Aphra Behn (1640–1689), The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs Behn (detail), 1696, nla.cat-vn2027753
Recording date:


Aphra Behn, the first professional female writer in English, was a successful London playwright in the 1670s and 1680s. Her early book Oroonoko, published in 1688, tells the story of a slave uprising in Surinam (Suriname). In this interesting talk, Professor Elaine Hobby will share how Behn's rare and precious books give insight into her life.

Professor Elaine Hobby is a researcher and professor of seventeenth-century studies at Loughborough University (United Kingdom) and is a 2019 National Library of Australia Fellow.

Image: Aphra Behn (1640–1689), The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs Behn (detail), 1696, nla.cat-vn2027753

Filename: Elaine Hobby 13 March 2019


*Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Elaine Hobby (E)

*Audience: (A)

*Location: Theatre, National Library of Australia

*Date: 13/3/2019


M:        For those that don’t know me I’m Marie-Louise Ayres, Director General of the National Library and I’d like to welcome you to this which is our first fellowship lecture for 2019, only our first, not our last so strap in for the others. I’d like to acknowledge this place of learning and scholarship is built on thousands of years of knowledge-building and sharing by the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional owners of the land on which we are now privileged to do our work.

I’m really delighted to introduce Prof [recording skips] of editing Aphra Behn in the digital age, a major project funded over four years by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK Research and Innovation and I think I’m correct, it’s about £750,000 worth of funding although none of that is really always cash, is it, you know? So it’s quite a large project and involves a team of people. The project aims to bring together the most comprehensive view possible of the works of Aphra Behn, an astonishing 17th century woman in a truly international way with Behn editions hunted down in all sorts of nooks and crannies. We’re delighted that we’ve been able to support the antipodean part of this research journey with Elaine spending her time here at the Library communing with our collections and Elaine’s just said she’s going to tell me what we’ve got which is great but also visiting those in the vicinity in Australia and New Zealand.

Now Elaine has spent much of her professional life communing with those who lived in the 17th and very early 18th centuries, poets, midwives and those writing practical works in an age where knowledge could be much more readily shared and I think the – I guess the similarities between the digital work that you’re trying to do now so that you can share knowledge more readily, it’s redolent of what was going on in the 17th century. But her sensibilities are also decidedly modern and I’ll know that you will enjoy hearing about her research and the ways in which Behn is being brought into the digital age so Elaine, over to you.


E:         Thank you very much. I’d like first to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional custodians of this land and to their elders past and present and most especially I’d like to thank them for Mt Ainslie where I’ve spent every Sunday morning since I arrived and where I believe it’s the case, I’ve been told it’s the case that Mt Ainslie is traditionally associated with women’s business. The idea that women’s business is what goes on in the place where I have taken my own women’s business, thinking about the woman writer I’m going to be talking about, seems to me insofar that I understand this at all, singularly appropriate.

Before I proceed to the content or Behn part of what I’m saying I also really need to read a list of thanks and I’m sorry that this is reading a list but of course the people with whom I have met and who have actively helped and supported me over the now nine weeks - I have a week to go - that I’ve been here. So Marie-Louise herself, Kevin Bradley, Martin Woods, Andrew Sergeant, Damian Cole, Margaret Dent, Erica Mordach, Elizabeth Robinson, Narelle Marlow, Patricia Reynolds, Jamila Burns, Amelia McKenzie, Margaret Bolton, Elizabeth Bailey and the people who are down here as the LG1 crew and you know who you are and you smile at me and that makes a big difference.

But that isn’t why any of you came here, you came so that I could talk about Aphra Behn and you have I hope a piece of paper with some photographs on it. I apologise for the quality of most of those photographs. In effect what I’ve given you is my personal notebook because when I’m working in a library I take photographs of things for my own reference. They really weren’t made to go up at this size but nonetheless I thought you might like to see pictures of some of the things that are in the Library. Also a toy called Abdelazer and I shall come to the toy shortly. But fundamentally I’ll be talking in relation to the piece of paper you’ve got that have got – that’s got photographs in it that will sort of guide you through what I’m doing.

So some of you will know perfectly well what the key associations are of the period that Aphra Behn was alive in Britain so she was born in 1640 and she died in 1689 so that’s the period of the English civil wars, of Roundheads and Cavaliers, of the restoration of the monarchy after which what we have, a major issue is the problem of Libertinism which I will say a little bit more about in due course. We have a Poet Laureate, John Dryden, who many of you will know something about, and also increasing tension and anxiety again about what the monarchy’s up to, that the monarchy’s taking too much power into his hands again.

We had a period of civil war and nine years of glorious freedom as a republic before the restoration of the monarchy and right towards the end of Aphra Behn’s life the death of Charles II, his replacement by the Catholic James II and three years later what is known as the glorious revolution which is to say James ran away and some Protestants were invited to be our monarchs in his place. So that’s the period that Behn is alive, a lot goes on. It’s very to me fascinating and I will dip back and forward towards some of that as I talk about the books that are here in this library.

To some extent what was said in the publicity for this talk which I provided so it’s my fault, certainly what you’ll find if you do any reading at all about Aphra Behn is that you’ll be told that she’s the first professional woman writer in English. It’s not exactly true and I’ve given you a couple of names on your outline. There is an almanac-maker, Sarah Jinner, who made almanacs for about six years. I think they sold quite well but on the outline you can see I’ve said to beware of The Woman’s Almanac because that isn’t her’s, it’s published under her name but it isn’t hers and it’s a mock almanac, a satire on how dare a woman think she can write a book that gives people information about what they might expect to happen this year and what the public forces are that will make things happen? How dare she do that?

