Aphra Behn: Dec. 1640 (?) – April 16, 1689

I want to thank my blog visitor e a m harris for reminding me that today is the anniversary of Aphra Behn’s death.

Aphra Behn's gravestone

The inscription: “Here lies proof that wit can never be, defense enough against mortality.”

I think the words of Virginia Woolf are also in order here:

All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she–shady and amorous as she was–who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

The last scene of my novel Chameleon in a Mirror takes place at Aphra’s grave, and so, in honor of the occasion, I thought I would share it with you, even in its ancient, soon to be revised state:

She opened the door on the opposite side of the church from Ben Jonson’s memorial, entered the cloisters and stopped. Sunlight flooded the courtyard, making her squint. There were more tourists in here, examining the commemorative stones to soldiers and priests on the walls. Billie ignored them and headed for the corner with the actors and actresses; Aphra had ended with the players rather than the poets. Billie wondered briefly what she would have thought about that.
The nasal tones of a southern drawl grated her ears. “Here’s Anne Bracegirdle, dear,” a chunky blond informed her male companion. “What was she, a royal mistress?”
The man, loaded with camera equipment, leafed through the guidebook. “Only an actress, it says here.”
The woman turned away in disappointment, her camera-toting better-half trotting behind her. Billie wandered around looking at the plaques, waiting for them to leave. When the door closed behind them, she went back down the aisle to a stone on the floor near Anne Bracegirdle’s. She knelt down next to the dark tombstone and traced the date with her fingers. April 16 1689. Over three hundred years ago now. Three hundred years, and not nearly as far away as they should have been.
The engravings on the stone were clear and legible, not like many of the others she had just tried to read. It appeared that there were still some people who remembered Aphra Behn.
She unzipped her pack and pulled out a copy of the paper she had given with Aileen. “This is for you, Aphra,” she said, looking quickly both ways and laying the pages on the cold stone. She picked up a small rock and placed it on the sheets of paper to keep them in place until someone kicked them aside or a janitor threw them out.
“I may not be able to compete with Virginia Woolf in most things–neither could you, for that matter–but I still think it’s better than flowers.”
Billie got up quickly, feeling much too close to tears for comfort. She shoved her fists into the pockets of the silver brocade jacket, and her left hand brushed a folded piece of paper. With a wry smile, she pulled the letter out of her pocket, bent over and tucked it into the sheets of the manuscript.
The heavy door closed behind her with a thunk. A draft created by the movement joined forces with the breeze and teased the pages into motion, dislodging the pebble.
Freed, the sheets scattered leisurely across the flagstones.

Thank you, Aphra. And thank you, Marie de France. And Christine de Pizan and Hildegard von Bingen and Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and all the many, many women who have made it so much easier in this day and age for us to speak our minds.

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7 thoughts on “Aphra Behn: Dec. 1640 (?) – April 16, 1689”

  1. I must admit that I haven’t heard of Aphra, but the others I have. As you say they have given us much. Thanks for sharing your snippet, I’m intrigued.

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