Logo

Feminist Icons of Literature: Aphra Behn – Spy, Playwright and Feminist Badass

by / 0 Comments / 04/01/2017

At nineteen, I am hesitant to call myself a writer. For some unfathomable reason, when someone else introduces or describes themselves as such I unconsciously find my eyes widening a little with awe and a detailed and passionate conversation tends to ensue about what they focus on, write about, specialise in etc. Yet, the idea of describing myself as a writer makes me cringe inwardly. How dare I have the audacity to describe myself as anything, other than a student, which, depending on your perspective, is either synonymous with being intelligent or a slob. Perhaps I am somewhat a mixture of both.

 

Yet suddenly, as post-university life as an adult stands before me, glaring at me with the intensity of a teacher who just expects you to know the answer to a question you didn’t even hear, I find myself compelled to open my computer and place my fingers on the keys, however tentatively. Recently, I opened an email from the editor of my university literary magazine asking for submissions for this month’s issue and this pulled me away from my House of Cards marathon.

Writing used to be my passion, my hobby, but once A Levels hit me in the face (brutally, savagely, without mercy) all that seemed lost. Maybe I should get back to it.

I won’t lie, a surge of self-assurance and courage washed over me as I opened up my word document to be greeted with a blank page, and a flashing cursor. Ah. What exactly was I going to write about? A momentary blank occurred. What could I even begin to talk about? How well Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey look for their age? And so I turned to the only person I could trust to inspire intelligent creativity in my soul: Virginia Woolf. Flicking through A Room of One’s Own, I came across a quote which particularly stood out to me:

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.

Of course. What better way to make my literary journalistic debut than with one of literary feminism’s greatest unsung heroes? What better way to introduce myself to the online community, then by introducing you to one of the greatest and wittiest playwrights of the Restoration era? Literature is a gift, and a gift to be shared and discussed, and so without a doubt in my mind The Rover, Behn’s greatest and most critically acclaimed piece, is absolutely the best place to start.

Behn published The Rover in 1677, seventeen years after the Restoration of King Charles II and twenty-six years after the end of the English Civil War. What was particularly influential about theatre during this period, was that women were finally allowed to perform on stage. Prior to that, the closing of the theatres was initiated by the Puritan heads of the ‘Long Parliament’ in 1642, under the belief that theatre was a distraction from the Lord, and because the English Civil War had broken out. Although women had been introduced onto the stage in 1629 by a French Theatre Company, they were forced off the stage by audiences. Flash-forward thirty years, and women gradually became a more fixed part of theatre.

Between 1660–1700, 25 per cent of plays included cross-dressing roles designed for women, and slowly a new genre presented itself onstage: sexually suggestive comedy. That’s right folks, sex sold in the industry even in the 1600s. So this was the theatrical climate Behn found herself in, and this new drama paved the way for playwrights like herself to explore gender roles, gender inversion and societal stereotypes, all in the name of good humour. Behn had led a pretty intense life before she started writing, and in a way it was probably a good thing, because it definitely provided her with the personal tools to tackle any issue, and any prejudice.

In 1666, Behn was supposedly made a political spy for King Charles II in Antwerp. She even had her own code name, Astrea, and was allegedly sent to construct a relationship with a man called William Scot, the son of Thomas Scot, a regicide who was executed in 1660. She was also, for a short time, imprisoned for debt after Charles II wouldn’t pay her expenses. By 1670 she was forced to earn her own income and so turned to the theatre, refusing to rely on a patron (hence the general assumption: she was a fierce queen, both on and off the stage).

From the very beginning of her career, Behn was one of the most successful and prolific playwrights of her time and the first woman to make a successful career through authorship.

The Rover was performed on March 24th in 1677 before King Charles II and it quickly became one of his favourite plays. Leading actress of the time Elizabeth Barry played the role of Helena, the protagonist of the piece, at the Duke Company, and due to its immediate success and popularity the play was performed and revived quite frequently until the 18th century. It was during this time of excessive morality and rejection of the ‘improper’ that Behn’s writing, inclusive of sexual scenes and gender fluidity, obscured her reputation as a great author and dragged her out of academic and popular attention. She, like so many of us even today, was a victim of double standards, within both literature and society.

