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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Aphra, Astraea, Austen: "Since 'tis to the witty few I speak..."



Anielka Briggs wrote today in Austen-L: "Behn is every feminist's forgotten favourite: you may recall Virginia Woolfe said we should all drop flowers on her grave for earning us the right to speak. Most of us are forced to endure a touch of restoration drama as a compulsory unit of a literary English education. May I propose that instead we voluntarily flock to Behn's metaphorical feet, read her plays, throw entire bouquets on her monumental slab a-la-Virginia, and recognise her as Austen's seminal source?"


I responded as follows.

A couple of reactions to the above:

1. Anielka, it sounds like your on-again-off-again position on whether you agree with me that JA was a radical feminist or not is now "on again".....at least for the moment. I have been aware of Behn as a proto-feminist inspiration to JA for several years.

2. Apropos [Anielka's] reference to Behn's "monumental slab a-la-Virginia" (Woolf):  had you been present (as Christy was) at my 2009 Portland JASNA AGM presentation about the late Mrs. Tilney as the shadow heroine of Northanger Abbey, [Anielka] would have learnt that Aphra Behn is _not_ buried under a monumental slab a-la-Virginia or a-la-Anybody-Else. For a description of the exact, and much humbler, location where she lies buried, here is the text of the relevant portion of my Portland presentation, which was part of the case I made for the real-life Samuel _Morland_ being an allusive source for the death in childbirth theme in NA:

"I recall standing in that access-restricted nave in Westminster Abbey, looking up at those awful memorials [erected by Samuel Morland to his two young wives who died in childbirth], imagining Jane Austen stood right there, like Catherine looking up at Mrs. Tilney’s portrait! And this is right in front of a plain brass floor plaque denoting the crypt of the great proto-feminist writer _Aphra_ _Behn_, Morland’s contemporary. Morland’s memorials above, Behn’s plaque below;the irony of Behn spending eternity at the foot of Morland’s memorials to ego masquerading as grief for the two poor girls he “murdered” is just too perfectly aligned with Austen’s ironic double bluff."  END QUOTE

During my July 2009 visit, I took a photo of Behn's plain brass floor plaque, and as I stood there, I truly did feel the full force of the poetic injustice that Aphra Behn does not like in Poet's Corner, where she belongs, but instead lies underfoot in a forgotten corner of WESTminster (not to be confused with NORTHanger) Abbey, literally at the feet of Morland's monstrous memorials.  But...I also really did feel the thrill of knowing that approximately 2 centuries ago, Jane Austen herself stood there where I was standing--I imagine JA looking up, looking down, smiling and laughing out loud, and deciding to correct that injustice in her inimitably sly satiric way!

Here are links to my earlier posts that amplify on various aspects of the Samuel Morland subtext in NA, including providing photos I took of Morland's memorials:





Otherwise...Anielka also wrote, in relevant part: "Aphra Behn had the pen in her hands and with that pen she wrote the following sentence when proving that "The Lucky Chance" was a great deal more chaste (even though quite sexy) than comparable writings by men. "All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me " Compare this with Anne's (Austen's)  "All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone!" " So Behn wishes for the writer in her which she describes as masculine is to compete on an even footing with men. Whereas Austen, in the part of Anne, claims for her own sex the ability to "love longest when existence or hope is gone" This resemblance in sentence construction might be sheer coincidence. However, the same pasage from The Lucky Chance (I'll post it below in full as a link) goes on to say: "I am not content to write for ...(money)... only. I value Fame as much as if I had been born a _Hero"_ And we all know Austen's famous comment: "I write only for fame, and without any view to pecuniary emolument" "

Bravo on that discovery, Anielka! I believed Behn's plays were on JA's radar screen, but never got past skimming one of her plays, and finding nothing that caught my eye, and not going further. Kudos to [Anielka] for finding it.

Truly there can be no doubt that [Anielka has] found something significant----JA read that Preface, and alluded to in not only in the two places [Anielka has] so aptly pointed out, but also in a _third_, in the immediately preceding portion of that same paragraph of that Preface, an allusion by JA which is near and dear to my heart, as the name of my blog illustrates:

"I cannot omit to tell you, that a Wit of the Town, a Friend of mine at Wills Coffee House, the first Night of the Play, cry'd it down as much as in him lay, who before had read it and assured me he never 'saw a prettier Comedy. So complaisant one pestilent Wit will be to another, and in the full Cry make his Noise too; but SINCE 'TIS TO THE WITTY FEW I SPEAK, I HOPE THE BETTER JUDGES will take no Offence, to whom I am oblig'd for better Judgments; and those I hope will be so kind to me, knowing my Conversation not at all addicted to the Indecencys alledged, that I would much less practice it in a Play, that must stand the Test of the censoring World. And I must want common Sense, and all the
Degrees of good Manners, renouncing my Fame, all Modesty and Interest for a silly Sawcy fruitless Jest, to make Fools laugh, and Women blush, and wise Men asham'd; My self all the while, if I had been guilty of this Crime charg'd to me, remaining the only stupid, insensible. Is this likely, is this reasonable to be believ'd by any body, but the wilfully blind? All I ask, is the Priviledge...."

"Since 'tis to the witty few I speak, I hope the better Judges..."  is obviously a line which JA took to heart, and then reinvented in a different form to convey exactly the same idea:

"I do not write for such Dull Elves, as have not a Great Deal of Ingenuity themselves...."

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I disagree with [Anielka] only on one interpretation you made---you suggested that Anne Elliot spoke for Jane Austen in altering Behn's assertion of a masculine poetic prerogative into a feminine amatory prerogative. I think it's clear from all of the above context that Anne Elliot did not speak for JA in that alteration, and that JA saw herself very decisively as "holding the pen" with a firm hand that would have been called "masculine" back then.

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