So Sarah Jinner made writing – made a living as an almanac-writer but not for very long and Hannah Woolley who made a living as a cookery book-writer for about 15 years and again – warnings on your line – books of hers – her name was also used for books that were not by her because she had made her name for that. All of these things, even though you don’t have paper copies of them here at the National Library, what you do have is subscription to the most extraordinary database, Early English Books Online, where you can read all of these things in their original versions, you can see their title pages, what they look like and so on. Indeed you also have, given that the Library’s been here for as long as it has and has had fine collections for as long as it has, microfiche and microform versions of these things but not paper copies of them.

So Behn herself within that context nonetheless she is, if you accept that neither Sarah Jinney nor Hannah Woolly made it as a professional writer for very long, Aphra Behn is – could reasonably be called the first. She made a career for 20 years in the professional theatre to start with, she was a very successful and very prolific playwright in the 1670s, early 1680s and turned to a series of other sorts of writings, many of which you have copies of here and which I’m going to talk about. She was very well networked. Dryden, for instance, the Poet Laureate, invited her to contribute to his – of his epistles translations. She wrote a prologue for a play by the Earl of Rochester which you have an original copy of here in this Library and many of the key intellectual figures of the day, writers of the day were people whom she mixed with, wrote for, they wrote for her. So was by no means, one might think, the first professional woman writer would be. She – and again I’m going somewhere with this.

Before she was a professional writer she was a spy and her spying letters still exist in our national archives in London. They’re letters that she wrote home to England in the mid-1660s when she was spying for Charles II over there and if any of you happens to be in London in the summer of 2020 do please come to the National Archives in London to see the exhibition of her spying letters that my team have organised with our national archives.

But her first play after she had been a spy, had come back to England in debt and she disappears from the public record for a couple of years, we know nothing about where she was or what she was doing. Then in 1670 her first play appears on the public stage, is an immediate success and is followed by probably as many as 20 plays. So the second piece of paper so not your toy – we’re getting to the toy – but your second piece of paper, I’m afraid because I’m quite old now, mine is twice the size of yours, sorry about that – gives you a sense of what it is that I'm at least notionally up to and of what’s here in your library.

So you can see that I’ve highlighted in gold books where the first edition is owned somewhere in Australia. Quite a lot of these things are opened here so this is the map of the edition. You can see a number of plays that are here, you can see she’s a playwright. That first column is the tranche of her plays that will be published next year which is why I have spent all my waking hours in the Library since I got here. Then in the next column you can see that there are more plays and there’s also prose fiction including translated fiction. Then in the third column there’s her poetry. Quite a lot of her poetry is here in the national archive – in the National Library and I shall come back to that.

There is – there are also in that third column something that you don’t have copies of that I’ve been able to discover at least, her three-volume scandal fiction, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. But since I’m only aware of two copies in the world of its second volume and one copy in the world of its first it’s not so remarkable that those are not here. Then finally you can see in the final column there are yet more plays and there are also nonfiction translations. So she was prolific, she was varied, she was successful in all of these fields and as I say the gold highlighting tells you what’s here in Australia.

What our edition is doing is making it available, her writings, for a modern audience. So all of these texts have introductions, they have annotation that explains things and they also include – which is where the toy is going to come in – an exercise that is to do with finding out what the difference is between what was printed and what should have been printed shall we say. So a great deal of travelling to libraries in mainland Europe, in the USA and now here.

We’re only interested in our edition for – in texts by – that have authority in the sense that they were either published in Behn’s lifetime and therefore she had a hand in what they said or they were not published at all in her lifetime but there is a fairly early posthumous edition so we’re looking at all of those things. We’re not looking at later editions of her texts because those simply have got further and further away from the author. I can say some more about that if you’re interested.

There are almost no manuscripts so whereas with many important writers of this period and earlier there are at least some manuscripts where you can go and see what is the difference or what is the continuity between what appears in print and what the author wrote perhaps even in their own hand. We have the manuscript of one poem and her spying letters. So when I talk about what’s here in Australia these highlighted texts are texts which are first editions, they are authoritative, they are texts that were published in the 1670s, in the 1680s, in the early 1690s, these are very rare and very precious and I am very grateful that they’re here and are being looked after here.

But as I started to say I’m trying to work out what the difference is between – one of the things I need to work out is what the difference between what might have been in the manuscript that went to the printer and what the printer actually produced. This is a major – this is where the toy’s going to come in and I’m going to share with – a moment. My outline tells me there are two other things I’m meant to say first so I’m going to say those first. Why? Why come to Australia? It’s a long way as most of you know if you’ve been to the part of the world that I normally live in, it’s a long way. What my note says is that really I came for two reasons. One is that I think that people from the northern hemisphere should get out more. It’s good for them.

The second thing is I think – to my mind it’s important that Australians who are interested in the writings of this period from Britain should know where there are original copies here, that you don’t actually have to go to the other side of the world to see these or only see them digitally, they’re here. So when the edition comes out it will list where we’ve been and where we’ve found things.

