The Scandalous, Sexually Explicit Writings of Aphra Behn
By Francis Booth | On February 15, 2021 | Updated March 18, 2021 | Comments (0)
Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689), was far ahead of her time as the first Englishwoman to earn a living by the pen as a playwright, poet, and novelist. She was also considered scandalous not just for thriving in a profession generally closed to women, but for the sexually explicit nature of her writing.
This aspect of her artistry is explored in this excerpt from Killing the Angel: Early British Transgressive Women Writers ©2021 by Francis Booth. Reprinted by permission:
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf espoused Aphra Behn’s cause as the great precursor of free women writers — though the first book in English was written by Julian of Norwich, the first autobiography was written by Margery Kempe, the first playwright and female poet since antiquity was Hrotsvitha and the first professional woman writer was probably Christine of Pizan.
“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
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Learn more about Aphra Behn
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Transgressive yet successful
Woolf argued that it was not the fact that Behn succeeded artistically that was her transgression, but the fact that she succeeded commercially. Because of this, rather than helping the women writers who followed her, Behn may have made it worse for them precisely because of her public transgressiveness, not just as a writer but as a woman.
Aphra Behn . . . made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote . . . for here begins the freedom of the mind, or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes. For now that Aphra Behn had done it, girls could go to their parents and say, You need not give me an allowance; I can make money by my pen. Of course the answer for many years to come was, Yes, by living the life of Aphra Behn! Death would be better!
The reason for the parents’ horror would have been Behn’s very public views on free sexual relations for both men and women. She was not only a friend of the poet John Dryden but of the notorious libertine John Wilmot, Lord Rochester; that friendship alone would have ruined her reputation.
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Behn wrote quite freely about sex: her poem The Disappointment is very explicit and concerns male impotence, a highly transgressive theme for a woman, then and now.
He saw how at her length she lay,
He saw her rising Bosom bare,
Her loose thin Robes, through which appear
A Shape design’d for Love and Play;
Abandon’d by her Pride and Shame,
She do’s her softest Sweets dispense,
Offering her Virgin-Innocence
A Victim to Loves Sacred Flame ;
Whilst th’ or’e ravish’d Shepherd lies,
Unable to perform the Sacrifice.
In this so Am’rous cruel strife,
Where Love and Fate were too severe,
The poor Lisander in Despair,
Renounc’d his Reason with his Life.
Now all the Brisk and Active Fire
That should the Nobler Part inflame,
Unactive Frigid, Dull became,
And left no Spark for new Desire ;
Not all her Naked Charms could move,
Or calm that Rage that had debauch’d his Love …
Read “The Disappointment” in full.
Writing as Astrea
Subsequent generations were even more prudish than Behn’s and were generally unkind to Behn’s transgressiveness: Alexander Pope said of her, “The stage how loosely does Astrea tread, Who fairly puts all characters to bed!”
Behn wrote her scandalous, sex-filled plays under a pseudonym – Astrea – as did many of her contemporaries and successors (often beginning with A: Anne Finch called herself Ardelia and George Sand used the name Aurore); it would be a long time before transgressive women writers published under their own name. Some women published works with no name at all attached; as Virginia Woolf said, ‘I would venture to guess that Anonymous, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’
Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684)
Behn’s novels were as sexually frank as her plays. In Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684) – a transgressive title in itself – first printed anonymously, innocent young Silvia has given herself to Philander (the clue is in his name, Silvia) and now regrets it. Her letter to him is highly erotic; Behn as Silvia is here transgressing the bounds of what an ‘innocent’ young girl is supposed to say. This is one of the first descriptions of a woman’s sexual desires to be published by a woman since Margery Kempe and far more explicit.
I own, for I may own it, now heaven and you are witness of my shame, I own with all this love, with all this passion, so vast, so true, and so unchangeable, that I have wishes, new, unwonted wishes, at every thought of thee I find a strange disorder in my blood, that pants and burns in every vein, and makes me blush, and sigh, and grow impatient . . .
What though I lay extended on my bed, undressed, unapprehensive of my fate, my bosom loose and easy of access, my garments ready, thin and wantonly put on, as if they would with little force submit to the fond straying hand: what then, Philander, must you take the advantage?
Must you be perjured because I was tempting? It is true, I let you in by stealth by night, whose silent darkness favoured your treachery; but oh, Philander, were not your vows as binding by a glimmering taper, as if the sun with all his awful light had been a looker on? I urged your vows as you pressed on, – but oh, I fear it was in such a way, so faintly and so feebly I upbraided you, as did but more advance your perjuries.
Your strength increas’d, but mine alas declin’d; ‘till I quite fainted in your arms, left you triumphant lord of all: no more my faint denials do persuade, no more my trembling hands resist your force, unregarded lay the treasure which you toil’d for, betrayed and yielded to the lovely conqueror– but oh tormenting, – when you saw the store, and found the prize no richer, with what contempt, (yes false, dear man) with what contempt you view’d the unvalu’d trophy: what, despised!
Having had his way with Silvia, Philander immediately treats her with contempt; Behn writes of this as if from personal experience. It is easy to see why her frankness would upset the parents of aspiring female authors.
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But Behn’s transgressiveness was not only in relation to sex: her late novel Oroonoko (1688) is critical of both colonialism and slavery and is sympathetic towards its eponymous, noble African hero. It is set in the recently founded Dutch colony of Surinam, whose economy depended totally on slavery and which Behn herself had visited; she became a staunch opponent of slavery herself. “I was myself an Eye-witness to a great Part of what you will find here set down; and what I could not be Witness of, I receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero himself.”
Unusually for this time, the narrator is female, giving Behn an opportunity to set out her feelings and opinions in a way that women authors were not expected to. Behn believed herself to be a writer of the first rank and commercially at least she certainly was, but she constantly felt she had to justify herself as a woman writer.
‘Tis not fit for the Ladys
In the preface to The Lucky Chance, quoted above, Behn wrote:
… They charge it with the old never failing Scandal—That ‘tis not fit for the Ladys: As if (if it were as they falsly give it out) the Ladys were oblig’d to hear Indecencys only from their Pens and Plays and some of them have ventur’d to treat ‘em as Coursely as ‘twas possible, without the least Reproach from them; and in some of their most Celebrated Plays have entertained ‘em with things, that if I should here strip from their Wit and Occasion that conducts ‘em in and makes them proper, their fair Cheeks would perhaps wear a natural Colour at the reading them: yet are never taken Notice of, because a Man writ them, and they may hear that from them they blush at from a Woman – But I make a Challenge to . . . any unprejudic’d Person that knows not the Author, to read any of my Comedys and compare ‘em with others of this Age, and if they find one Word that can offend the chastest Ear, I will submit to all their peevish Cavills; but Right or Wrong they must be Criminal because a Woman’s.
More information about Aphra Behn
- Aphra Behn and the Beginnings of a Female Narrative Voice
- Poetry Foundation
- Behn on Writers Inspire
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
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- The Matchless Orinda — Early English Poet & Playwright Katherine Philips
- Elizabeth Cary: Early English Poet, Dramatist, & Scholar
- Susanna Centlivre, English Poet and Playwright
- Olympe de Gouges: An Introduction to Her Life and Work
- Advice to Young Ladies on Reading Novels
Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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