Aphra Behn: a long time resident of the TBR Pile

title page of novel

Title Page

In the last Reading Challenge blog post, I talked about reading some letters from the World’s Great Letters but I am bound to report that in the event I became slightly sidetracked by something else. I was hunting around for examples of epistolary novels for a bookseller’s blog piece for Writing.ie and came across Aphra Behn’s Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister. This three-part roman à clef (originally published 1684-7) was based on a sexual and political scandal of the time. The author is believed to have been the first woman to earn her living by her pen.

I was given this edition several years ago, March 1996 to be precise, but I have never got around to reading it before now. At that time, I was working in a bookshop in Birmingham and one of our customers ordered the Penguin Classics edition of the book from us. He then began to read the book and then (apparently) decided that he did not have enough time remaining in which to tackle the book and so passed it to me ‘to read at your leisure….or not, if you don’t want to’. By my reckoning, that was all of fifteen years ago and I have only just finished the introduction. Janet Todd’s scholarly introduction explains the background to the novel and gives some information on Aphra Behn’s fascinating life and career. 

The details of much of Aphra Behn’s early life remain vague and any chronology available seems to be approximate as far as I can tell. It is almost certain that she was born in 1640 near Canterbury and that her parents were Bartholomew Johnson and Elizabeth Denham. She apparently married a merchant of Dutch extraction named Behn in 1664 but the marriage did not last long. Opinion has been divided on whether they divorced or Behn was widowed.

A year prior to the (probable) marriage Aphra Behn was probably in Surinam and then in 1667 she was to be found in Antwerp acting as a spy for Charles II’s government. The royal master was not good at paying his bills so Behn ended up in debtor’s prison for short while afterwards. If experience is needed to make a writer then Aphra Behn was hardly short of that valuable commodity.

Behn’s first play, in 1670 was The Forced Marriage, which ran for six nights at Lincoln’s Inn Fields performed by the ‘Duke’s Company’. I was interested to discover that the payment system was such that the income from the third night belonged to the author, so in this case Behn received two nights worth of fees. I suppose it was tough luck if your play was booed off stage in a hail of rotten tomatoes on the second night.

I was enchanted with the information that Nell Gwyn, Charles II’s ‘Little Nell’ returned to the stage to play the part of a whore named Angelica Bianca in The Rover, which was probably Behn’s most successful play. Did the two women know each other well I wonder? They were both survivors in a tough male world so they may have had much in common. A plot for a novel perhaps?

I am honestly not sure if I will ever actually get through the novel, but I will make the attempt. If I achieve the first part at least, after all this time I will be pleased with myself. But I do also have a couple of library loans looking reproachfully at me…I will see how I get on.  

Meanwhile, at least I have begun to nibble at the dreaded TBR Pile

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