I also had a suspicion that if I came here I would find some things that were magical and I have and I’m going to be telling you about those in a moment. But first we need to think a bit about what you have here, Histories and Novels. This is – you can see so 1696. If you were paying attention you’d know she died in ’89 so this is seven years posthumous. It’s a very important book, it’s a rare book so it’s great that it’s here. It’s important most of all because it is part of, and there’s a photograph of the other one on your outline, I haven’t put about The Younger Brother which there’s also a copy of, same year. So two works of Aphra Behn coming out in 1696. Both of them have biographies in them that purport to tell us about who she was.

The biographies are an enormous problem and they’ve caused more than 300 years of grief because they clearly, once you know Behn’s work, are written by people who know nothing about her other than what they have read in her fiction and in her plays. So they tell you things that they say are true of her that are not necessarily true of her at all, they’re things that are true of various of her characters. So she has characters who are Catholics and so people write biographies even today telling you that Aphra Behn was a Catholic. It’s quite unlikely when we look into her background.

She has – she writes a poem to – in the voice of a woman who is annoyed and frustrated with her lover and so clearly Aphra Behn was annoyed and frustrated with her lover and I could go on but I would bore myself quite quickly. I think it’s a major problem to this day in the way that women’s writing tends to be viewed and received. It’s as if women are not sufficiently creative or imaginative to produce imaginary worlds and that therefore if you read a woman’s imaginary world all it’ll tell you is something about her and her biography.

When this edition is finished I'm intending to work on a new biography of Aphra Behn and hope that part of what I’m doing here and also what else I have been doing over these several years will help me with this. But the problem of this book that you have and the younger brother, which I shall come back to in a little while, is significant. How did this book come to be here or the younger brother come to be here? Quite a lot of the books that are here in the National library that are by Behn are in a collection that was - that the Library acquired from David Nichol Smith who was a very, very important early 20th century editor and scholar and he was quite determined that those books should come here to the National Library. I’ve been so lucky as to be allowed to look at the acquisition file and seen the extent to which the Prime Minister was involved. People were sent to Nichol Smith’s funeral as correspondents with his family.

But David Nichol Smith ensured that his – and the Library worked very hard and your government worked very hard to get his collection here. So although Histories and Novels isn’t in his collection The Younger Brother is along with something which – this book, Miscellany Poems. You have two copies of this. It’s published in 1692. This is the copy that’s in David Nichol Smith’s Collection and it, like the other two I’ve just been talking about, the two from 1696, the prefatory matter, the introduction to the collection was all done by a man called Charles Gilden. So Charles Gilden in 1692 puts this book together which claims to have some poems in it by Behn, new poems that no-one’s ever seen before just as those other two things are things that he brings out. This copy which is in the Nichol Smith Collection has on its cover this quite extraordinary image. I would love one of you to tell me that you’ve seen this before and you know where it’s from.

Similar, you can see that it’s – the title page is signed by David Griffiths and I’m really quite excited about David [unclear] 22:46 Griffiths because that’s really quite an early hand there, having been an early owner of this text because manifestly his name is Welsh and I’m Welsh and therefore I'm hoping that what I’ll find as I go on and work on this some more is that this may give me a lead who were the [unclear] 23:10 Griffiths and who is the owner of this logo so that I might find through their family history, through their records, through libraries or archives that have records of them, something that will lead me back to Behn, who was she? What was she really like? How did she come to be a spy? Because we don’t know why she was chosen as a spy. So this book excites me, you have two copies of it. The other one is less exciting insofar that is has no signatures on it but is otherwise entirely interesting.

So amongst the stories that are told about Aphra Behn, not in this book because there’s no story here, it’s four years later that Gilden starts telling his stories about Behn, are that she went to Suriname and that she saw the slave rebellion that this text which she most certainly did write, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, is about. Now it is certainly the case that Aphra Behn’s narrator was present for the slave uprising that the story’s about but whether she was there is another question altogether but Gilden tells us that she was.

So just in seeing this and seeing this really very beautiful binding you might begin to think okay, I could see a logic as to why a person would come halfway ‘round the world to see a signature but there’s more to it than that and this is when we get to your toy. So if you – do feel free to open your toy as long as you put it back together in the same order that you have it in otherwise you won’t understand what I'm about to say. So what your toy is is – and Abdelazer is the name of the play that it’s from is meant to be on the front if you’ve managed to put it back together the right way round.

The play, Abdelazer, when it was printed in 1677 would have been printed – would have consisted of one of these which you can see is labelled B at the bottom of it and a series of other sheets of paper folded like this that are actually twice the size of this but I didn’t think it was right to make a toy that was quite as big as that. So a book would have consisted of a series of very large sheets of papers which if you were making what’s called a quarto which is where as you’d guess from the name, really, every sheet of paper is made into four leaves or eight pages what you’d do is you would have enough sheets of paper folded like this to contain the whole play.

So that would probably be about eight sheets of paper, maybe 10, maybe 12, different plays, different lengths, they may have introductions and so on and so forth. But the convention always is that the first page normally – always is an exaggeration – normally the first page is on the B gathering and before the gathering there’s an A gathering that has all the other stuff. So in the case of a play it’s probably the list of characters, it’s the title page, it’s perhaps a dedicatory epistle or whatever, anything that’s before the play starts. Then the play itself starts on page 1.

