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!

Historic Letters and #LetterMo

Cloth boundcover of The World's Great Letters

In my first Landing Reading Challenge post, I mentioned a collection of historic letters on the landing bookshelves. As February is the month of a brilliant letter writing challenge (Month of Letters set up by Mary Robinette Kowal), I decided to start my own particular reading challenge with a browse through the volume of historic letters. I cannot remember exactly when I bought this book but at a guess, I would estimate about fifteen years ago. The book was published in 1950 and at some point, an unknown hand had written the date 29/4/71 on the flyleaf. I am not sure that it really counts as being on a TBR Pile however, since it is the sort of book that you browse through rather than read cover to cover.

I must digress slightly at this point to admit that though I have signed up to the letter writing challenge I did sign up a few days late. In my defence though, I have actually been diligently writing and posting cards since 1st February but without any coherent plan in mind. I think I may continue to do it that way. I will decide in the morning to whom the day’s offering will be sent. In this case, the lucky recipient will be (almost) as much a surprise to me as it will be to them. So, two challenges in one for me this February.

A Month of Letters Partcipants' badge

Letter Writing Month Badge

In the meantime, back to The World’s Greatest Letters, which covers a fair slice of history beginning as it does with Cicero and ending with a letter written by an Air Raid Patrol (ARP) Warden in World War II. The nice thing about this collection of letters is that apart from a chronological list, it also has a classification of letters by subject. This means that you may go straight for the ‘Letters of Controversy, Hatred and Enmity’ should you so desire. If that seems to be too strong meat for your stomach, you might try ‘Letters in a Light Vein’ or ‘Letters about Nature’. Perhaps as 14th February is not too far off I should consult the more romantically inclined letter writers for Valentine’s Day inspiration.

I will let you know next time how I get on with reading the bygone love letters; it is time to write the next instalment of #LetterMo. I really must pop out and buy some more stamps. Juggling between a letter writing and a reading challenge will be a challenge in itself, but it is nice when they can overlap like this. I am going to enjoy both writing letters and reading some historical letters.

Twitter: @LetterMonth (#LetterMo)