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.
— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Many do not recognize the name Aphra Behn. The first time I heard it I wondered, What kind of name is Aphra? When I tell people that I study Behn, most stare at me blankly. Occasionally someone will say, “that name sounds familiar.”
I learned of Behn in college when I read that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Woolf raves about Behn, but no one mentioned her in class. Behn wasn’t even taught in the graduate school course on Restoration drama (plays from the 1600s) that was required to complete my degree. My interest piqued when a professor mentioned that Behn was the first British woman to make a living by her pen. In the 17th century, Behn’s independence was singular.
Aphra Behn was born in 1640 and began her professional playwriting career in the party-filled scene of late 17th-century London. The Great Plague had recently swept through the city, and shortly before that, the Puritans had ruled England with an iron-fisted no-fun policy. When the plague subsided (thanks, in part, to a fire that burned the fleas), London reopened. People were looking for fun, and the theater promised amusement for everyone. Good playwrights were in demand, and Behn was more than good. By the time she died in 1689, she was one of the most prolific playwrights in Britain with 19 plays, many of which were hits.
In addition to playwriting, Behn composed poetry, wrote prose, and copied and translated scientific documents from French to English for the Royal Society, an organization at the forefront of the Scientific Revolution. Behn’s ability to translate technical material suggests that she was familiar with the “New Sciences” and had a command of French. During the late 1600s, only women of noble birth could learn French, and only a handful were familiar with scientific discoveries. Behn, neither formally educated, wealthy, nor noble (most likely), mysteriously gained an education from somewhere and someone.
Behn fabricated so many stories to enhance her image that today very little is known about her for certain. No one is quite sure where she was born and who her parents were. Behn made various claims during her lifetime — she liked to say that she was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman — but nothing has ever been verified. Added to this, Behn’s husband is merely a blip; not even Janet Todd in her comprehensive biography can verify whether Mr. Behn existed, died early, or had quickly separated from his fun-loving and beautiful wife. Moreover, most scholars agree that Behn was a spy for the Crown, but the extent of her activities remains unknown. Behn is known, however, for defying late 17th-century norms of femininity. She was witty, beautiful, and fun-loving; she publicly and repeatedly defended sexual freedom for both men and women; and she enjoyed the company of a group of authors known for their wild antics.
Today, Behn’s plays are rarely performed, and when taught, she is the token woman in a sea of men. Even though her plays are captivating, Behn has never been included in the literary canon of great British authors. She was “rediscovered,” along with Austen and the Brontës, during the feminist wave that hit academia in the 1970s, but only a handful of professors — mostly women — are Behn enthusiasts.
Behn has been elided time and again, but she has suffered an even deeper slight. She was more than a popular playwright, poet, and scientific translator. She wrote the first English novel, and in that novel, she depicts a gripping picture of the early days of New World slavery. Oroonoko tells the story of an African warrior-prince, his love for his countrywoman Imoinda, their entrapment and experiences as enslaved Africans in Surinam, their rebellion, and their deaths.
Scholars argue that Oroonoko is not a novel because the beginning resembles the “Romance” (a genre of literature popular until roughly the 1600s). Although Oroonoko begins as a Romance — Oroonoko, the knight, must choose between love for his king and love for himself — Behn defies the form; instead of choosing love for king, Oroonoko chooses himself. More than that, Behn’s book reads like a novel. Although short, the story is compelling, the characters (including the narrator — a Behn-type figure) are complex, Behn’s descriptions of Surinam are realistic, and the novel tracks the life of a single figure, the enslaved warrior-prince, Oroonoko.
The label of Romance is problematic, but the motivations behind it are downright nefarious and speak to the lingering misogyny in academia. Until the mid-20th century, the leading scholars — all men — limited their study of literature to “morally upstanding” male authors. Behn, a “morally depraved” woman, was overlooked and ignored. So, when the famed literary critic, Ian Watt, published his seminal text The Rise of the Novel in 1957 and credits three men with developing the novel — Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding — the academy heralded his scholarship as unparalleled. Watt’s book became so entwined with English studies that 60 years later, it continues to influence English teachers from elementary to the graduate level.
I do not argue that Watt must be detangled from English studies. In fact, his central argument — that the novel emerged thanks to philosophical, economic, and social trends that coalesced in the very early 18th century — is incontrovertible. I also do not argue that Watt’s celebration of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is misguided. The texts are canon to the English literary landscape. They have influenced everyone from Jane Austen to Disney.
What I find alarming, however, is that scholars have never accepted an addendum to Watt. In the fine arts, in music, in writing, and in the sciences, great women have been maligned, ignored, and manipulated into the service of great men. All of us — academics and non-academics — know this to be true, and yet we do very little to promote overlooked female voices besides offering a class from time to time or including a woman in the syllabus.
I suspect that the subject matter of Oroonoko contributes to its obscurity. Unlike other early novels, which generally elide Britain’s complicity in the slave trade, Behn’s novel focuses on the darkest moment of its history: the kidnapping, enslavement, and murder of millions of Black men, women, and children. The book has been recognized as one of the first humanitarian and abolitionist texts published in English, and I can imagine that people like Watt did not appreciate Behn’s vivid descriptions of the misery and torture the enslaved experienced at the hands of the British.
Indeed, Behn spares few in her exposé. But she also unravels an intriguing nick that sits at the core of institutional racism: at the beginning, Europeans struggled to justify enslaving their fellow human beings. In fact, it required effort to believe that people deserved to be owned because of the color of their skin. Through the narrator, Behn shows the ease with which one can slip out of their dehumanizing treatment of a Black person. In one breath, the narrator claims Oroonoko is an animal, and in the next, she discusses his intelligence and bravery, claiming that he bears a striking likeness to the murdered English king Charles I, to whom Behn was forever loyal. More than that, the narrator allows Oroonoko’s character to develop, a move which affirms his humanity — he can grow and change.
Behn creates a palpable tension as we watch character after character grapple with racism. She also creates fits of discomfort for the reader as she flagrantly reveals the systems that support institutional racism. Behn pinpoints how financial gain blinds men to the harm they cause their fellow human being. Behn also implicates the state and its bureaucrats as integral to ensuring that any person — white or Black — who opposed the enslavement of Africans and their descendants would be punished and silenced.
In other words, Oroonoko suggests that racism requires a large group of like-minded people, an economic incentive, and a state-run disciplinary apparatus. In other words, racism needs a lot of support. And so, despite the fact that the book is painful to read, it gives us hope: racism is not natural, and although we cannot erase 500-years of inhumanity, we can end it.
Ignoring Behn and ignoring the lessons offered by Oroonoko does a disservice. Behn should be taught in schools because she is the first novelist, a trailblazing woman who inspires every young woman to be who she wants to be. Behn’s text should also be taught because it helps us understand our present moment; racism is something that is taught and enforced, and so, it can be resisted. It is time to admit and celebrate that a woman did not just write one of the first novels in the English language, but that she wrote a novel that speaks to us today.