by Marie-Louise Jensen
The History Girls' visit to Aphra Behn's tomb the week before last was a deeply moving experience. I hadn't quite anticipated how emotional I would find it. But to stand there and see her epitaph in the great Abbey itself brought it home to me just how revered she was in her own lifetime to merit such a prestigious resting place.
We were there to celebrate the launch of Daughters of Time, but I'm writing about that separately on the 19th March on Serendipity Reviews. What I wanted to muse upon today is why and how Aphra Behn has come to be so largely forgotten in the literary canon?
At school I was taught that the first 'real' novels in the English language were Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders and we duly read and discussed them. Our (female) English teacher didn't mention Mrs Behn's Oroonoko to us nor any of the other earlier candidates to this title. We certainly didn't read Oroonoko.
Neither did we read anything by her on our A-level exam syllabus. Not by her nor any other works by a woman.
Is there any reason why Mrs Behn's works have been excluded from the works that are studied or that do the rounds on those dreadful lists of '100 books you should have read'?
Her plays were of the Restoration era and it's fair to say that few of her contemporaries have made it onto such lists either - be they male or female. But then many were so trivial, that they scarcely merit inclusion. Not so Aphra Behn's plays. The Rover, for example, which I refer to in The Girl in the Mask, deals with complex issues of love, marriage, prostitution. That is to say the position of women in society. Surely an enduringly important theme? Oh...maybe not when white, middle-class men are selecting exam texts.
And Oroonoko? Why was that less worthy of our attention as a class of eager 17 year old students (mainly girls) than Moll Flanders? That decision cannot possibly have been based on a lack of important themes. Oroonoko examines the issue of slavery while Moll Flanders is largely an entertaining romp, and a male view of a woman if I ever saw one.
I can only assume that Behn's work had been so thoroughly forgotten and buried under the groaning weight of male scholarship by then that my English teacher didn't even know about her. Or that with her too, she was sticking firmly to the notion that 'the boys wouldn't like her'. That was her reasoning behind choosing ten out of ten books by men and she told me so quite openly when I begged to study Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte as a lightening of the load of Milton, Lawrence, Auden, Muir, Dickens, Chaucer etc. (It was exactly the same at university where I was honestly told there were no books worth reading by women in German).
How much good it would have done our self-esteem to have read Aphra Behn at school - and other books by women too - and to be able to look up to women pioneering in and excelling at writing centuries before we were born. And how I would like to think things had changed since my far-off school days, but I'm certain that they haven't changed one bit.
How do I know? Because when I offer author visits to schools with my 'girl' books, I'm almost invariably told thank you, but no, the boys in the school wouldn't be interested.
We have a long, long way still to go.
I feel deeply concerned for the girls out there. I really hope lots of them find Daughters of Time and discover that there have been women writers, women warriors, powerful queens, leaders, devotees, campaigners and thinkers throughout history, no matter what anyone tells them. And I hope many more women visit Aphra Behn's tomb in future and understand the trail that she blazed for us.