PEDRO: ‘Callis, take her hence and lock her up all this carnival, and at Lent, she shall begin her everlasting penance in a monastery’.
HELENA: ‘I care not, I had rather be a nun than be obliged to marry as you would have me if I were designed for’t’.
PEDRO: ‘Do not fear the blessing of that choice. You shall be a nun’.
HELENA (Aside): ‘Shall I so? You may chance to be mistaken in my way of devotion-a nun! Yes, I am like to make a fine nun! I have an excellent humour for a grate. No, I’ll have a saint of my own to pray to shortly, if I like any that dares venture on me’.

On to the play itself, there are a million reasons as to why it is so great. Essentially, the genius of this play is found within the characters; their image, stereotype, and psychology. Behn makes a mockery of arranged marriage, seeming to voice an opinion similar to that of artists such as William Blake and Richard Sheridan a century later, namely that arranged marriage was little different to legalised prostitution, and that within the concept of marriage women were the pawns of financial gain, played by their male relatives as part of the oppressive patriarchy of the times. (Side note. The Rivals by Sheridan is another example of tragically underrated genius, and I’d highly recommend giving it a read — if A Level English Literature gave me nothing else, it gave me that.)

Behn also, through characters like Angelica Bianca (does anyone else’s mind go straight to Kat’s little sister in 10 Things I Hate About You when they hear that name, or is it just me?) and Helena, manages to completely destroy gender stereotyping and establishes a theme of gender inversion. Both female characters use the men of the play for long-term stability regarding financial and personal gain, as the men try to use the women for short-term sexual pleasures. Far from promoting or falling victim to the ease of the damsels-in-distress trope, Behn not only empowers her female characters but does so through the emasculation of her male characters. This is done both through her superficial literary construction of their ‘male-ness’, but also through the actions of the women in the play. Although Angelica is a prostitute, she is far from the typical and somewhat modern conception of being purely an object created for decoration and sexual objectification. She remains one of the most intelligent and powerful characters within the play, and the fierceness and power of her character is only enhanced by her profession, rather than diminished by it. Angelica is not defined by what she does, but what she does contributes to her power:

ANGELICA: ‘Pray tell me, sir, are you not guilty of the same mercenary crime? When a lady is proposed to you for a wife, you have asked how fair, discreet, or virtuous she is, but “What’s her fortune?”- which, if but small, you cry, “She will not do my business”, and basely leave her, though she languished for you, is not this as poor?’                        

WILLMORE:  ‘It is a barbarous custom, which I will scorn to defend in our sex, and do despise in yours’.

ANGELICA: ‘Thou’rt a brave fellow! Put up thy gold, and know, That were they fortune large as thy soul,
Thou shouldst not buy my love’.

Behn pushes the boundaries of theatre, gender constraints and societal stereotypes through the removal of strict gender identities, established through the use of disguise within the plot. Helena is dressed as a male for large parts of the play, and this removed the visual restraints of 17th-century femininity. The power of her character is allowed to shine, just as the powerful independence of Angelica, her passionate vengeance and her mercy outshine her profession. Yet, at the same time, Behn was able to destroy these stereotypical constraints of the female gender by adopting the ‘stock’ characters of the men — by adopting the literary stereotype of the ‘rake’ figure in Willmore. Within Restoration literature the ‘rake’ figure was often seen as a sexually promiscuous, witty, intelligent and handsome aristocrat, driven by impulse and desire rather than rationality or an awareness of socially acceptable behaviour. This masculine ‘rake’ figure was a typical trope found within literature during this period, and his existence emphasises the strength and brilliance of the women, driven by cunning intelligence though placed by society on a lower footing to men whose mind is focused only on instant gratification.

This incorporation of deception, deceit and the conventional ‘rake’ figure all point towards Behn’s sexually explicit comedy as being somewhat a comedy of manners. A form of entertainment which satirises the manners of the social classes, and through this parody of aristocratic behaviour highlights the hypocrisies within the social hierarchies to audiences, under a veil of playful humour unlikely to cause offence.

Behn’s ability to adapt to the desires of the times and her unique ability to continue and incorporate the tradition and conventional tropes of 17th-century Restoration theatre, whilst simultaneously destroying the conventional trope of the ‘damsel in distress’ and the fragile, wailing woman, show her unquestionable ability as an author.

The Rover is, to me, evidence enough to place Behn upon the pedestal of great feminist literary heroes. I think we should listen carefully to the words of Woolf: all of us, literary critics, activists, theatre lovers and feminists should throw as many flowers as we can find on the tomb of the great Aphra Behn.

Image Source

An English Literature student with a love of books, sarcasm, caffeine and bad television.

Write a Reply or Comment

Email (will not be published)