Now if you open your toy you start to see the really quite extraordinary thing about how they made text in this time and it’s helped if you see this. So this is – and there’s a very tiny image of this on your handout because here, these tiny, tiny things here are tiny, tiny pieces of metal. Each piece of metal has got standing out on it a surface that will produce an A or an E or a punctuation mark. What the compositor is doing, what the printer is doing is picking up tiny, tiny pieces of metal and putting them in turn into his composing stick to make a line of type. The line of type then goes onto a big metal frame which as this toy shows you has got next to page 1, page 8 and then upside down pages 4 and 5 next to each other. Then on the other side of the page the compositor, using all these tiny little bits of metal type, makes these other things, these other pages in this sequence.

Now if you're doing that, even if you’ve had a seven-year apprenticeship, there’s a fairly good chance that you’ll make mistakes and therefore what happened was quite literally stop press correction. So the printer would we think usually, generally they would print what’s called the inner form first so on a quarto gathering that’s the side that you can see you’ve got page numbers on but nothing else. Yeah? There would really be words there, of course. So first the printer would print all of the copies, let’s say 500 copies of that and it would be hung up to dry and once they were dry the printer would turn the piece of paper over, the sheets over and print these other four pages. Whilst they were printing, whilst the press was running somebody would be stood to one side and proofreading an early copy that’s come off the press and looking for errors.

If they find errors they quite literally stop the press if they think they’re important errors and the compositor gets out his various metal tools and pulls out one of those tiny bits of metal and replaces it or turns it the other way up if it’s upside down or adds a word if it’s missing. But because paper in that period was very expensive, paper was more expensive than labour, if you found that you had printed something that had got errors on you didn’t throw away the erroneous versions, you just bound them into the books with the others and assumed that nobody would notice. Therefore if you’re working on a book that’s made in this period there’s precious little point looking at just one copy because you don’t know as you get to each of these gatherings as they’re called, you don’t know whether you’ve the corrected version or the uncorrected version.

I'm sure that the Library will be very glad to know that – so this is Abdelazer and it’s – and this is the first page of Abdelazer. Now anyone who doesn’t go to a library to read real books from this period would be working with what’s known as EEBO, Early English Books Online. This is the fantastic electronic database that this library subscribes to so you can when you’re in this library, you can go to EEBO and you’ll see this play opening with a song which reads, Love in fantastic triumph sat, Whilst bleeding hearts about him flowed. This is the copy in this library which opens, Love in fantastic triumph sat, Whilst bleeding hearts around him flowed so around him flowed, so around, not about. That’s why on your toy you can see about and around with a slash between them. You can see fresh pains it says in your copy, fresh pays it says in the EEBO copy and at that point you start to think I don’t think you create fresh pays and obviously the EEBO copy that everybody knows because it’s the one that’s easily available has got printers’ errors in it. Whereas the NLA copy is splendidly corrected and correct.

If you look at the – then you open up your toy, you can see where there are other errors and there are tiny, tiny photographs of these on your handout so you can see that on page 4 the EEBO copy has b-u-e when the proper word is but and that’s what your copy has here. If you turn it up the other way you can see that where the EEBO copy has a phrase, is flew to which is manifestly wrong, the NLA copy has, is fled to which is the corrected version. So on this side, this side, this form, this B alta form, what the NLA copy has is the corrected form.

Now it’s possible that Behn herself was in the printing house, spotted the error, got the press stopped. We’re quite certain with some of the corrections that we found in some of her texts that she was there because the corrections were things like the printer had missed a whole line out and you’d need the author there to work out how to fix that without it being obvious that some material had been lost. We don’t know whether she was here for this correction, she may well have been because this song – that’s its first stanza – is one of her most famous songs, she collects it herself later in her own Poems upon several occasions, it’s collected in various songbooks of the time, it’s endlessly reprinted so it’s an important text. She might have been there to correct it. And she might not.

Before I move [recording skips] want to come this distance to see books I just thought you’d like to know a little bit more about Abdelazer since it’s here in your library. It’s a very extraordinary play. It’s a play that’s about questions of race and ethnicity. This is an ongoing interest right the way through Behn’s career so you remember her collection, that collection, a posthumous collection of her Histories and Novels that you have here and I said it has Oroonoko in it, it’s about a slave rebellion. So both of these texts are very clear examples of how through her career, how interested she was in those large social questions about how people live together, what their prejudices are, how things might change. Abdelazer has a really impassioned black man who talks about his experience of racism as of course does Oroonoko in the history of the slave rebellion.

Although I cannot take any credit for this and in fact you should take the credit because it tells you something about your people, both of those texts, both Abdelazer and the fiction, the late fiction are being edited by Australian editors. So I think it’s entirely appropriate both that this library in this multinational country has copies of these texts and that it’s Australians who are editing them.

So as I say this is one example of why I need to see lots of copies, I need to find out where the printers’ errors might be. This one is relatively easy to spot. Sometimes you have to go quite some distance before you find the other page on the form where you think oh that’s definitely wrong, that can’t possibly be right and then you work back. What are the correct version? Just as in this case it is possible, bleeding hearts about him flowed, bleeding hearts around him flowed. In itself about around, you could say well it could be one, could be ‘tother. It’s only when you get to pays and pains that you know oh, one of those is definitely the wrong one. That isn’t what’s meant to be said. But there are other kinds of reasons to go and see lots of copies and that’s – those are mostly to do with my – a general category I’ve put on your piece of paper which is readers’ responses.

