Editing Aphra Behn in the Digital Age

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Category: Editing

Aphra Behn in Lampeter

A few weeks ago, in late August, I went on one of the most pleasant and thought-provoking research trips I’ve taken recently. Lampeter is a small Welsh town set amid beautiful rolling hills (then somewhat parched after the heatwave of the early summer). It also has a historic University library, founded in the early nineteenth century, which includes among its collections a small but fascinating corpus of early Aphra Behn materials.

Among Lampeter’s Behn holdings is a copy of Aesops Fables (1687). Like many of the library’s early printed books, Aesops Fables was acquired through donation from the educational philanthropist Thomas Phillips (1760-1851).  Phillipps, who had also worked as an East India company surgeon, probably did not set out to collect Aphra Behn but procured her works almost by accident, in the course of adding to his ever-growing library. If he was attracted by anything in particular in Aesops Fables, it is likely not to have been Aphra Behn’s poetic versions of the fables – physically, a small component of a large and complex volume – but rather Francis Barlow’s finely executed animal engravings, which are now recognised as a landmark achievement in seventeenth-century book illustration. Although Aesops Fables, compared with many early modern books, is not rare – the British Library alone holds four copies – Lampeter’s copy is remarkably well-preserved, including all the prefatory material in what seems to have been the original order. It does not, however, include plate 17 from the illustrated ‘Life of Aesop’, an image excised from several extant copies on grounds of supposed obscenity (it depicts Aesop’s master’s wife with her buttocks exposed). Whether Aphra Behn wrote the (unattributed) four-line poems accompanying each of the ‘Life’ illustrations, as well as the six-line fables that Barlow explicitly attributed to her in his preface, is among the questions that the Cambridge Behn project hopes in time to be able to answer.

Section of Plate 17. Image from Early English Books Online.

Lampeter’s other Behn holdings comprise political poems: two dating from 1685 (her elegy on Charles II and consolatory poem to Catherine of Braganza), and two from 1689 (A Congratulatory Poem to Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary, upon her arrival in England and A Pindaric Poem to the Reverend Doctor Burnet). The poem to Gilbert Burnet – propagandist for William of Orange, and future Bishop of Salisbury – is a rare survival, one of only seven copies now known to be extant. I regret to report that I may have been the first person in its 329-year history actually to read the Lampeter witness, as its pages had never been cut.

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Discovering ‘The Rover’: a new British Library resource

Having in the past wandered around the Shakespeare and Renaissance section of the British Library’s Discovering Literature website, I was delighted to be invited to write an article on Behn’s The Rover for their new Restoration and Eighteenth Century section. To me it is excellent news that the British Library has expanded its online teaching resources into Behn’s period, and I greatly enjoyed the chance to pitch my favourite Behn play to the anticipated ‘A-level student and general public’ reader.

The article draws on the work I’ve completed when editing The Rover for volume IV of the project’s forthcoming edition of Behn’s works (for CUP, scheduled for publication in 2020). I position the play in some of its key cultural contexts, and explore a little of its performance history both in 1677 and into the eighteenth century. The article includes information on the significance of the play’s setting in Naples, Italy; on stage courtesans; and on the English laws and conventions governing women’s place in society. I also address Restoration conceptualisations of masculinity and (of course) ideas of carnival.

Part of the delight – as well as the challenge – of writing for Discovering Literature is the need to construct an argument that is punctuated by frequent links to images and existing articles held within the British Library holdings and website archive. The benefits are enormous when used effectively – as I believe they are here. Linked resources in the BL piece include an article by Matthew White on ‘The Turbulent Seventeenth Century’, another on an engraving of Charles’s execution; a link to Coryate’s Crudities (1611) with its opinions on Italian courtesans (with connections to Othello and The Merchant of Venice); and the opportunity to explore Mary Astell’s Reflections upon Marriage (1700). Some of these links were my suggestion, and others were proposed by the Discovering Literature editors drawing on their detailed knowledge of the BL catalogue, and their understanding of the enterprise as a whole.

Title page from Mary Astell’s Reflections upon Marriage (1700). From the British Library collection (Public Domain image).

My favourite enhancements to the article are photographs from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s glorious 2016 production of The Rover – directed by Loveday Ingram. Joseph Millson’s won Best Actor award for his portrayal of Willmore (see Billington’s favourable review in The Guardian). Also enlightening are the images from the Senate House Library’s copy of the 1677 Rover, which the British Library provided so that I could discuss its use as a prompt-copy for early eighteenth century performances of the play. It shows that cuts were made to the play for this performance; most notably, an example where a speech by the courtesan Angellica Bianca was deleted at the end of a scene, resulting in an increase in Willmore’s standing and a decrease in hers.

Like all Discovering Literature articles, my introduction to The Rover is freely available under a Creative Commons Licence. I very much hope it will help to attract yet more readers and directors to Behn’s fascinating, funny play.

Elaine Hobby.