Sunday, July 1, 2012

Aphra Behn -- Playwright, Spy (and probably not a whore)

If Margaret Cavendish was one of the first widely recognizes female writers, Aphra Behn was one of the first professional female writers – she actually made a living from her writing. (Which as the writers among you know is hard enough even today.) She is the inspiration for the character Eliza in Ladies in Waiting.

Though it certainly wasn't common for a 17th Century woman to want to be a professional playwright – and even less common for her to succeed – it was certainly possible. The sexes were by no means equal, but women were somewhat better off than they had been for a while, and more professions were open to them. Dentists were officially licensed for the first time in this period, and a woman was one of the first licensees. Since King Charles II's restoration to the throne, women could now be actresses. Of course, the main occupations were still marriage and prostitution, so it was no great shakes, but still, better than it had been.

Not too much is known about Aphra Behn's personal life. Of course, she was briefly a spy for King Charles II in Antwerp, so secrecy might have become a habit for her. I'm sure she learned cynicism after the king – always broke – didn't pay her for her loyal service, and she almost wound up in debtor's prison. Her writing saved her, and apparently she didn't hold a grudge, because she remained a staunch royalist all her life. Of course, it could just be that she liked the alternative even less.

Her first play, The Forc'd Marriage in 1670, was a resounding success. Hit followed hit (though engagements in those days were generally very short) and today she is best remembered for the 1677 play The Rover. It was so well regarded that Nell Gwyn, the king's actress mistress, came out of retirement to play one of the female leads – a prostitute named Angelica Bianca.

Aphra Behn might have been married for a very short time, but it seems more likely Mr. Behn was a fiction to give her the slight protection a married woman or widow enjoyed. Miss, past a certain age, was a euphemism for prostitute. She, and other female writers, were still accused of being whores. Playwright Robert Gould said of female writers, Punk (whore) and Poetess agree so Pat,/ You cannot well be This, and not be That.

At least no one has called me a punk yet. At least, not to my face.

A shout-out to Prof. Neil Saccamano at Cornell, who introduced me to Aphra Behn in his 18th Century Literature class (which dipped its toe into the late 17th century too.) It is to him – and to Kathleen Winsor, of course – that Ladies in Waiting owes its genesis.


1 comment:

Ann Herrick said...

Interesting piece! And to think she had to write in longhand too. ;)