Why This Room is Special
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
‘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.’
Many have noted how often Virginia Woolf’s powerful line is used to introduce the life and work of Aphra Behn. There can be little doubt that the novelist, playwright and poet set a radical example, not only for women and women who aspired to write, but also within seventeenth-century English society more broadly.
The facts of Behn’s early life are muddled. Born around 1640, it is quite possible that she acted as a royalist spy in her late teens in the years after the English Civil War. Following the Restoration, she began to write plays that were performed by King Charles II’s Duke’s Company. Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage (1670), represents a significant milestone in literary history, since its publication makes Behn one of the first recorded women in England to earn a living from writing. Later plays such as The Rover (1677) were popular in their moment and have continued to be so, despite certain nineteenth-century critics detracting from Behn’s talents with accusations of plagiarism and unladylike bawdiness.
Behn’s work was pioneering in many respects. Some suggest that the prose fiction Oroonoko (1688) is, in fact, the first novel in English, as Behn plays with narrative voices in telling the story of the African prince sold into slavery. Its themes were controversial: the abolition of slavery is advocated almost 150 years before Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Act. Behn and Oroonoko are, then, provocative choices for Georgiana to have included on her bookshelf in the 1860s.