Thorney Tales

 

There are no women poets or playwrights buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey but in the nearby East Cloister lies Aphra Behn. She was a star of Restoration drama, writing 18 successful plays which was more than any male dramatist at the time with the possible exception of John Dryden. She was held in esteem by her peers but not long after sank almost without trace for centuries. This was partly because Restoration drama fell out of fashion but mainly because she wrote in a bawdy fashion which was tolerated in the permissive reign of Charles II but later not thought a fit occupation for a woman. 

In recent years she has made a comeback into fashion partly due to Virginia Woolf’s famous exhortation on her tomb, that “all women together ought to let flowers fall”. Which is what happened in the Summer of 2021, when pupils from Urswick School in Hackney laid  flowers on her grave with personal messages after they had given a - socially distanced - performance of some of Aphra’s work in the hallowed atmosphere of Poets’ Corner. I (Victor Keegan) was delighted to be part of the audience along with others from London Historians. 

She was from a humble background but became an icon and role model way ahead of her time. She is still a fascinating talking point among feminists because while she dealt with gender mixing themes and was a proud libertine at a time when it was fashionable, she was also a Tory and a fierce royalist, which don't always go together. She didn't seem to believe in a God yet she dedicated part of a play to the staunchly Catholic James II before he did a moonlight flit out of the country.

In her time Aphra was a poet, novelist, spy and translator. She was probably the first woman to earn her living from writing even though she was always short of money. Nell Gwynn appeared in one of her plays as did Anne Bracegirdle, the esteemed actress, (in The Widow Ranter in 1689). Anne is buried next to Aphra in the East Cloister, close to Poets’ Corner but not quite in it.