So this is a bit of a tease, really. Oh yes so those were the examples. So if anyone knows what that mark on the page is they’re not allowed to say so those who don’t know, what’s this mark on the page here? The answer is fascinating for someone who spends their time with old books. It’s a candle burn so this is – and if you had the real book in front of you and you could do because it’s just upstairs - you see that you can see through that onto the next page where there is some brown but if you turn back the other way, turn the page back the other way, there’s no brown on the other side.

What it’s a sign of is that moment that we all know where you cannot bear to stop reading until you get to the end of this page or this chapter or this incident and you can see here there’s discussion going on about death. Is he dead? Sir, you rave. Indeed I do. She’s dead, they say. How came she dead? Of course this person is not going to put the play down and therefore sadly it gets burnt. So readers’ responses can be as – shall we say undefinable as that, that you can see some evidence that at least a reader has got excited or of course distracted at this point.

There are also readers’ responses of other kinds. So this is this library’s copy of The Debauchee and over here you can see that someone – again this is quite an early hand, this is a 17th or possibly early 18th century hand but for the moment let’s pretend it’s from 1677, it could be - first owner, first reader who is reading this play and realises that this person who’s saying no more, Mr Careless, ‘tis sufficient manifestly isn’t careless himself, which is what the printer printed as the speaker prefix but in fact is Saveall, that the character called Saveall speaks like this, this is the voice of Saveall. The reader has gone in and corrected it in his copy. No, that’s Saveall speaking.

This to me is very interesting because I’ve seen a lot of copies of this play, this is probably the 14th, 15th copy I’ve seen. Nobody has ever corrected it before. So this is interesting to me because I'm thinking mm, so was this copy owned by someone either who had seen the play at the theatre or who knew something about the play, the playwright sufficiently to correct it? Then the epilogue to the play which often the epilogue or a prologue will be written by a friend of the playwright rather than the playwright themselves, it’s published as being – the epilogue as written by Mr E R.

You can see that this person has written in the name, Ravenscroft, which is almost certainly who it’s by so I’m thinking does the owner of this copy know that Ravenscroft wrote the epilogue? That looks to me – it’s difficult to see because – to tell because of course the person is imitating print so less easy to identify a hand – somebody’s handwriting style and that is but it could be, the ink is similar, could be the same person so I don’t have an answer but I’ve got a question which is might I find out more about this play? And therefore about its author.

I say its author rather than Behn at this moment because this is one of the texts that is in the edition that is quite possibly not by her. But at the time it was thought – many people thought it was hers. Since, various people have said they think it’s hers and so I just wanted to mention as I'm going, and again there are various things I could say about this more if you were interested, amongst the ways that we’re trying to work with things that may or may not be Behn’s, whether they’re really hers is we’re using digital analyses looking at word frequencies, for instance, word pairs, word sequences and all of this is also being run from Australia because the place in the world to do that kind of computer-aided investigation of text and of authorship is in University of Newcastle. So if you looked at your list of participants you can see that in there is Hugh Craig on our editorial board and it is Hugh who has guided our work on this play. It’s possible that Behn contributed to a scene or two of it. Basically a play by Richard [Broome] 42:17 that somebody has updated and almost anyone could have done.

The play is about a young man who wants to be made an heir and who – his attempts to make himself an heir. The way that the play deals with that plot is part of what makes me sceptical that it’s actually Behn’s play because that – the problem of the young man who wants to persuade an older wealthy man to make him his heir is a problem that Behn comes back to repeatedly in her plays. So The City Heiress which so far we’ve only seen for its candle burn, for instance, is a play with exactly that plot. Young man wants to be made an heir. He also gets up to quite a lot of other things and I’m going to show you that in a moment but in The City Heiress there isn’t just the plot of the young man, the play is also about the manipulation of elections so people who are getting other people drunk to get their votes for instance.

It’s a play about what in the period would have been called perhaps rough wooing, the idea that you can get a woman to accept you if you’re just a bit forceful as a man. What The City Heiress does is shows rough wooing which is as close to rape as you’re going to get on the restoration stage which is pretty close. So Behn will take a plot and she will complicate a plot in two directions, the one is something to do with sexuality and the way that sexuality is thought about and valued in this period of libertine beliefs and the assumption – a bit like the 1960s – that if people just had more sex the world would be a better place. But she also will complicate it through political questions, through questions of allegiance and how the world is run so I think it’s really quite unlikely as if you like merely a literary point of view that this play is hers although people have often associated it with her.

Similarly the play that I was talking about a little while ago, The Younger Brother, one of her 1696 plays. That also has a plot of a young man trying to get an older rich man to make him his heir. What that play does as well as that is that it is fascinated by the relationships between men, about men feeling torn between their friendship and their commitment to their male friends and their male allies and the emotions that a man feels when he’s in love. Again this is a recurring question and interest of Behn’s, how men relate to one another, how men’s relationships with one another have an impact on their marriage. So that’s what Behn would do with the plot, what she does do in those two instances where you have copies here of that kind of plot. The Debauchee doesn’t do anything as interesting or as complicated as that.

I know I’ve got about minus one minute so what I’m going to do now is quite quick. You can see the next point on your outline simply says to you politics, Behn and politics. She is fascinated by, completely obsessed and engaged with the question of what’s going on in national politics. It’s there in her works in all sorts of ways. It’s there in her works in ways that’s very interesting to those of us who are interested in her because from the beginning she signs up to the idea that the King is the King, that God put him here and we should obey him. That’s in a culture where those same arguments about kings being kingly are used to argue for men’s authority over women, are used to argue for questions of superiority of one class over another, of one race after another.

