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Picture of Aphra Behn, author of Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister, and Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave; seventeenth century British Literature / English Literature

December 14, 1640
Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn, All Women
by Steve King

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On this day in 1640 Aphra Behn was baptized. The precise date and circumstances of her birth are unclear, as is much else about Behn's life, but her distinguished place in English literature is assured: Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684-7) is seen as the first epistolary novel; Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688) is studied as the first anti-colonial novel and the first philosophical novel, one of its ideas being that of the 'noble savage'; her popular, fifteen-play career on the Restoration stage made her the first woman to earn a living as a writer. This last accomplishment is most famously toasted in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own:
    All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she -- shady and amorous as she was -- who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.
The unclear, sometimes amorous scandals surrounding Behn (and Woolf with Vita Sackville-West, who wrote a biography of Behn) is due to her daring treatment of sexual themes. This surely enabled the survival of the professional writer, but it also brought censure, cartooning, and this outraged response from Behn: "All I ask, is the privilege for my masculine part, the poet in me.... If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, I lay down my quill and you shall hear no more of me...."

Behn did not follow through on this threat, and not only the male moralizers but the rakes must have regretted it. "The Disappointment," published in the nicely-titled, Poems for All Occasions, concerns male impotence -- the disappointment being felt not only by the "too transported hapless Swain," but by she who had fought her battle of "Love and Shame" for nothing. This is an early and then a middle verse:
    In alone Thicket, made for Love,
    Silent as yielding Maids Consent,
    She with a charming Languishment
    Permits his force, yet gently strove ?
    Her Hands his Bosom softly meet,
    But not to put him back design'd,
    Rather to draw him on inclin'd,
    Whilst he lay trembling at her feet;
    Resistance 'tis to late to shew,
    She wants the pow'r to say -- Ah! what do you do?

    He saw how at her length she lay,
    He saw her rising Bosom bare,
    Her loose thin Robes, through which appear
    A Shape design'd for Love and Play;
    Abandon'd by her Pride and Shame,
    She do's her softest Sweets dispence,
    Offring her Virgin-Innocence
    A Victim to Loves Sacred Flame ;
    Whilst th' or'e ravish'd Shepherd lies,
    Unable to perform the Sacrifice.

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Related authors:  Aphra Behn, Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster, Edward Albee, Ephelia, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey, Radclyffe Hall, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, Anne Bradstreet
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