In Our Time: Aphra Behn Back

Melvyn Bragg’s recent In Our Time episode on Aphra Behn invited three highly knowledgeable female scholars to discuss one of the most versatile and affecting Restoration writers. Janet Todd (Former President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and editor of Behn’s works for Penguin), Ros Ballaster (Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature at Mansfield College, Oxford) and Claire Bowditch (post-doctoral research associate in English and Drama at Loughborough University) all commendably discussed Behn’s dramatic and fictional work in a narrow forty minutes, and yet it was Bragg’s domineering personality that regrettably hindered the show from fully achieving a fluent discussion of this important early modern writer.

Behn’s varied and difficult life is just captured in the limited time of the show, with the podcast available online offering a further eight minutes of discussion. In the show that originally aired on Radio 4 on Thursday, 12th October 2017, the four panellists discussed an admirable amount of topics: biographical details of Behn’s early life; her involvement as a spy; the restoration theatre world (and the role of women in such); Behn’s dramatic career and money problems; her attitude towards religion and James II; The Rover as a presentation of Behn’s ideas, female libertinism and marriage; Oroonoko and slavery; the interaction between Behn’s fiction and drama; her status within the canon and her relevance today, focusing explicitly on her manipulation of gender identity. In the bonus content, Behn’s poetry is briefly touched upon alongside a discussion of modern productions of her drama and why restoration theatre is not performed as much today (and why, when it is performed, it struggles). Given the educative intention of the In Our Time series to appeal to a general audience, it is a shame especially that the last of these points was not included: all three women agree issues of pace, the problematic figure of the predatory rake and a lack of training (for both actors and directors) in staging a restoration play account for why modern audiences struggle with the form, and yet not broadcasting these complicating factors merely perpetuates the problem of an unaware audience.

Todd, Ballaster and Bowditch all presented neatly on different parts of Behn’s oeuvre, with Bragg using leading questions to imply an open forum. However this reviewer found the neat segregation of topics, asking one academic a question about Behn’s biography before asking another about the condition of the restoration theatre, as disabling to discussion. Bragg was, unfortunately, overly controlling throughout this show, and the frustration of the academics slowly came to the fore. Cutting over individuals unnecessarily, or even doggedly returning to Behn’s female libertinism (which Janet Todd initially disagreed with) until Ros Ballaster offered a more open definition of the term so that Bragg’s point became relevant, the host’s ability to control the conversation with his lesser knowledge under the guise of moving the show along was increasingly infuriating. An overreliance on biographical details, which all academics pointed out currently remain uncertain, was evident in Bragg’s approach, and when asked mid-way through the show why Behn went to Suriname, a clearly frustrated Todd sighed ‘we don’t know.’ However it is in the bonus material that Bragg’s intrusion was most glaring: Todd lamented that Samuel Pepys does not cover Behn because of his faltering eye-sight just as her works are being performed, and when asked by Bragg why she did not mention it, she responds by confirming that he did not give her a chance. Under the informal security of being off the air, the shared laughs clearly cover a touched nerve. A few audio problems – especially Bragg breathing rather heavily and huskily down the microphone – also plagued the early segments of the show.

However certain parts of Behn’s work are dealt with exceedingly well. Bowditch usefully delineates how Behn’s progressive attitudes are reconciled with her staunch royalism, arguing that these issues are couched in the domestic whilst also looking back to classical heroes. Todd’s explanation of why Behn went out of style reveals a naturally intimate knowledge of the writer and the world in which she lived, whilst Ballaster’s concluding comments to the aired show regarding the blurring of and playing with gender identity in Behn’s corpus offer a passing point of encouragement and impetus for listeners to explore and study the writer today. Though Behn’s poetry is mostly missed, her The Rover, Oroonoko and The Widow Ranter are all discussed, however despite Bragg’s continual reminding of Behn’s time abroad it is surprisingly the exotic settings of these works that are not mentioned.

For students just approaching Behn, this episode of In Our Time is ideal for providing a generally broad (though by no means complete) introduction to the writer. A useful reading list is also provided online, with a good number of different editions of Behn’s work alongside important critical works. It cannot be denied that the panel Bragg assembled to discuss Behn is one that admirably rises to the task, but it is a shame they were not allowed to fully express themselves. Given the context and content of Behn’s work, this control, if anything, is ironic. As Behn wrote in her preface to The Lucky Chance: ‘If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves; I lay down my quill, and you shall hear no more of me […] I value fame as if I had been born a hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful world, and scorn its fickle favours.’[1]

[1] Aphra Behn, The Rover and Other Plays, ed. by Jane Spencer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 191.

In Our Time: Aphra Behn was first aired on BBC Radio 4 on 12th October 2017. It is currently available on BBC iPlayer Radio.