“All women together ought to let flowersfall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right tospeak their minds”, acknowledging her importance Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own.
AphraBehn is regarded as one of the most influential dramatists of the lateseventeenth century, was also a celebrated poet and novelist. Even centuriespassed, the name Aphra Behn and her writings are still in demand. Among theearly British women writers, Aphra Behn (1640- 1689) is a newly-sung hero, thefirst professional women of letters in Britain who paved a new way in theBritish literary history. She broke the cultural barriers and served as aliterary role model for the later generations of women writers. Criticismtoday likely to link Behn with various topics like religion, politics, adventof novel, English imperialism and Restoration stagecraft.
Theprofessionalization of literary studies that take hold in the 1950s certainlymarginalized Behn and later on she was put into the scene by the light bearersof New Criticism. Behn’s status as England’s first professional woman author raisesmany concerns, knowing the fact that singularity of her achievement withoutascribing notions of gender identity seem limiting, both historically andtheoretically. This issues can be included in women’s literary history, Restorationand eighteenth century cultural studies as well. The lifehistory of Aphra Behn is in scant, maybe she deliberately obscured it. It isbelieved that Behn had a Catholic upbringing. Rising from obscurity, she cameto the notice of King Charles II, who employed her as a spy in Antwerp,Netherlands, incurring debts in her work, which unpaid she served a stint indebtor’s prison. As a result of this, she turned to making a living out oftheatre.
Behn’scontemporary reputation as a poet was no less stunning than her notoriety as adramatist. She was heralded as a successor to Sappho, inheriting the greatgifts of the Greek poet in the best English tradition. Behn wasapostrophized as “The Incomparable Astrea,” an appellation based onthe code name she had used when she was Charles’s spy. Herfirst performed play, The Forc’d Marriageappeared in 1670.
The play was a popular and financial success- anencouragement start. This was followed by TheAmorous Prince and her sole tragedy, Abdelazer.After this, she turned to writing witty comedies of sexual intrigue such asThe Town Fop, The Debauchee and TheCounterfeit Bridegroom. Apartfrom writing numerous plays at a time, when women were censured for taking upwriting as a career, Behn also wrote a short novel, Oroonoko. Whateverthe source of the texts, whether her plays, a political or personal occasion,an adaptation or translation, or an emotional or psychological exploration,Behn’s verse style is particular and identifiable, with a very distinctivevoice. Musicality is another important characteristic of Behn’s verse. Behn’spoem seems to be more classical when comparing with her predecessors andcontemporaries.
AphraBehn is a radical writer, who championed the cause of women and their sexualdesire at a time when it was believed that women should be seen and not heard.Women such as Behn who wrote or acted on the stage were seen as whores.Undeterred by this stereotypical typecasting, Behn manages to break new ground. Traditionallyknown as the first professional woman writer in English, AphraBehn has now emerged as one of the majorfigures of the Restoration.
The Restoration theatre gave women an unprecedentedpublic presence and identity. Her writing was frank about the situation ofwomen in the Restoration England. The most popular form of drama was theRestoration Comedy which poked fun at puritan values and often featuredadultery, courtship and sex.
It was a time of an emerging literaryprofessionalism, with the reading public growing rapidly as a result of theincreased number of printers. In Behn’s career, we see her carefully, if notalways successfully, aiming at the constantly moving target of audience taste. Herbest known play, The Rover was sofamous that King Charles II’s mistress and famous actress Nell Gwyn came out ofretirement to play the role of whore, Angelica Bianca. The play centers aroundtwo pairs of lovers, Helena and Willmore, Florinda and Belvile. The Rover or The Banished Cavaliers is a revision of Thomas Killigrew’s play Thomaso or The Wanderer in 1654.
This play was widely received by the Englishpublic. Accordingto Restoration poet John Dryden, it “lacks the manly vitality of Killigrew’splay, but shows greater refinement of expression.” Behn has faced sometroubles from the publisher of Killigrew’s for adopting his work. There arefour major plotlines and among these three are adapted from Killigrew’s work.This work was written during a period at which Cavaliers were expelled and theywere leading an impoverished life of exiles. The Carolian comedy has reachedits maturity by the time The Rover waspublished. Behn presented the drama different from Killigrew’s version bychanging its tone.
Killigrew’s humor depends upon a vulgarity that is entirelyabsent from Behn’s plays. The Rover explores issues oflove, courtship and marriage and often include witty social comments and sexualviolence. The plots are interwoven with a lot of subplots. The prologue andepilogue of the play are presented in rhymed couplets. Other than the loveaffairs of the main characters, the affair of Blunt and Lucetta is brought tothe scene.
Along with this there is a parallel courtship between Valeria andFrederic too. The comedy of the period is well portrayed through twocontrasting love affairs which is projected in the play, that is, the serious,matured love of Florinda and Belvile and wild and witty love of Wilmore andHellena. The play can be a best example for Restoration comedy tradition.Restoration drama was very notorious for displaying gruesome scenes on stage.Rape and adultery are shown on stage in this play.
Even it contains dialogueswhich treats sexuality with utter frankness. The play presents a dramatic worlddominated by the two principal patriarchal definitions of women, but in whichthe boundary separating one from the other has become blurred. In the case ofboth Florinda, the play’s quintessential “maid of quality,” and the prostituteAngelica Bianca, the role reversals arise out of contrasting bids to move fromsubjection into subjectivity. Behn’s female characters are portrayed ascomplex, fully developed and strong willed ones.
They reflect Behn’s concernwith the position of women in a society by appearing to be strong, independentwomen who recognized their identity. TheCarnivalesque atmosphere of the play is a synonym for the epitomic level ofrevelry and intense celebration. Rebellion against forced marriage is anage-old comic theme which employed in this play.
The forced marriage here isplanned by Don Pedro between Florinda and Don Antonio. Florinda articulates herdefiance of paternal authority, her condemnation of “ill customs” which make awoman the “slave” of her male relations which presents this comic motif as aclash between the absolutist concept of marriage. Heroes of Behn’s plays areusually rude. The male characters are given less importance compared to the femalecharacters. Restoration England considered women as mere commodities. Thefemale characters of Behn are depicted as financially independent.
The play was well received by theRestoration audience however, it contains many sexual implications, scenes anddialogues. Her plays were as popular as those of Wycherley and Congreve. She was greatly criticized on moral groundssince, the critics argue that her play is not according to the decency of theage. The Rover is a well writtenRestoration Comedy. The Rover uses the Restoration theatre archetype of thewitty, womanising rake.
It is also considered as a feministic play as it bringsout the liberation of women. It is an astonishing play for a woman to havewritten at that time, although there are limits to the women’s agency.