Saturday 15 March 2014

Inspiration and Sadness

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.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Ah, AphraBehn -what a woman! Not only did she wrte a LOT more pays than Oliver Goldsmith, still in print and performed, but she had a hugely adventurous life as a spy and other things. She has become a lot better known in recent years.

Sorry to hear you get that response from schools. If you're ever in my corner of the world and I get the money to pay you, you're welcome to visit my school. You'd be surprised what boys will read.

Penny Dolan said...

Well said!

Ann Turnbull said...

I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of Aphra Behn until I was quite old - maybe 40 or so. And I've never read anything by her. Must remedy that. Back at my all-girls' secondary school in the late 1950s I remember reading Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. We may also have read Jane Eyre, though I'm not sure. No Jane Austen. Maybe at 14-15 we were considered a bit young for her? Once we were 16 we got stuck into the GCE syllabus - no female writers there, though we read Eothen by Kingslake, which featured the amazing Lady Hester Stanhope, who impressed us greatly. I also remember how much we loved Romeo and Juliet - so very appealing to teenage girls even if it was written by a man!

I am looking forward very much to seeing and reading Daughters of Time.

Anonymous said...

It's appalling that Aphra Behn is still not on the syllabus. As for a teacher's response being that the boys wouldn't like it, I despair. You might just as well say, 'Sorry, not Romeo & Juliet because the boys wouldn't like it.'

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Unknown said...

'I was taught that the first 'real' novels in the English language were Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders' - same for me and that was at university! As for what boys are interested in, why is this the only criteria, and, besides, who knows until they try? I'm looking forward to reading Daughters of Time.

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Sue Bursztynski said...

Looks like you have a spam comment here. I heard of Aphra Behn when I was researching a children's book on spies. I don't know how I missed her. SE might not appeal to the average school kid, too difficult. Perhaps university?

We did some Austen at school - one each in English and Literature. Emily Bronte. I think our problem was not enough local writers rather than lack of females.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Thank you for your comments everyone and I'm sorry I wasn't around to reply yesterday - and that I hadn't got the photos up before the post went live!
Sue and Penny, thank you! Ann, I was just as late as you. Like Julia, I came across her researching a children's book. I wanted to know what Sophia, in The Girl in the Mask, would have been reading/seeing in the theatre in 1715. It opened up a world. Do try the Rover if you don't mind reading a play (I can lend it to you!) it's great. I'd have loved it as a teen - far better than Auden, Muir, Milton, DH Lawrence or a number of the other A level texts we read.

Unknown said...

I love Aphra! I agree The Rover and Oroonoko are important texts. And she's so much fun, as well as being witty and sharp.

I think part of her obscurity is the fact that her work began to be suppressed after 1688 when the new puritanism began under William of Orange shuddered prissily at 'lewd' texts. She was also pro-Stuart, which was likely to lead to her falling out of favour.

I'm glad she's buried in Westminster Abbey - like you I've visited her grave - but not in Poets' Corner, as you'll have seen. You have to find her.

Here's to the divine Astraea!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I'm sure you're right, all the Restoration playwrights fell out of favour, but then AB wasn't as lewd as many of them. She was, however, quite outspoken about women's position in society, which probably didn't go down well with the male-puritan tradition! And yes, pro-Stuart, though she fell out of favour with Charles too towards the end of her life.
You're absolutely right about her being witty and sharp! She's brilliant.

Ann Turnbull said...

Ah yes, the things we learn while researching! I discovered Evelina by Frances Burney that way, and loved it.

By the way, it seems appropriate that Mary Beard is on BBC4 tonight at 8pm in a programme called "Oh, do shut up, dear!" - about the way women's voices have been silenced throughout history.

Celia Rees said...

REALLY wish I could have been there!