Aphra Who? by Stewart Ross, Chair, Canterbury Commemoration Society

Our city is associated with a host of impressive historical figures, from Julius Caesar to Joseph Conrad. Unfortunately, they’re all blokes. The Canterbury Commemoration Society is now redressing the balance by raising a fine statue to Aphra Behn.

“Aphra who?”
“You know, the spy, poet and playwright who was Britain’s first professional woman writer.”
“Never heard of her.”
“Then listen…”

Aphra Behn, born Aphra Johnson in Harbledown in 1640, was for 10 years England’s most prolific and popular playwright. She was also a talented poet and, arguably, one of our first novelists. No deskbound aesthete, she spied for King Charles II in Antwerp and perhaps in Surinam.

Her friends included Nell Gwynne and John Wilmot (Earl of Rochester), and her fame earned her a tomb in Westminster Abbey. Nor did her popularity die with her, for her plays and adaptations of them were staged well into the 19th century. Then the axe fell.

Aphra was always scorned by the puritan-minded who disapproved of women writing plays, especially those with a saucy flavour. After her death, the grumbling grew to thunderous condemnation epitomised in the words of Rowland Freeman, who sermonized in his Kentish Poets (1821):

The monstrous depravity of the age of Charles the Second was never more lamentably exhibited than in the conduct of this female author. Talents which might have adorned her sex and country, have become a scandal to the one and a disgrace to the other.

Thus was Aphra cancelled, redacted, forgotten. She became, in Orwell’s words, an “unperson”.

Virginia Woolf is credited with beginning the resurrection when she wrote in 1917 that Aphra had earned women “the right to speak their minds.” Progress since then has been slow but steady – some are still a bit sniffy about Aphra’s raffishness. Moreover, her Restoration dramas’ complex plots and flamboyant staging require imaginative presentation for 21st-century audiences, though Oroonoko, detailing the horrors of slavery, is as well-known now as it ever was.

Aphra’s story – born to a wet nurse mother and a barber father imprisoned for debt and riot – is an inspirational tale of triumph over adversity, though her biography remains a jigsaw with many of the pieces missing. How she learned to read and write, we may never know. Did she have access to the library of the wealthy Culpepper family, whose son Mrs Johnson nursed? Whatever, she must have been a child of exceptional ability.

The family moved to London when Aphra was 17. We know nothing about the mysterious merchant Johannes Behn whose name she took in married respectability. She certainly spied for Charles II in Antwerp, but was she employed in Surinam? Back in England, the Ayckbourn of her age mixed with the society of London wits and courtesans, for her rich dramatic dialogue reeks of the tavern and coffee house.

Through determination, drive and prodigious talent, our local girl became a star. Royalist, proto-feminist, Anglican, rakish … she defies pigeonholing. Her male characters spout the usual clichés about women’s frailties, but her women play the men’s games with aplomb. Just as Aphra herself did. In short, she was a truly remarkable pioneer of whom Canterbury should be deeply proud.

The statue project began in 2022 when 47 international artists submitted proposals. Four 50 cm bronze maquettes of the shortlisted designs toured the country before being auctioned in a Grand Aphra Behn Fundraising Dinner in July. Guided by the public vote, the winning design for a life-and-a-quarter statue to grace the High Street will shortly be announced. All we need now is funding. Please contribute whatever you can afford on www.cantcommsoc.co.uk

Thank you.

Stewart Ross
Chair Canterbury Commemoration Society

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