Aphra Behn has given much credence to the cause of female writers. Aphra Behn is credited to be one of the first professional women writers of the restoration period of literary history (Todd, 1997, p. 4). Most of her life is shrouded in mystery as she spent a significant portion of her life being a spy. She hardly maintained any records of her existence and she spent in impecunious conditions despite the fact that she was celebrated as a playwright. She devoted her life to writing, in order to make money for being imprisoned as a punishment for the debt she incurred. She travelled to many places and gleaned a lot of information which eventually found its way in the form of plot points as well as characters for her storyline. Even though she was ridiculed and her work was considered to be debauched, her image had a revamp and now she is considered as a member of the ‘fair triumvirate of wit’ that comprises of Behn, Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood. Aphra Behn created ripples in the literary world because of her portrayal of love and sexual desire across genders. At that time for a woman to speak on such matters was considered impious and a lot of hullabaloos occurred but that is what gave her writing a distinctive style. She came to be known as a strong writer using aesthetic language to mask the inappropriateness of the subject.
Introduction to Aphra Behn’s work
Aphra Behn’s short plays ‘Oroonoko’ and ‘The Rover’ (Encyclopædia Britannica Online. n.d.) garnered her much acclaim but it was her poems that were of different shades and also spoke on topics that made people turn scarlet. All of her poetry has been published together in anthologies titled ‘Poems upon Several Occasions, with A Voyage to the Island of Love (1684) and Lycidus; or, The Lover in Fashion (1688)’. Interpretations have been made about the content of her poems that dared to speak about subjects until considered taboo and something that was completely against the societal rules at the time of the restoration period. Her writings displayed women in a new light, as having their own mind and having sexual thoughts and desires like those of men in society; which caused many male writers to criticize her and shun her work entirely.
The portrayal of gender and love dynamics
In her most shocking yet prominent poem titled ‘The Disappointment’, Behn uses several literary devices to project the story of the protagonists Lysander and Cloris. The poem starts off as the hero Lysander who meets his beloved Cloris in the forest where they are shielded from the view of others and he is unable to control his rising emotions, however it wasn’t just him who was excited, Cloris was equally aroused by the prospect of meeting her lover in such a setting which can be gauged from the line ‘Surpris’d fair Cloris, that lov’d Maid, Who could defend herself no longer;’. But as the poem progresses we are afforded the mental struggle that Cloris seems to be having- whether to give in to her sexual desires or protect her virginity which might cause the disappointment as mentioned in the poem (Zeitz, and Peter, 1997). Unfortunately, Lysander turns out to be impotent even though he had both the approval and the arousal to achieve climax and was abandoned by the horrified Cloris. In ‘The Willing Mistress’ Behn explores another dimension of women- them being vocal about their needs and ardour and giving into it without so much as batting an eyelid (Gabbard, 2007). (Stanza 2, lines 1-8). Another one of her infamous works titled “To the Fair Clarinda’’ narrates from the female perspective about intense feelings of love for another woman seen as an allusion to homosexuality. She tackles another aspect that of promiscuity in “Love Arm’d” where the narrator recounts their broken heart after being seduced by a Casanova; interesting part being one can attribute the role of narrator and player to both men and women (Behn, 1684, 1993).
Therefore, what is evident from Aphra Behn’s poetry is primarily her own need to be free of societal frameworks which she tries to banish by depicting women as very real people equal in kind to their male counterparts. She explores the many ways women and men interact with each other when it comes to sexual relationships, their behaviour and the way they deal with it in secret so as to keep it from becoming public. Aphra Behn has cleverly used literary devices to address interpersonal issues and bravely took on the controversial subjects of love and gender dynamics.
- Behn, A. Poems upon several occasions with, A voyage to the island of love / by Mrs. A. Behn. London: Printed for R. Tonson and J. Tonson (1684). EEBO http://eebo.chadwyck.com/search/toc?action=EXPANDID&LEVEL=1&ID=D00000117198610000&SOURCE=var_spell.cfg&FILE=../session/1274208611_24460. Accessed 2nd April 2014.
- Behn, A. (1993) Selected Poems. Ed. Malcolm Hicks. Manchester: Carcanet.
- Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Accessed 2nd April 2014.
- Gabbard, C. D. (2007). Clashing Masculinities in Aphra Behn’s The Dutch Lover. SEL 47, 3: 557-572.
- Goreau, A. (1980). Reconstructing Aphra: a social biography of Aphra Behn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Todd, J. (1997) The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, pg4.
- Zeitz, L. M. and Peter T. (1997) Power, Gender, and Identity in Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment Studies in English Literature 1500-190037.3: 501-16. JSTOR.