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New Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast: Aphra Behn

Saturday, February 25, 2017 - 10:51

It's the last weekend of the month, so it's time for another Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast to go live! This month we're looking at the exciting and implausible life of 17th century playwright, poet, world traveler, and spy Aphra Behn. Check out the show on your favorite podcast aggregator. If you enjoy it, I strongly urge you to subscribe and to rate the hosting show (The Lesbian Talk Show) to help others find it more easily.

Now with transcript!

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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast: Episode 7 - Aphra Behn - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/02/25 - listen here)

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(Transcript commissioned from Jen Zink @Loopdilou who is available for professional podcast transcription work. I am working on adding transcripts of the existing interview shows.)

I confess that, although there’s a lot of validation in finding historic evidence of ordinary everyday women who loved women, I’m a bit of a sucker for real-life stories that might be considered unbelievable as fiction.

One such person is the 17th century novelist, playwright, and spy Aphra Behn. Behn had an interesting and colorful career, the early parts of which are clouded by deliberate mythologizing.

What is clearly fact is that during the mid 1660s, when she was in her 20s, she worked as a spy for King Charles II in the period shortly after his restoration to the throne. Her espionage career may have begun in the Dutch East Indies, and is more solidly known from her time later in the Netherlands,  where she operated under the code name "Astrea" which she also used as a pen name.

She was a staunch royalist, though one must assume her loyalty to King Charles was strained a bit by the efforts she had to go through to get paid for her work. Her career as a playwright was somewhat more lucrative, though not without occasional reverses. Her works were in the libertine style of the restoration era when the playhouses that had been closed under Cromwell turned to rather free-spirited works, in a sort of artistic whiplash. Her personal life was also free-spirited and she was linked romantically with a number of artistic figures. The late Mr. Behn had left the stage before her writing became popular.

During her heyday, she was a prolific playwright, second in productivity only to John Dryden the Poet Laureate and her poetic output was enormous, both published and private.

So what is Aphra Behn doing on this podcast? Behn was also openly bisexual--or at least as open as one could be about it at the time. Indeed, her pen name Astrea, is taken from the play L’Astrée whose plot involves several erotic scenes between female characters (or characters passing as female). And certainly her poetry and correspondence with a number of women had no hesitation in expressing sentiments that would be clearly understood as romantic and erotic if directed at a man. Or rather, that are accepted as romantic and erotic on those occasions when she directs them at men, for she was promiscuous with her attentions and her most well-known lovers are male.

Behn addressed several poems to a woman named Emily Price, possibly an actress, when the two were briefly separated, including a love song that begs for her affection to be reciprocated, and with acts, not words. The following poem of the group expresses a somewhat different emotion: the vain hope that absence from her beloved might diminish her desire.

It is entitled: VERSES design'd by Mrs. A. Behn, to be sent to a fair Lady, that desir'd she would absent her∣self, to cure her Love. Left unfinish'd.

IN vain to Woods and Deserts I retire,
To shun the lovely Charmer I admire,
Where the soft Breezes do but fann my Fire!
In vain in Grotto's dark unseen I lie,
Love pierces where the Sun could never spy.
No place, no Art his Godhead can exclude,
The Dear Distemper reigns in Solitude:
Distance, alas, contributes to my Grief;
No more, of what fond Lovers call, Relief
Than to the wounded Hind does sudden Flight
From the chast Goddesses pursuing Sight:

When in the Heart the fatal Shaft remains,
And darts the Venom through our bleeding Veins.
If I resolve no longer to submit
My self a wretched Conquest to your Wit,
More swift than fleeting Shades, ten thousand Charms
From your bright Eyes that Rebel Thought disarms:
The more I strugl'd, to my Grief I found
My self in Cupid's Chains more surely bound:
Like Birds in Nets, the more I strive, I find
My self the faster in the Snare confin'd.

The poetic circles Aphra moved in often used pastoral nicknames, which can conceal the identity of the people they are written to. She addressed several poems to “Aminta”, which may have been an alias or may have been a generic name. In some Aminta has experienced the pangs of heterosexual love, but in the poem entitled “The Dream” she is the subject of the poet’s desire:

All trembling in my arms Aminta lay,
Defending of the bliss I strove to take;
Raising my rapture by her kind delay,
Her force so charming was and weak.

The soft resistance did betray the grant,
While I pressed on the heaven of my desires;
Her rising breasts with nimbler motions pant;
Her dying eyes assume new fires.

Now to the height of languishment she grows,
And still her looks new charms put on;
Now the last mystery of Love she knows,
We sigh, and kiss: I waked, and all was done.