What you find in her works endlessly is interrogation of that or a problem with it. How can she manage to continue to be on the side of kingship and yet have all of these other ideas and explorations about other hierarchies that she questions, that she complicates? For me that’s one of the things that makes her writing so interesting, is the fact that she constantly revisits and tries to find ways of making sense of those things.

At the end of the handout I’ve given you some Behn words and these are examples of as I say perhaps a woman’s view. The first is from that play that I so love that you have a copy of, The City Heiress. This is where the man who is trying to be made an heir, trying to get himself made an heir and also is in the midst of relationships with three women. He’s trying to get an heiress to marry him, because of course in that period once a woman was married, everything she brought to the marriage no longer belonged to her, it all belonged to her husband. So he’s trying to get a rich young virgin to marry him. He’s trying to get a widow, a wealthy young widow into bed and he’s trying to get rid of a woman he’s already seduced.

This speech that I’ve given you here is the moment at which Wilding, this libertine, turns up in the bedroom of the widow and he says to her keep your word, Madam. Her response is my word, have I promised then to be a whore? A whore? Oh let me think of that. A man’s convenience, his leisure hours, his bed of ease to loll and tumble at at idle times, the slave, the hackney of his lawless lust. A loath'd extinguisher of filthy flames, made use of and thrown by. Oh, infamous. It’s a very extraordinary speech, I think, to be written by a woman and in the voice of a woman in 1682. There’s a lot more of that kind in this play. This is a play – as I say you have a copy upstairs, you really should go and read it.

When against that is a poem that she writes to one of these important men that she’s networked with where she’s thanking him for translating into English a text that has only until now been available in Latin. I’ve pulled out for you the bit where she says ‘til now I cursed my sex and education, and she goes on to say, now what you’ve done is you’ve given us, by which she clearly means women, access to what we have been refused access to before.

The third one is one that I happen to be especially fond of. It’s a terrible thing in that it’s a poem about the seventh child in a row in a family to die. So it’s an epitaph on the tombstone of a child, the first of seven that died before. This poem is on the wall of a church in Berkshire and they know the family’s story of the family that this is part of, they didn’t know that the poem was by Aphra Behn until I wrote to them about it. So again I’m hoping that this church wall and the story of this family might lead me back to Behn because how did – why did they ask her to write this poem that’s on the church wall and that she published in this collection of hers?

So I'm not going to talk any more about the last one ‘cause I was meant to have stopped five minutes ago. So there’s all this stuff going on, all this conflict, all this thinking, all this passion and then quite suddenly she died, 1689. She’s 49 years old. Yeah, for some of us that was a while ago.

So I’m extremely glad that Australian copies of these books will be part of what we are bringing into print and reporting to the world about and I want again to thank you all for having these books here and looking after them and to the Library itself for looking after me. Thank you.


M:        I was just thinking of somebody who’s spent a few years of my life closely reading poetry and writing about it, I'm thinking about the poor PhD student who probably spent part of a chapter trying to figure out what from whom fresh pays he did create and trying to make sense of it because that’s what you do, you try to kind of think what’s the meaning so my heart sank at that point in time. Look, that’s a marvellous look at I guess not just Behn herself and the treasures that are in our collection and the unexpected treasures of a candle burn or somebody who’s filling in trying to look as if they’ve printed text when it’s actually not that appears in a work that we’ve sort of understood a bit about that intense scholarly process today.

Elaine’s project for me is yet another demonstration of the huge array of research that our collections can support and while I would have to say it’s been a long time since a Prime Minister of Australia has concerned him or herself with securing an important collection or in fact the future of our collections these collections have been lovingly built up over decades by generations of librarians and - never knowing that there was going to be an Elaine coming along to look at them in this particular way and this is what makes working here such a joy I have to say day in and day out. So it’s just marvellous to hear research that you might not expect being done at the Library being done here or in fact being done in Australia. You haven’t been to New Zealand yet? You’ll be going to New Zealand so we will want a report back actually to find out what did you find there? A spot of candle grease or something that might give you another bit of evidence.

But look, we do have time for a few questions from anybody in the audience who might have questions. We’ve got one right up the back here and I'm sure that Elaine would say ask questions even if you don’t consider to yourself to be an expert on 17th century writings.

E:         Yeah.

A:        Elaine, thank you very much for a fascinating insight into Aphra Behn about whom I knew virtually nothing when I walked into the room despite having studied English at ANU in a past life. Her work is so fresh and engaging and it seems her themes are so relevant. Are any of her plays performed? I can only imagine they go down rather well in The Globe in London.

E:         Two of her plays went on being performed into the middle of 18th century, The Rover and The Emperor of the Moon. The Rover is fairly regularly revived, it’s been revived here, it’s been revived various times. It was recently done at The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford in Britain. But nothing like enough and if any of you have friends in the theatre world I would love to sell them the idea of putting on a Behn play ‘cause they are really fantastic. Indeed.

Can I say there are two things that I was meant to have said – I meant to myself, really. Firstly you have a play that you didn’t know you had so that’s on the – on this piece of paper that shows you that you have The Young King, you have the first edition of The Young King. It’s a fine play, it’s about a woman brought up to be martial and a man brought up to be gentle and feminine and you have a copy of this play. You didn’t know you had it because it starts with the B gathering but it is the first edition and it’s here.

So that was the first thing and the second thing was the collection of plays that you have which is wonderful, really, could do with some TLC and if anybody has a little money to spare I’m sure the Library would be more than happy to accept a donation to mend a book or two. Sorry but –

A:        Thank you, that was fabulous. This is a very simple question, who was the Australian Prime Minister that facilitated the acquisition of the David Nichol Smith Collection?

E:         Is it White? Menzies?

M:        Yes and in fact those of us who are familiar with our acquisition files know that the relationship between Sir Harold White and Sir Robert Menzies was extraordinarily close, they were both there for a long time. They lived within a [recording skips] you can see this relationship developing around quite a few collections that come in, yes.

A:        That makes sense.

M:        You know the letters are headed, My dear Prime Minister, My dear Harold. It’s very charming to my eyes.

A:        The two of them also facilitated the acquisition of our 13th century Magna Carta copy which the Library said was theirs but the Parliament now has.

A:        Thank you as well. Could you say a little bit more about her career as a spy?

E:         Well what we have is the letters home – she was sent to Antwerp to meet up with a man whom she presumably had known before to try and persuade him to come home. He’s one of the people who’d been banished from the country because he was suspected to not be on the right side ‘cause the British were at war with the Dutch at the time. The letters home consist mostly of her saying you haven’t paid me yet and life here is getting rather difficult. There’s not very much spying information in the letters except that. She does say you know the Dutch have got this plan, they’re going to sail up the Medway and set fire to the British fleet. The people at home in English – you can see the little sort of annotations from the Lord Chancellor’s office saying silly woman. Of course the next month the Dutch did sail up the Medway and did set fire to the British fleet.

They still didn’t pay her and she came home and was at least threatened with and perhaps went into debtor’s prison because there was as you may know in those days the wonderful system that if you were for instance a debtor you would go to prison where you had to pay for your keep. Deeply rational. We don’t know how she got out and – but the fact that all of her – everything she wrote of any length is concerned with the importance of money. Now if she were a 20th century person you would say she’s a Marxist because she’s always thinking about the financial, the economic basis out of which people’s ideas and possibilities come, may well be from the experience of being – going away for the King to be a spy and finding that you could end up in prison. But do come to London and – it’s not far, I’m living proof.

A:        Just looking at the play it strikes me it’s a mixture of blank verse and prose. What did she write in? Tell me.

E:         She mixed in exactly that way, yeah. It’s very interesting that you get situations where for instance a character switches into verse because they’re doing love talk. Where the other character doesn’t really believe that what’s being said is true, they think you’re saying that and you mean something else and they respond in prose. Then when they get convinced they’ll go across to verse, this sort of thing. It’s – I think she does it more systematically than many of her contemporary playwrights but it is something that is not uncharacteristic of restoration drama, this sort of shifting between verse and prose.

A:        How good was her blank verse?

E:         Very good, she was a very fine poet, yeah. Her Poems upon several occasions which is her own collection of verse is – has fine verse in it, yeah. So – which makes her fun to read, it’s not just a question of reading her for the sake of she’s saying that you might find interesting, she says it well.

A:        I noticed on the first frontispiece that she is referred to as Mrs Behn and I wondered if there was anything interesting to say about her marriage, her husband and possibly her husband’s view of her as the first professional woman writer of English.

E:         Wouldn’t that be nice? It’d be nice. Two things, I should have said that she was born Aphra Johnson so we know she’s born in a village just outside Canterbury and we know that her father is a barber or barber-surgeon perhaps and her mother is a gentlewoman and her mother’s – and her parents’ first child is born six months after their marriage so we can make our own deductions. Then Aphra is the third child of that marriage. So we know she wasn’t born Behn, we know she’s called Behn by the time she becomes a spy because that’s what the official papers are in and we know – Behn is probably German, yeah? I'm not saying I won’t find her ‘cause I would like to do so but he simply doesn’t feature.

Even at the point that she goes away as a spy her brother goes with her but there’s no mention of a husband so people speculate perhaps he died in the plague in ’65 before she went off in ’66, perhaps he deserted her. I think he must have existed because it’s a time of such gossip and nastiness that if he didn’t exist you’d expect there would have been satirical poems written saying oh and she invented her husband who didn’t exist but we literally know nothing about him, at least yet. Thank you.

A:        Hi. Just out of curiosity how did you come across Aphra Behn?

E:         I was a 1970s feminist and in my last year as an undergraduate I one day made two terrible discoveries at the same moment because I was sitting in bed looking ‘round my books and thinking I know, in my finals exams I’ll only write about women. I won’t say that that’s what I’m going to do but that’s what I’ll do. I made simultaneously two terrible discoveries, the first was that I hadn’t read any women other than George Eliot and the Brontes and Jane Austen and the second was that I hadn’t realised I hadn’t read any women because the way that English was taught at universities back in those days you were thinking about women’s stuff if you read Thomas Hardy’s women or something like that.

