Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory and Criticism Heidi Hutner
Ever since Virginia Woolf proclaimed that all women writers should place flowers on her grave, Aphra Behn has slowly become recognized as the first Englishwoman to earn her living by writing. During the 17th century, Behn wrote prodigiously and in varied genres - drama, poetry, novels, essays and translations. She also had a lively personal life that included political intrigue, opinionated discourse and a long and well-publicized liaison with the bisexual John Hoyle. In this critical work, a range of contributors consider Behn from a variety of critical stances, mainly feminist and new historicist. Despite the fact that, next to Dryden, Behn may have been the most prolific writer of her day, she has been repeatedly repudiated as a morally depraved minor writer by the majority of her male critics until the mid-20th century. Only "Oroonoko" was given any serious consideration by literary scholars; from the late 18th century until the present, it has been regarded by some as the first abolitionist and humanitarian novel and a precursor to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Discourses on Inequality". During the past 20 years feminist critics have resurrected Behn as the foremother of British writing. Yet their critical efforts, to some extent, have limited our understanding of Behn's work. The essays in this volume demonstrate that we cannot fully understand Behn's writing without recognising the ideological complexities of, and ambiguities in, her texts: she is a Tory apologist, a proponent of women's freedom, as well as an early abolitionist. Given the breadth of Behn's writing, and given her prominience as a political writer in the 1680s, the contributors suggest that an in-depth theoretical, historical and critical rereading of Behn's work is essential to the reassessment of Restoration literary culture. The essays are written by some of the most prominent feminist scholars of 17th-century literature: Ellen Pollak, Laurie Finke, Rosalind Ballaster, Robert Markley, Jane Spencer, Judith Kegan Gardiner, Jessica Munns, Jacqueline Pearson, Heidi Hutner, Molly Rothenberg, Charlotte Sussman, Catherine Gallagher, Susan Green and Ruth Salvaggio. They explore all the various genres in Behn's canon, including her plays, criticism, fiction and poetry, from a wide variety of feminist theoretical approaches.