THE personal history of Aphra Behn, the first Englishwoman to earn her livelihood by authorship, is unusually interesting but very difficult to unravel and relate. In dealing with her biography writers at different periods have rushed headlong to extremes, and we now find that the pendulum has swung to its fullest stretch. On the one hand, we have prefixed to a collection of the Histories and Novels, published in 1696, 'The Life of Mrs. Behn written by one of the Fair Sex', a frequently reprinted (and even expanded) compilation crowded with romantic incidents that savour all too strongly of the Italian novella, with sentimental epistolography and details which can but be accepted cautiously and in parts.
Although she is one of the most influential dramatists of the late seventeenth century, was also a celebrated poet and novelist. Her contemporary reputation was founded primarily on her "scandalous" plays, which she claimed would not have been criticized for impropriety had a man written them. Behn's assertion of her unique role in English literary history is confirmed not only by the extraordinary circumstances of her writings, but by those of her life history as well.
To these is appended this note: 'Mrs. Behn was Daughter to a Barber, who liv'd formerly in Wye, a little Market Town (now much decay'd) in Kent. Though the account of her life before her Works pretends otherwise; some Persons now alive Do testify upon their Knowledge that to be her Original.' It is a pity that whilst the one error concerning Aphra's birthplace is thus remedied, the mistake as to the nature of her father's calling should have been initiated.
Just as the emotional and physical closeness of males is justified by their androgynous qualities, so, for women, hermaphroditic characteristics transcend conventional boundaries by allowing the enjoyment of female and male qualities in lovers. The breaking of boundaries in poetry, as in her life, caused Behn to be criticized as well as admired publicly. Her best-known poem, "The Disappointment," finely illustrates Behn's ability to portray scandalous material in an acceptable form. The usual interpretation of "The Disappointment" will stand in a conventional reading, but this point of view ignores a particularly female perspective that Behn clearly asserts when, in the last stanza, she identifies with Cloris and not Lysander. The unconventionality of this poem is apparent when it is contrasted with the presentation of joyous amorous relations in some of Behn's other poems. One of her best-known verses, happily juxtaposed to "The Disappointment," is "Song: The Willing Mistriss." This poem describes how the female speaker becomes so aroused by the excellent courtship of her lover that she is "willing to receive / That which I dare not name." After three verses describing their lovemaking, she concludes with the coy suggestion, "Ah who can guess the rest?" The poem is a good example of Behn's treatment of conventional courtly and pastoral modes, as is the "Song. Love Arm'd," which describes Cupid's power to enamour.
Aphra Behn is a forerunner in English literary history in more ways than one; she is not only the first professional woman writer, she is also an important innovator in the form of the novel. Using the epistolary form of Lettres portugaises as a model and combining it with elements of the drama, with Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister she created the first true epistolary novel. In Oroonoko she used a narrative voice that combined proximity to her readers with an unusual wealth of detail, while the plot itself involves one of the first examples of the concept of the "noble savage" in literature.In her search for a prose form appropriate to stories with contemporary rather than purely heroic settings and themes, Behn wrote her novels in a conversational tone strewn with personal references such as, "I have already said...", or "I forgot to ask how...,", making the...
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