‘Twas but a dream, yet by my heart I knew,
Which still was panting, part of it was true:
Oh how I strove the rest to have believed;
Ashamed and angry to be undeceived!

Shall we hope that the Aminta--whoever she may have been--that Aphra dreamed of bringing to “the last mystery of love” entertained the same dreams?

The poem that is most often discussed in the context of Aphra’s playful takes on gender and desire is “To the Fair Clarinda Who made love to me, Imagin'd more than woman.” One should understand that the phrase “make love” was not used as a euphemism for sex in this era and might be read as meaning something more like “to court, or to flirt.” We see here some of the troubling contradictions of the 18th century, where love between women was considered inherently “innocent” and yet the object of a woman’s desire might be imagined as masculine to some degree in order to justify the intensity of the emotion. And so the poet compartmentalizes her desire as friendship for the feminine part (Aphrodite) and love for the masculine part (Hermes), playing off the image of the gender-queer hermaphrodite.

Fair lovely Maid, or if that Title be
Too weak, too Feminine for Nobler thee,
Permit a Name that more Approaches Truth:
And let me call thee, Lovely Charming Youth.
This last will justifie my soft complaint,
While that may serve to lessen my constraint;
And without Blushes I the Youth persue,
When so much beauteous Woman is in view.
Against thy Charms we struggle but in vain
With thy deluding Form thou giv'st us pain,
While the bright Nymph betrays us to the Swain.
In pity to our Sex sure thou wer't sent,
That we might Love, and yet be Innocent:
For sure no Crime with thee we can commit;
Or if we shou'd - thy Form excuses it.
For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believes
A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant Leaves.
Though beauteous Wonder of a different kind,
Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis join'd;
When e'er the Manly part of thee, wou'd plead
Though tempts us with the Image of the Maid,
While we the noblest Passions do extend
The Love to Hermes, Aphrodite the Friend.

Although Aphra’s poetry often couched love between women in sentimental terms, her plays were most famous for their bawdy humor and that could include a recognition of the erotic potential between women, as when a character in “The False Count” asserts, "I have known as much danger hid under a petticoat as a pair of breeches. I have heard of two women that married each other," which may, in fact, be a reference to the marriage between Amy Poulter and Arabella Hunt, discussed in a previous podcast.

The most intriguing romantic possibility in Aphra’s life is suggested by the dedication she wrote in 1689 to Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarine, the niece of the great Cardinal Mazarin who, with her sisters and cousins, were known as the Mazarinettes, the glitterati of their day, lovers to a parade of great men and not a few women. Hortense Mancini enjoyed a number of unambiguously sexual relationships with women, both as an unhappy newlywed in France, and later in England, where she counted the young Countess of Sussex among her lovers, though the primary reason she had some to England was to elbow out a rival as the official mistress of King Charles.

In any event, Hortense Mancini had a reputation even more flagrant than Aphra’s own, and it is with that in mind that the following dedication has led some historians to conclude that the two women had most likely been lovers at some point. The dedication reads in part:

…to the Most Illustrious Princess, The Dutchess of infinitely one of Your own Sex adored You, and that, among all the numerous Conquests, Your Grace has made over the Hearts of Men, Your Grace had not subdued a more entire Slave. I assure you, Madam, there is neither Compliment, nor Poetry, in this humble Declaration, but a Truth, which has cost me a great deal of Inquietude, for that Fortune has not set me in such a Station, as might justify my Pretence to the honour and satisfaction of being ever near Your Grace, to view eternally that lovely Person, and hear that surprising Wit. What can be more grateful to a Heart, than so great, and so agreeable, an Entertainment? And how few Objects are there, that can render it so entire a Pleasure, as at once to hear you speak, and to look upon your Beauty?

To be sure, much of this may be the simple flattery that was common in such dedications. But Aphra Behn’s life, taken as a whole, suggests that the inquietude in her heart was genuine.

If you’re interested in further information about Aphra Behn and discussions about the queer and feminist elements of her life, see the show notes for links and references. And if you’d like to read a fictional imagining of an encounter between Aphra Behn and Hortense Mancini, there’s a link to a novelette that features them.

Show Notes

This episode is about the 17th century novelist, playwright, and spy Aphra Behn.

In this episode we talk about:

  • Behn’s careers in espionage and literature
  • Her bisexuality and some of the complexities of how desire between women was portrayed in the 17th century
  • Poem: VERSES design'd by Mrs. A. Behn, to be sent to a fair Lady, that desir'd she would absent her?self, to cure her Love. Left unfinish'd
  • Poem: The Dream
  • Poem: To the Fair Clarinda Who made love to me, Imagin'd more than woman
  • Dedicatory text to Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarine

Books mentioned:

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: