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Write On! Features: Aphra Who? by Stewart Ross

By Stewart Ross

Quite a city, Canterbury. One of the most famous in the land, dripping with history. It’s the place where Augustine set up Roman Christianity, where Becket was spectacularly murdered in his own cathedral, where Geoffrey Chaucer observed his pilgrims, and where playwright Christopher Marlowe learned his trade.

Yes, loads of famous names – but all of them blokes. It’s the same with so much history the world over: women and girls, one half of the human story, have been largely written out by the male storytellers, unless they are allowed walk-on roles as saints, victims, or temptresses.

Now, slowly, we’re setting the story straight. In Canterbury, my home city, the process starts with Aphra Behn.

“Aphra who?”

“You know, Aphra Behn, the spy, poet and playwright who became Britain’s first-ever professional woman writer.”

“Never heard of her.”

That’s why I’m writing this. Aphra Behn, who was born near Canterbury in 1640, was the most prolific and popular playwright in England during the last 18 years of her life. She was also a talented poet and, arguably, one of our first novelists. Her prose story Oroonoko – the first to have an African slave as its hero – exposed the horrors of slavery and became one of the abolitionists’ key texts. As if that wasn’t enough, she worked as a spy for King Charles II in Antwerp and perhaps also in Surinam.

Her friends included Nell Gwynne, John Wilmot (Earl of Rochester), and perhaps the King himself. Such was her fame, she was buried in Westminster Abbey, though not in poets’ corner, of course, because of her sex. Nor did her popularity die with her, for her plays and adaptations of them continued to be staged for well over a century after her death in 1690. In the early 19th century, for instance, we find her play Like Father, Like Son (written 1686) being put on in Canterbury by Sarah Baker, another intrepid female pioneer. Then the axe fell.

Who wielded the first blow, we will never know. It seems that Aphra had her enemies, those of a puritanical disposition who disapproved strongly of women writing plays, especially plays of a somewhat risqué nature, even during her own lifetime. Then, when she was dead and no longer able to defend herself, the grumbling grew to a thunderous rumbling of condemnation, epitomised in the words of Rowland Freeman, who sermonised thus in his Kentish Poets (1821):

The monstrous depravity of the age of Charles the Second was never more lamentably exhibited than in the conduct of this female author. Talents which might have adorned her sex and country, have become a scandal to the one and a disgrace to the other.

Thus was Aphra cancelled, redacted, forgotten. The same people who performed Shakespeare with the rude bits crossed out, crossed out Aphra Behn entirely. She became, like a character in George Orwell’s 1984, an ‘unperson’.

Raising a person from the dead is not easy. Virginia Woolf is credited with beginning the resurrection in 1917, when she said that Aphra Behn had earned women “the right to speak their minds.” Fine words, but Woolf was not rushed into print by Mills and Boon, and not all men liked the idea of women speaking their minds. Aphra was not yet sitting up and speaking.

The process is slow and difficult for two reasons. First, there are still those who are a bit sniffy about the fact that she wrote love poetry to another woman, and because her plays are honest about sex as an important part of human relationships. Second, she wrote what we call Restoration Drama, a mannered genre that we do not always find easily digestible. As was the custom at the time, her plays are long and her plots complex, sometimes bizarrely so. Staging in the 21st century requires judicious cutting and imaginative direction, as in the wonderful 2016-17 production of The Rover by the RSC.

Nevertheless, thanks especially to American scholars, Aphra’s work has gradually become accepted into the mainstream of English drama, and Oroonoko is probably as well-known now as it ever was. Deservedly, too. Consider for a moment what a bold step it was for a 17thcentury white woman to write a story about a slave revolt with the leader of that revolt –Oroonoko –as its hero. We are still waiting for the major movie, however; any ambitious filmmaker out there want to have a go? Fame and fortune await if you get it right!

Aphra was a pioneering writer, a pioneering woman writer, too. But she was more than that, and here is another reason why I believe she needs to be respected as one of this country’s most significant historical figures: she came from nowhere. She was born to a wet nurse mother and a failed barber father, who then also failed as a publican and was imprisoned for debt and riotous behaviour.

How Aphra learned to read and write, we may never know, for she certainly never went to school. Perhaps she accompanied her mother to the home of the wealthy Culpepper family, whose son Mrs Johnson nursed, and buried herself in their library? If that’s how she learned, she must have been a child of exceptional ability.

When she was 17, the family moved to London. Then, as with Shakespeare, the story becomes clouded, and we are obliged to piece together Aphra’s biography, like a jigsaw with most of the pieces missing, using our imaginations and historical knowledge to fill in the gaps. Who was the John Halse to whom she was supposedly engaged shortly after arriving in London? And what about the mysterious Johannes Behn, the merchant whose name she took in married respectability? Perhaps, as one scholar has suggested rather mischievously, he existed only as an Aphra creation, fashioned from her maiden surname and the first name of Ben Jonson, the famous playwright who had died three years before she was born.

It’s fairly sure Aphra went to Antwerp to spy for Charles II, perhaps exploiting her old lover, William Scot, as a cover. And many believe she was also a spy in Surinam, where her father had been given a job. He died on the voyage out; Aphra stayed for a couple of years. What she did there remains a mystery. Back in England, she mixed with the society of London wits and courtesans. How else could she have written dialogue that reeks of the tavern and coffee house?

She read voraciously, too, for her plays are thick with references to the works of others, showing a depth and understanding that could have come only from knowledge of the text itself rather than from seeing a performance. This is especially so with Shakespeare, whose plays in her day were usually performed in crudely ‘adapted’ versions.

So, through determination, outstanding innate ability, and an almost unbelievable drive, the local girl from a very ordinary background became the Ayckbourn of her age. Did she, as some feminists claim, achieve this by selling out to the establishment, by pandering to the prevailing machismo of her day? At first glance, one may think so. The men in her plays spout the usual clichés about women’s frailties and inconstancies, and the women appear to accept their second-class status. But read more carefully, I implore you.

Aphra certainly holds up a mirror to the age (as she had to in order to be performed) but her women are tough, clever and perceptive. The majority are perfectly capable of playing the men’s games as well as they, albeit by more subtle rules of their own making. Just as Aphra herself did. Which is why she was cancelled, and which is why, in our time, she deserves to be uncancelled and heralded as one of the most remarkable figures of her age.

You can find out more about Stewart on his website:


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'Aphra who?' ... Aphra Behn, the spy, poet and playwright who became Britain’s first-ever professional woman writer.