let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn
This book is, by all accounts, Aphra Behn?s most famous work. She wrote erotic poetry and plays but this ?novel? is why her name lives on in the 21st century. I placed the word novel in inverted commas as academics and scholars still argue to this day as to whether it can be described as a novel. More importantly was it the first novel in English?
Many of the afore-mentioned scholars and academics will argue that Daniel Defoe?s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was the first novel and the English writer is often referred to as the ?father of the novel?. However, it could, and has been, argued that Oroonoko was written in a novelistic form but personally I believe it comes under the heading of ?novella?. The sound of hairs being split can be heard all around the country.
The story is fundamentally about the African prince Oroonoko (a mis-spelling of the river Orinoco) and his wife Imoinda. Both are captured separately by the British and brought to Surinam as slaves. Oroonoko could be cruelly interpreted as a simple romance story with its theme of boy meets girl, love at first sight, boy loses girl and then boy finds girl. However, for today?s audience the story has become secondary to the themes of colonialism, racism and the innovative writing style of Aphra Behn.
Aphra Behn is credited not only with developing the pioneering female narrative but for addressing the inequality between men and women in the seventeenth century. Black people are not the only slaves in the book, women are also shackled by the mores of the day. Oroonoko is seen as one the literature?s first abolitionist expositions. It?s portrayal of racism and slavery is credited with aiding the cause for the abolitionists.
The racism and depiction of slavery make Oroonoko an uncomfortable read. However, coupled with the horrific descriptions of the deaths of Imoinda and Oroonoko the book becomes not only an uncomfortable read but disturbing one. However, when you re-read Oroonoko you realise how theatrical, fantastic and unrealistic many of the scenes in the book are: his killing of the tigers, his encounter with the electric eel and in particular Oroonoko?s death which has him being slowly hacked to death while he passively continues to smoke only, ?at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk, and his pipe dropped, and he gave up the ghost.?
Aphra Behn?s theatrical past is writ large throughout the book and ironically it is mostly due to Thomas Southerne?s stage adaption of Oroonoko after Behn?s death that the story became celebrated and has continued to be re-read, reinterpreted and used as a rallying point by anti colonialists, abolitionists and feminists throughout the last 400 years.
But, of course, one must put the book into context. It was written by a woman at a time when women were subjugated to man?s laws and rules. The seventeenth century was a time when women were seen as no better than the servants who worked in their household. What is more remarkable about Aphra Behn was that she was able to make a living from her writing. However, it should be remembered that many women in Britain had writings published during the seventeenth century but those names are now only remembered by academics and those studying English Literature (as I am); Lady Mary Chudleigh, Lady Jane Cavendish and Katherine Philips to name but a few.
Is this book read by anyone outside of the academic world? No, is the short answer. Sadly, its relevance is only to those who are using it for study purposes be that at school, university or as part of a thesis or book. I believe if it stopped being used a study tool at seats of learning then the book would cease to be published. Hopefully, that day never comes.
Let me leave you with words from the greatest woman writer that ever lived, Virginia Woolf,
?All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds... Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.?