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literature

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Behn, Aphra (ca 1640-1689)  
 
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Behn writes as the champion of women who allies herself openly with women against men in the war conventionally called love. She tells her friend Carola, "Lady Morland at Tunbridge," that even though they are rivals for Behn's lover, when Behn saw Lady Morland, she grew to admire and love her. Because of that, Behn warns, beware of taking my lover as your own--he is experienced and can slip the chains of love. You deserve a virgin, she says, someone who has never loved before, who only has eyes for you, and has a "soul as Great as you are Fair."

Women uniting to oppose a faithless male lover is the theme of Behn's entertainment, "SELINDA and CLORIS," in which the title characters befriend each other in order to deal with betrayal. First Selinda is warned by Cloris about Alexis, who was untrue to her. Selinda's response is to ally herself with the other woman and vow that Alexis will not conquer her as he did Cloris. The women praise each other's generosity and intelligence, agreeing to be good friends.

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The reciprocal relationship between the women includes both physical and intellectual attraction, friendship, and sexuality. Cloris "will sing, in every Grove, / The Greatness of your Mind," to which Selinda responds, "And I your Love." They trade verses and sing together just as traditional pastoral speakers do. In this case, however, in addition to being poets, lovers, singers, and shepherds, the speakers are also, untraditionally, female. The celebration of their mutual joy is a variant on the conventional wedding masque of Hymen, and presents in song and dance a formal poetic drama that emphasizes the eroticism of the women's relationship.

The bonding of women in female friendship is most clearly stated by Behn in her explicitly lesbian love poem, "To the fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin'd more than Woman." This is the last of the poems appended to Lycidus (1697), and in it Behn shows how important to her were those androgynous qualities for which she herself was praised. Just as she was commended in the dedicatory verses of her Poems for having "A Female Sweetness and a Manly Grace," Behn asserts the unity of "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics in her "beloved youth."

She cleverly argues that she "loves" only the "masculine" part of Clarinda and to the "feminine" gives merely friendship. Since Clarinda's perfection manifests the idealized Platonic form, loving her cannot and should not be resisted. Further, since that by which society defines sex is not found in the female form, that is, women do not have the necessary physical equipment to consummate what is, in a culture, considered "the sex act," love between women is, by definition, "innocent," and therefore not subject to censure.

Clarinda is a hermaphrodite, a "beauteous Wonder of a different kind, / Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis join'd." Clarinda is not a passive fair maiden, but one who, the title states, "made Love" to the speaker and, therefore, may also be seen as the initiator of their sexual activity. The reciprocity of their eroticism suggests the mutuality of some lesbian relationships that reject the domination and subordination patterns of traditional heterosexual roles. As the poem ends, Behn, in a witty pun, asserts the multigendered sexuality of both Clarinda and the speaker: "we the noblest Passions do extend / The Love to Hermes, Aphrodite the Friend."

Through the centuries, there has been interest in at least some of Behn's works. Her later reputation has been enhanced by her prominence as a model for women writers, as noted in Sackville-West's early biography (1927) and Woolf's memorializing of Behn in A Room Of One's Own (1929). Contemporary readers may recognize even more of the multilayered messages in Aphra Behn's homoerotic works that place her foremost in gay and lesbian literary history.

Arlene M. Stiebel

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    Bibliography
   

Cameron, W. J. New Light on Aphra Behn. Auckland, New Zealand: University of Auckland, 1961.

Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess. London: Cape, 1977.

Goreau, Angeline. Reconstructing Aphra. New York: Dial Press, 1980.

Greer, Germaine. The Uncollected Verse of Aphra Behn. Essex, England: Stump Cross, 1989.

Link, Frederick M. Aphra Behn. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968.

Mermin, Dorothy. "Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch." ELH 57.2 (1990): 335-356.

O'Donnell, Mary Ann. Aphra Behn: Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. New York: Garland, 1986.

Sackville-West, Vita. Aphra Behn, The Incomparable Astrea. London: Howe, 1927; New York: Viking, 1928.

Stiebel, Arlene. "Not Since Sappho: The Erotic in Poems of Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn." Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England. Claude J. Summers, ed. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth, 1992. 153--171.

_____. "Subversive Sexuality: Masking the Erotic in Poems by Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn." Renaissance Discourses of Desire. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, eds. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. 223-236.

Summers, Montague, ed. The Works of Aphra Behn. London, 1915.

Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Woodcock, George. The Incomparable Aphra. London: Boardman, 1948.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Stiebel, Arlene M.  
    Entry Title: Behn, Aphra  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 26, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/behn_a.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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