Gender Economics of Restoration and Aphra Behn
The Restoration era allowed women to step into what was historically an essentially masculine space, that of literary and theatrical production. As women stepped on stage, they entered a market- they were commodities displayed to attract a larger crowd towards the theatre. Thus even though through writing or acting a woman could gain financial independence, unlike men they weren’t selling their work, they were ostensibly selling a part of themselves.
A woman could not escape commodification even if she didn’t enter this particular market – matrimony and the nunnery were also means of buying and selling of women’s ‘wares’. The hymen itself was a commodity, as a woman could only marry if she was a virgin. In fact arguably in Restoration Comedy no witty unmarried was without ‘property and a maidenhead’.
Thus, arguably, a woman could not escape being a prostitute in the Restoration Period. As a woman author who thus reflected the trend of women actors entering the world of theatrical production, Aphra Behn was continually negotiating the dichotomy of economic freedom and control of women in this market-space. Thus her work would be the ideal case study to understand the gender economics of the Restoration Period.
In this context, I would like to position Aphra Behn’s works, The Rover Part I and II, The Feign’d Curtizans, The Luckey Chance, The Forced Marriage: or The Jealous Bridegroom and ‘The Golden Age” to understand the place of women in the economics of the Restoration Era and how they negotiated in the market-space they were now stepping into.
WOMEN’S PROBLEMATIZED INTRODUCTION IN THE MARKET
The restoration of Charles II to the throne brought a almost deliberate reversal of the previously prevalent Puritan ethic. There was a new kind of apparent sexual freedom. He introduced the practice of actresses playing female roles. However, actresses earned far less than actors, thus had to resort to being mistresses. Also, publishing by the women was tantamount to prostitution.
Typically, the Restoration comedies portrayed the lives of hedonistic young men who filled their leisure hours with drinking, whoring, theatre and “wit”. They needed money but had no inclination to actually earn it and preferred procuring it through marriage to an heiress.
As in the typical Restoration comedy, men seek sex and money, the girls want a say in the choice of a marriage partner. Thus evidently the heroine is allowed freedom of thought but her freedom of action is confined to ensuring that she is a virgin when she gets married to the man of her choice.
As a successful professional playwright, Aphra Behn definitely wrote plays which are typical of the Restoration, yet she manages to comment on a topic which touched her very closely: the true status of women in the society as they begin to participate a little more actively in the constructs of gender economics.
POSITIONING APHRA BEHN
The prologue of The Rover, claimed to be written by “A person of quality”, states: As for the author of this coming play
I asked him what he thought fit I should say (pp 4)
It was only in the third issue of the first edition in 1677 that Aphra Behn authorship. This was because she was always attacked for poaching on the territory of male playwrights. In fact, as quoted in Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra (New York: The Dial Press, 1980) Aphra Behn once famously said: The Woman damns the poet
Indeed, the fact that Aphra Behn could earn a living writing for the theatre was precisely what condemned her. The muckraking satirist Robert Gould wrote typical stander in a short piece addressed to Behn that concluded with this couplet: For Punk and poetess agree so Par,
You cannot be This and not be That.
Robert Gould’s verse, with its equation of ‘poetess’ and ‘punk’, provides some evidence of the culture of gender in Restoration England. In her...
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