Literary Criticism of Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640–1689) was a pioneer in many respects. Because of her family circumstances and her husband’s early death, she was obliged to support herself as a writer – the first woman to do so. She is one of the founders of the English novel; her extended stay in Surinam inspired her to write Oroonoko (1688), the first novel to oppose slavery. And her experience as a female playwright exposed her to the enormous obstacles faced by a woman in this profession, resulting in her highly unorthodox and controversial views about drama. These views are expressed largely in the prefaces to her plays, such as The Dutch Lover (1673), The Rover (1677), and The Lucky Chance (1687). If figures such as Pierre Corneille took a step away from the authority of classical rules of drama by appealing to experience, Aphra Behn’s appeal to experience – to specifically female experience – was far more radical. Moreover, she (perhaps unwittingly) elevates to a newly important status the performative dimensions of drama, such as the ability and integrity of the actors.

download (2)In the “Epistle to the Reader” which prefaces The Dutch Lover, Behn strikes a tone of utter defiance. She defends the value of drama by contrasting it favorably with traditional learning as taught in the universities. This learning, she says, amounts to “more absolutely nothing than the errantest Play that e’er was writ.”1 Having said that, she equally denies that poets, especially dramatic poets, “can be justly charged with too great reformation of mens minds or manners.” It is unrealistic, and lacks any foundation in experience, to expect drama to perform a moral function. On the contrary, such expectations are little short of absurd given that “the most assiduous Disciples of the Stage” are the most foolish and lewd group of people in the city (Behn, I, 222). Experience also encompasses the effects of the actual plays that have recently been written: these dramas, asserts Behn, have “not done much more towards the amending of mens Morals, or their Wit, than hath the frequent Preaching, which this last age hath been pester’d with” (Behn, I, 222). By “frequent preaching,” Behn is referring to the moral condemnation of the theater which accompanied the rise of Puritanism in England. As far as moral intention goes, Behn is adamant that “no Play was ever writ with that design.” Even the best characters in tragedy, she says, present “unlikely patterns for a wise man to pursue . . . And as for Comedie, the finest folks you meet with there, are still unfitter for your imitation.” Behn’s own, carefully unstudied, opinion is that drama represents the best entertainment that “wise men have”; to discourse formally about its rules, as if it were “the grand affair” of human life, is valueless. Behn’s own purpose, in writing her play The Dutch Lover, was “only to make this as entertaining as I could,” and the judges of her success will be the audience (Behn, I, 223). Behn now takes up the murky issues surrounding female authorship. She heaps a barrage of insulting criticism (“ill-favour’d, wretched Fop” and more) upon a man who told the audience for her play to expect “a woful Play . . . for it was a womans.” Replying to his presumption, she asserts that women, if given the same education as men, are just as capable of acquiring knowledge and in as many capacities as men. Moreover, successful plays, she points out, do not rest on the learning which is men’s point of advantage over women, citing Shakespeare and Jonson as examples. Further, given that “affectation hath always had a greater share both in the actions and discourse of men than truth and judgment have,” women might well reach the heights attained by men (Behn, I, 224). The classical rules of drama she dismisses in a breath: these “musty rules of Unity, . . . if they meant anything, they are enough intelligible, and as practicable by a woman” (Behn, I, 224). With no apology, she ends with: “Now, Reader, I have eas’d my mind of all I had to say” (Behn, I, 225).

In her preface to The Lucky Chance, written some fifteen years later, Behn states that she will defend her comedy against “those Censures that Malice, and ill Nature have thrown upon it, tho’ in vain.”2 It is the very success of her play, she exclaims, that caused critics to “load it with all manner of Infamy.” And they heap upon it, she says,“the old never failing Scandal – That ’tis not fit for the Ladys” (Behn, III, 185). She hastens to point out that many works of poetry have long treated the subject of women in an indecent fashion, but the offense is overlooked “because a Man writ them.” She taunts the hypocritical critics: “I make a Challenge to any Person of common Sense and Reason . . . to read any of my Comedys and compare ’em with others of this Age, and if they can find one Word that can offend the chastest Ear, I will submit to all their peevish Cavills.” She admonishes these critics not simply to condemn her work because it is a woman’s, but to “examine whether it be guilty or not, with reading, comparing, or thinking” (Behn, III, 185). Her play has been read, she points out, not only by Sir Roger L’Estrange, licenser of published works, and by the owners of the theatrical company that produced The Lucky Chance, but by “several ladys of very great Quality”; none of these readers found any obscenity in her work. Moreover, she contests not only the charge of indecency but also the content of what counts as indecency. She points out several great plays with scenes that might be alleged to be offensive in this respect; yet these scenes are not indecent, she states, because they are artistically justified, containing what is “proper for the Characters” and falling “naturally . . . into the places they are design’d for” (Behn, III, 186).

What Behn effectively does here is to place the virtues of good judgment, critical reading, and thinking beyond the pale of traditional masculine learning and the conventional male literary establishment, which have both, on account of their transparent bias and maliciousness, forfeited their right to speak with authority. Behn presents another voice, a woman’s voice, speaking not from a position below that establishment but rather from above; she takes no great pains to dislodge male assumptions about women writers; rather, she appropriates for women’s use the categories of common sense and reason, extricating them from the tradition of male prejudice in which they have been misused and abused. However, the status of her “feminism” is unclear. For one thing, she was politically conservative, a consistent supporter of the royalists as against the English Parliament. Furthermore, she does not see herself as outside the male literary tradition, and indeed, pleads to be included in it. Or does she? These are her words: “All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me . . . to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me” (Behn, III, 187). If she can so boldly attempt to redeem the notions of “common sense” and “reason” from their sullied masculine traditions, why can she not redeem “poetry” as a legitimately female activity? Why must she appeal to the poet in her as the “masculine” part? And why does she seem to be knocking on the doors of a literary tradition stretching all the way back to ancient writers?

These statements may serve a rhetorical purpose: perhaps to reassure male writers that she is not dismissing the tradition and that her disdain will dissolve once she gains entry. It would be unrealistic to expect her, writing in 1687, to be talking of a female tradition; but these final statements need to be read in the context of her having scorned both male learning and classical rules of literary composition. And her originality, surely, lies as much in the way she speaks as in what she speaks: her texts adopt a tone and a style unprecedented in the history of literary criticism. Defiant, unapologetic, and placing herself entirely outside of the traditional canons of male learning and literature (an externality achieved as much by her tone as by what she says), her writing does not follow a logical pattern; it seems to be punctuated, rather, by the movement of her righteous anger, her deliberate outpourings of emotion, the nodal points of her rebuttals of insubstantial criticism, and the flow of particularity or detail – of names, and particular circumstances – which itself infuses her general statements with substance in a newly immediate and transparent manner, the general being treated as being on the same level as the particulars which it comprehends, rather than loftily coercing particulars (in what she would regard as a conventionally male fashion) into the exemplificatory service of its own predetermined and prescriptive nature.


1 The Works of Aphra Behn: Volume I, ed. Montague Summers (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967), p. 221. Hereafter cited as Behn, I.

2. The Works of Aphra Behn: Volume III, ed. Montague Summers (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967), p. 185. Hereafter cited as Behn, III.

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