So I decided okay well I would work on women then and I ended up by accident in the 17th century, there’s a longer story that I can tell you over a drink in a minute if need be, if you’re interested. But I ended up by accident in 17th century and I wrote my PhD on women writers who were in print between 1649 and 1688. Most of those are Quakers and Baptists and women involved in the political upheavals that I started off by reminding you of. I always thought that I would never work on Aphra Behn, I thought she was so good that other people would see to her. Forty years on, yeah. I’m completely in love with her, for the last five years almost the only thing I’ve done is read and read and read over and over again, read her works and the more I read her the better I realise she is which is why I said yeah, she can write blank verse, no question.

A:        Thank you very much for your talk, it was very enjoyable and I'm sure it’s -we’ve learned a lot about this amazing writer. I was wondering if there has been a memoir or anything like that written about her that might be available and when the books are printed will they come to Australia, do you know?

E:         Oh I hope so. Certainly our Australian editors will have copies of them but yeah. In terms of if you wanted to read more about her the best biography that exists at the moment is by Janet Todd. Now I don’t myself agree with some of Janet’s guesses if you like because of course we’re guessing, she says these things and might she be talking about experience or might this be an imaginary world? But it’s a good – it’s a fine and very readable biography so I don’t know whether you’ve got it here, I haven’t looked but I’m sure you could get hold of that.

A:        Thank you very much for your talk, I enjoyed it enormously. I was hoping that you might be able to clarify something for me. It’s to do with Abdelazer and Oroonoko and I’d had the impression that Abdelazer was based on the novel, Oroonoko, but from what you’ve said this evening I gather that Abdelazer was a play that was written earlier on whereas Oroonoko I gather was written – was published just the year before she died. But I’ve also read that it was – in 1685 – 1695 that Thomas Southerne adapted Oroonoko for the stage and –

E:         Yes, exactly, exactly.

A:        So there’s really no connection or is the storyline much the same in both the play and the novel? I also understand that Abdelazer was also known as The Moor’s Revenge. Is that –

E:         Yes, that’s right.

A:        Of course Henry Purcell wrote the incidental music.

E:         He did and it’s amazing, I’ve heard it performed live and it’s extraordinary music, yes. So there were a series of questions and observations, though. You’re quite right, Thomas Southerne adapted Behn’s narrative of Oroonoko and it was a very successful play in 1695, 1696 and therefore and I think it’s reasonable to speculate that when The Younger Brother and The Histories and Novels that you own here came out. They were riding that tide, that Behn had become a hot name in 1696. They are quite different texts. Oroonoko opened in Africa in an [unclear] 7:55 community where people are sold into slavery and other people are captured into slavery and it then goes to Suriname where there’s a slave uprising so that’s the story of that whereas Abdelazer is a tragedy that tells the story of murder and incest and adultery and all sorts of other things.

A:        So nothing really to do with slaves.

E:         No, not in that case, no.

A:        Thank you.

A:        Thank you again. Why did she go to Suriname?

E:         Well, if she did.

A:        If she did.

E:         The spec – the story goes to Suriname, Oroonoko, and people have said that because the narrator speaks quite convincingly about being there that she must have been there. The speculation then is that she went as a young woman because the narrator of the story is a young woman whose father has been sent there and she’s gone with him. He’s gone as Deputy Governor of Suriname.

A:        [unclear] 9:32 go as a spy.

E:         Well if she went at - no, no, if she went at all, exactly so I hope that in 10 years’ time I shall write to the Library and say please could I come back and talk in the Library about what I found about what really went on because at the moment I’ve got a lot of questions. I'm hoping because – really from about 1680 onwards when she published work – because you could get money if somebody accepted, that you could dedicate it to them, they’d give you some cash for saying nice things about them in print. I’m hoping that if I can go to the archives and the family histories of those families to whom she dedicated thing – one who’s looked at those records, the name of Aphra Behn would probably not mean anything to them and so there could be materials that I would find if I went and looked.

But part of why I'm sceptical that she went to Suriname is that the descriptions in the story are quite extraordinarily rich descriptions of vegetation and of animals and so on. Only a few years earlier she wrote new English poems for Aesop’s Fables and some of the creatures she described so vividly in Oroonoko also are creatures that feature in Aesop’s Fables. I think well if she’d actually seen these creatures surely the descriptions would be more like what you get in Oroonoko? So my hunch is that she was well networked, that she had read somebody else’s manuscript account of being there, that she’d read things about it and her imagination did the rest if you like but I don’t – I could be completely wrong. I used to say oh this is said about her, that’s said about her, give me some evidence and then of course I found the evidence and I found my scepticism was wrong so –

A:        Elaine and everybody, you’ll be pleased to know that we do hold The Secret Life of Aphra Behn in the Library.

E:         Oh excellent.

A:        So anybody who’s interested in that get a library card, come into the building and feel free to read in the Reading Room.

E:         I’m delighted.

M:        Well I think apart from anything else what we have seen with Elaine is apart from great dedication to this project and I love the thought that after five years of reading and reading and reading it’s getting better and better, I love the optimism that you come all the way to Australia and you’re going to find something that’s going to give you some little clue and the optimism that in 10 years’ time we might know something about Aphra Behn ‘cause we don’t know a lot at the moment. I suppose that’s again a core feature of our fellowships program, is that we hope that we understand the process of research which is about little, little bits of things coming together over long periods of time and planting seeds that can flower and bloom much, much later.

So I’d like to ask you to join me in thanking Elaine for her fabulous talk tonight.


M:        Please join us for more conversation afterwards outside the theatre too.

End of recording