A discussion of Aphra Behn at 40 immediately hits into trouble given that we have yet to agree exactly when she was born. Aphra Behn, born Johnson (we think), may have been the daughter of a Leuitenant General, or instead the daughter of a barber in Kent. While the debate continues to rage over that, we think – think – that whoever her father was, she was born around 1640. This would put her 40th birthday in 1680, and a good year for her at that.
After a varied career (abroad in Surinam as a young lady, acting as a spy in Antwerp, and writing poetry throughout), by 1680 she was established on the stage with a number of plays under her belt, including her best-known drama The Rover (first performed in 1677). 40 seems therefore to be rather a stable time for a woman of unstable biography. As much as her earlier life is shrouded in mystery, possibly at her own wish (we don’t even know if there was ever truly a Mr Behn), her time as a playwright affords us our best chance to see her in the open, with nowhere to hide, and it is this time of her life when we get most details on her – although given some of the comments raised by her misogynist peers, she could well be forgiven for wanting to keep a low profile.
Behn in her 40s was taking abuse from contemporaries such as Thomas Shadwell who sought to cast doubts on her writing skills, the authorship of her plays and her virtue as a lady. Writing in 1682, after Thomas Otway had written a prologue for one of The City Heiress, Shadwell suggests:
Poetess Afra though she’s damned today
Tomorrow will put up another Play;
And Otway must pimp to set her off.
The implication was that the only explanation for Behn’s success was the support of her male friends, and the only explanation for their support must be the granting of sexual favours. Reading the torrent of abuse from her contemporaries, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Behn’s predominant crime was to be a woman in a man’s world. Hailed by Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West as the first professional woman writer in the West, the criticism levelled against Behn during her own lifetime criticised her writing for being indecent (read as “unfeminine”), and for her lifestyle being scandalous (again, read as “unfeminine”). But the facts speak for themselves, and the sheer number of plays Behn was producing around this time for Thomas Betteron’s company at the Dorset Garden Theatre recommend her success as a playwright.
At 40, or thereabouts, in 1681 she was capitalising on the success of her own plays by penning the sequel to The Rover – imaginatively titled The Rover, Part Two – marking the return of the popular character Willmore to the stage, played once more by real life rogue and scoundrel William Smith and based, so it is believed, on an even greater rogue and scoundrel, John Willmot, the Earl of Rochester and infamous Libertine. The original was a big hit, albeit published anonymously and attributed in its prologue to a man, but eventually by the third edition Behn’s name was on the front. All was going well for Behn in her 40s then – unfortunately by 1682 she took a step too far and insulted the Duke of Monmouth in the epilogue of Romulus and Hersila, and many believe this led to Behn leaving England for a year to escape the controversy. Whatever the cause, from this point forward her dramatic output was reduced and she was focusing more on the publication of novels and poetry. To consider Behn at 40, then, is to look at her in the prime of her playwriting career, standing her ground in the face of criticism, only to damage her own reputation in the end.
Behn at Buckingham: Aphra Behn’s The Rover is one of the set-texts for our undergraduate module on Restoration and Augustan Literature, while her novel Oroonoko has previously featured on our module on Women’s Writing.