.
MRS. APHRA BEHN
From a picture by Mary Beale in the collection of
his Grace the Duke of Buckingham Drawn by T. Uwins.
Engraved by J. Fittler, A.R.A. From an engraving in
Effigies Poeticae, London, 1824, Vol. II.
Cabin. And the description of the Indian Prince as the ideal natural man, his innate virtues in their pristine purity unvitiated by civilization, foreshadows the theories of Rousseau. The descriptions of nature, however exaggerated, are vivid and attractive, and show a delight in scenic detail not found again in fiction before Mrs. Collyer in 1730. Thus in four ways. choice of real life as a theme, interest in scenery, emphasis on the natural man, and on humanitarianism, Mrs. Behn's little story links itself with the novel of the future rather than with the romances of the past. In the plays Mrs. Behn showed exceptional ability in a realm in which women have seldom excelled. In her novels she marked out a path where women have gained marked literary success. 131
In one other way she is an important, outstanding figure. She was the first woman in England who made authorship a profession, the first one who definitely set out to earn her living by her pen. It is unfortunate that the first literary lady to achieve "economic independence" should likewise be the first whose writings were notably immoral. But it is a law of human nature that an unaccustomed freedom seldom contents itself in its early exercise of power with destroying merely the unjust bonds by which it has been confined. Freedom is likely to begin by being license. And when Aphra Behn so far defied convention as to compete with men as a playwright on the public stage, when she openly criticized her contemporaries and boasted that her comedies did not fall below most that she read, she had so set herself apart in an unfeminine realm that prudishness and decency fell together. Psychologically the actress and the writer of comedies seem to have gone through similar experiences.