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Unsung Heroines of History - Aphra Behn

An unwitting bystander once said to me, ‘how can there be many stories to tell of women from history? They were always on the side-lines.’ Well, I’m out to prove that misconception wrong. Just because the stories weren’t always well recorded, or we do not talk about them as much, it doesn’t mean that women from the past have no stories to tell.

This blog will take a look at some of the most interesting tales of women in history. Far from intending to be an in-depth biography of each woman, this will be just a taster, a little glimmer of the story that each woman has to tell, and maybe to inspire you to read more about these women elsewhere. Enjoy the first unsung heroine in the series…

Aphra Behn

c. 1640 – 16th April 1689

Who Mrs Aphra Behn really was is a question that still plagues her biographers to this day. With no concrete evidence of where she was born and one rather suspect baptism record, little is known about her early life. It’s possible that she travelled as a child with a couple named Amis in Suriname, South America, or she could have been the daughter of a barber, known as Bartholomew Johnson in England. No one can say for certain where she came from, yet perhaps, that is the way Aphra Behn wished it to be.

What is known for certain is that Behn was married in England, 1664, to a merchant named Behn. Either her husband died, or the couple separated, for Aphra travelled Europe and left England far behind. A woman who garnered attention for her wit and intelligence, she was soon employed as a spy for Charles II during his exile in Europe. Whether spying didn’t suit her, or something went wrong, isn’t clear either, but Behn fell on hard times and whilst on the edge of bankruptcy and after a brief spell in prison, Behn decided to make her own way in the world. At a time where the theatre was still dominated by men, and it was only just beginning to be accepted to have women on the stage at all, Behn broke the mould entirely. She decided to write plays for fellow women to star in them.

Playwright, spy, and poet, she soon found tragedy wasn’t to her taste, but comedy and farce? Much better! Her plays are known for putting women centre stage, talking openly of the politics of arranged marriages, and of course, indulging in the bawdy tone of restoration theatre. Her plays were met with rave reviews and theatres full of laughter. So, how could a woman who was celebrated for her work be so unknown now?

That’s why Behn earns a place in our role of unsung heroines. Working with nothing but her smarts, she carved her way in the world, far away from any husband. With such success, she was celebrated in her day, but with the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the return to more conservative (and restrictive) attitudes, it was thought Behn was a writer who should not have been talking so much about sex, so her works were discarded as restoration ‘smut’ and left for that.

She’s known for her comedies. One of the most memorable, The Rover, was a witty and excitably comedy that came in two parts, thanks to the success of the first part. It follows the lives of a group of cavaliers exiled in Naples and Madrid, as they head to carnival, but they are not the only ones. A group of sisters are heading to the carnival too, some are searching for love, and some are out for a night of passion. The hilarity and excitement of the carnival has made it one of her favourite plays. The Emperor of the Moon, 1687, was an early form of the harlequinade – which led to the direct development of the pantomime in British theatre. So perhaps we owe our customary Christmas visits to the theatre shouting ‘he’s behind you!’ and booing at the villain all to Aphra Behn? She may well have begun that journey. One of the most interesting things Behn wrote was an early prose piece (a precursor of a novel) called Oroonoko, 1688, which tells the story of an enslaved African prince that Behn claimed to have met in her time in South America. It talks of gender, slavery, and race, making it a story both loved, and debated hotly at its time. It seems Behn was never afraid of causing scandal. On the contrary, she indulged in the idea, knowing that people of the restoration period loved to talk of things that the puritans before them, under the eye of Oliver Cromwell, would have shuddered at.

Well, we like to think we live in a world these days where women can decide what they say, so perhaps it’s time we pulled out Behn’s old plays and took another look?

Here’s the trailer for the last production of The Rover in Stratford-on-Avon, to see what people said about the show.

If you want to know more, check out Joseph Milson’s and the RSC’s quick synopsis to get a feel for Aphra Behn’s The Rover.

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