Michael's in Harbledown, a small village near Canterbury, England.
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This region of England, Kent, was a conservative, insular county during Behn's youth, but the English realm itself was anything but calm during her era; Behn's fortunes and alliances would be tied to the series of political crises that occurred during the seventeenth century, and her literary output drew from and even satirized the vying factions. First came a Civil War that pitted Puritans against King Charles I; the monarchy was abolished with the king's beheading in Until England was ruled by Puritan revolt leader Oliver Cromwell, and upon his death in the monarchy was restored; hence the term for the era in which Behn wrote, Restoration England.
Behn was likely the daughter of a barber and a wet-nurse, and through her mother's care for the children of local landed gentry, the Colepeppers, Behn probably had access to some educational opportunities. Literary scholars agree that Behn most likely left England as a young woman with her family in when her father was appointed to a military post in Surinam, on the northeast coast of South America.
It was an arduous journey, and some evidence suggests that Behn's father did not survive the trip. In any event, Behn, her mother, and sister stayed on at the English settlement for a time until a return trip home was possible, and the experience provided the basis for her most famous literary work, Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave. This novel, published only near the end of Behn's career in , chronicles the tale of a cultivated, intelligent West African prince who speaks several European languages. He falls in love with a West Indian woman named Imoinda, who is also the lover of his grandfather, the king.
Imoinda is sold into slavery, and Oroonoko is kidnapped by the English and brought to Surinam as a slave. Imoinda is also in Surinam and becomes pregnant by him. Oroonoko then leads a slave rebellion-an actual event from the era-but is captured, and falsely promised freedom for Imoinda and her unborn child. When this is rescinded, he kills her so she and his child will not fall into enemy hands, and dies by rather barbarous means in English hands at the conclusion. Some of the villains and heroes were actual names from the period, English men who held posts in Surinam before it became a Dutch colony.
Literary historians trace the development of realism in the novel back this volume. Realism is a literary style that uses real life as the basis for fiction, without idealizing it or imbuing it with a romantic bias, and it became prevalent in the nineteenth century. Behn's Oroonoko has also been termed groundbreaking for its depiction of the institution of slavery as cruel and inhumane, making it one of literary history's first abolitionist proclamations. Behn has been praised for her characterization of Oroonoko, a just and decent man who encounters some very cruel traits among his white enemies; critics point to him as European literature's first portrayal of the "noble savage.
England's troubles with Holland played a decisive part in Behn's fortunes as a young woman. Following her return to England in , she met and married a Dutch merchant by the name of Hans Behn. Though it has been hinted that her brief marriage may have been her own fiction-widows were more socially respectable than single women during her era-other sources indicate the unfortunate Hans Behn died in an outbreak of the bubonic plague that swept through London in Later, many of Behn's works satirized Dutch merchants, the cultural icons of the era when Holland was growing rich from trade and giving birth to the first class of savvy capitalists.
Behn may have been well-off herself for a time, and became a favorite at the Court of Charles II for her ebullient personality and witty repartee. But then Behn's fortunes took a turn for the worse. It appears that she suddenly became destitute-perhaps after her husband died-and in was summoned into the service of the King as an agent in the war against Holland. She went to Antwerp to renew contact with a former lover, William Scot, who was a spy in the city; Scot was an Englishman who was involved in an expatriate group who once again wanted to abolish the monarchy.
Behn's mission was to get him to switch sides, and to send reports on behalf of Charles II back to England in invisible ink using the code name "Astrea. She died shortly after. She is remembered 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. Information regarding Behn's life is scant, especially regarding her early years.
This may be due to intentional obscuring on Behn's part. One version of Behn's life tells that she was born to a barber named John Amis and his wife Amy.
42 Rebellious Facts About Aphra Behn, The First Lady of Writing
Behn states that Behn was born to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham, a wet-nurse. Behn was born during the buildup of the English Civil War , a child of the political tensions of the time. One version of Behn's story has her travelling with a Bartholomew Johnson to Surinam. He was said to die on the journey, with his wife and children spending some months in the country, though there is no evidence of this. There is little evidence that this was the case, and none of her contemporaries acknowledge any aristocratic status.
Writer Germaine Greer has called Behn "a palimpsest ; she has scratched herself out," and biographer Janet Todd noted that Behn "has a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess which makes her an uneasy fit for any narrative, speculative or factual.
She is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks". He may have been a merchant of German or Dutch extraction, possibly from Hamburg. Behn may have had a Catholic upbringing. She once commented that she was "designed for a nun," and the fact that she had so many Catholic connections, such as Henry Neville who was later arrested for his Catholicism, would have aroused suspicions during the anti-Catholic fervour of the s.
As political parties emerged during this time, Behn became a Tory supporter.
By Behn had become attached to the court, possibly through the influence of Thomas Culpeper and other associates. Scot was believed to be ready to become a spy in the English service and to report on the doings of the English exiles who were plotting against the King.
Behn arrived in Bruges in July , probably with two others, as London was wracked with plague and fire.
Behn's job was to turn Scot into a double agent , but there is evidence that Scot betrayed her to the Dutch. Behn's exploits were not profitable however; the cost of living shocked her, and she was left unprepared. One month after arrival, she pawned her jewellery. Money had to be borrowed so that Behn could return to London, where a year's petitioning of Charles for payment was unsuccessful.
It may be that she was never paid by the crown. A warrant was issued for her arrest, but there is no evidence it was served or that she went to prison for her debt, though apocryphally it is often given as part of her history.
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Forced by debt and her husband's death, Behn began to work for the King's Company and the Duke's Company players as a scribe. She had, however, written poetry up until this point. Behn wrote for a livelihood. Playwriting was her refuge from starvation and a debtor's prison. After her third play, The Dutch Lover, failed, Behn falls off the public record for three years.
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It is speculated that she went travelling again, possibly in her capacity as a spy. So tho' by different ways the fever seize In all she would write and stage 19 plays, contribute to more, and become one of the first prolific, high-profile female dramatists in Britain.
In her last four years, Behn's health began to fail, beset by poverty and debt, but she continued to write ferociously, though it became increasingly hard for her to hold a pen. The inscription on her tombstone reads: "Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality. Behn earned a living writing, one of the earliest Englishwoman to do so. After John Dryden she was the most prolific writer of the English Restoration.
This changed the nature and themes of Restoration theatre. Behn's first play The Forc'd Marriage was a romantic tragicomedy on arranged marriages and was staged by the Duke's Company in September The performance ran for six nights, which was regarded as a good run for an unknown author. Six months later Behn's play The Amorous Prince was successfully staged. Again, Behn used the play to comment on the harmful effects of arranged marriages. Behn did not hide the fact that she was a woman, instead she made a point of it.
When in the Dorset Garden Theatre staged The Dutch Lover , critics sabotaged the play on the grounds that the author was a woman. Behn tackled the critics head on in Epistle to the Reader. After a three-year publication pause, Behn published four plays in close succession.
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