When Julian met Aphra: Behn vs Barnes

I have been reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending recently after a customer in the bookshop where I work told me that I really must read it. As it has been quite some time since I last read any of Barnes’ work I decided to rectify this omission, in between bouts of pursuing both my letter writing and my Reading Challenge. I suppose it makes a good contrast to zip between Aphra Behn and Julian Barnes. Potentially confusing too, exchanging one cast list for another and jumping back and forth through the centuries.

Book cover with flower head on grey background

The Interloper…

Julian Barnes’ book has to take priority (temporarily) over the Landing Reading Challenge. Sadly, it is a library loan that is so much in demand that it is un-renewable. I could of course be a bad citizen and library user and take it back late but I always worry that I might be blacklisted and not allowed to have any more books out. The quick-witted amongst you might point out that this can only be a good thing, as I would have no excuse not to read my way around the entire house let alone the landing.

This thought does indeed make me wonder whether I should forswear the library and get truly stuck in to my TBR Pile. However, if I did that then would I also have to promise not to buy any new books? I could foresee that vow being very difficult to keep up due to working with new books on a daily basis. I also have a distressing weakness for bargain sections, charity shops and remainder outlets. All of this purchasing potential makes it highly likely that my landing bookshelves reading project could take rather a long time to complete.

 My train of thought has now brought me to an ethical problem (of sorts). In my meanderings around various sources of new books I will most likely come across books that should be housed on the landing after purchase i.e. classics, poetry etc. Now, this will of course mean that the original constituent parts of the landing bookshelves will most likely continue to grow over time. But do those books form part of my Reading Challenge despite not being present when the challenge began? Indeed I discovered a copy of Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece lurking in the wrong bookcase entirely (and it is a book I have not yet got around to reading) so I should re-house it on the landing. Because if I don’t, then I shouldn’t read it should I? No wonder my TBR Pile just keeps on growing.

Now, back to tackling Aphra Behn and seventeenth century English (but not until after I have finished Julian Barnes)…

UPDATE (June 2013)

I have come across a notification about the Aphra Behn Society’s Biennial Conference which will be held in October of this year. The topic will be Women, Reputation, and Identity in the Long Eighteenth Century and the conference will be held at The University of Tulsa, Tulsa, OK.



Aphra Behn: A Restoration Woman

Title page of Love Letters between a nobleman & his sister

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.Cover of Love Letters between a Nobleman & his Sister

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 away at the dreaded TBR Pile…more updates soon!