"ALL WOMEN TOGETHER ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn . . . for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds," wrote Virginia Woolf. Until recently, however, biographers and literary critics have paid scant attention to the first woman who lived by her pen. Now two biographies of the "lewd widow" (Woolf called her "shady and amorous") have appeared within three years of each other, Maureen) Duffy's The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn 1640 -- 1968 (Humanities, $17; Avon paperback, $2.95) in 1977 and Angeline Goreau's Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn this year.
Aphra Behn's life is not easy to reconstruct, but Goreau has put together a lively and readable account. Behn was probably born Aphra Johnson in 1640, somewhere near Canterbury, Kent. While in her early twenties, she spent part of a year in Surinam. On her return to England, she was recruited as a spy in Charles II's intelligence service, and she played an active part in the second Anglo-Dutch War through her espionage activities in Antwerp. When the king neglected to pay her for this work despite repeated petitions, she spent time in a debtor's prison in London.
Needless to say, none of these activities was typical for women in 17th-century England. So, even before she turned to writing, Aphra Behn had distinguished herself from the expectations of her day. And from the outset, she wanted her writing to give her financial independence. Her first success came from the theatre; The Forced marriage, produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1670, was her literary debut. In all, she wrote 23 plays (20 were performed during her lifetime), 14 works of fiction (most of them published posthumously), two volumes of poetry, eight state poems, three miscellaneous long poems and three translations.
Only at the end of her writing career did Behn turn to a new form, the novel. The first volume for Love Letters from a nobleman to his Sister appeared in 1684. Oroonoko, which has been called an early abolitionist treatise, is the best-known of her novels and the most exotic. It is based on Her Surinam adventures and presents literature's first fully developed "noble savage." It appeared in 1688, one year after Behn's death.
Although her poems and plays were no more scandalous or libertime than those of her male contemporaries -- writers like Etherege, Otway, Dryden, Wycherley, Shadwell, and especially Rochester -- Behn was singled out for defying social conventions about feminine modesty and "womans sphere." In fact, the most curious thing about Aphra Behn's historical distinction as one of the first successful and independent literary women is the connection that is often made between her literary productivity and her alleged promiscuous sexual behavior. That connection was common in the 17th and 18th centuries. A character in a 1679 poem (Rochester's "A letter from Artemisia in the Tow of Chloe in the Country") warns: "Thus, like an arrant woman is I am,/No sooner well convinced writing's a shame./ That whore is scarce a more reproachful name/Than peotess --."
According to Goreau, Aphra Behn was "the victim of a literary double standard." Women were not supposed to be writers in the 17th century. Indeed, the most acute statement of that taboo comes from a letter by her contemporary Dorothy Osborne. "Sure the poor women is a little distracted," Osborne wrote when the Duchess of Newcastle published a volume of poems, "she could never be so ridiculous else as to venture at writing books and in verse too. If I should not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that."
The principal inhibition that kept women from writing was a fear of violating what was considered "proper" and "modest" behavior. We can easily find that view in Dorothy Osborne's shocked sentences. Aphra Behn not only wrote, she also spoke out for sexual freedom and, by her livelihood itself, challenged convention. But the critics never succeeded in breaking her spirit. "If any body think it worth their pains to quarrel with my boldness," she wrote, "I am able to defend myself."
Reconstructing aphra is more than just a straightforward narrative of this attractive and difficult woman's life, though Goreau has skillfully pieced together an impressive array of archival and critical materials. The book refuses to separate Behn the wild historical and literary figure from what Goreau calls "the context of her feminine status." Goreau supplies a fascinating chapter called "Literary Foremothers" which establishes "the full risk and radical nature of the literary stance Aphra Behn had taken."
Goreau's final chapter, entitled "Double Binds; or, the Male Poet in Me," argues that Aphra Behn, like many other women writers, suffered from a "spit consciousness" that caused her to write: "All I ask, is the privilege for my masculine part, the poet in me, . . . to tread in those successful paths my predecessors so long thrived in." Her original achievement, Goreau believes, was "to bring the private sphere of personal experience into the published domain of fiction."
Reconstructing Aphra is a well written and riveting book, one which firmly places the myth of the "lewd widow" Aphra Behn within the history of feminist struggle and the history of literary women.