Editing Aphra Behn in the Digital Age

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

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Conference Presentations: European Society for Textual Scholarship

April 2023, University of Kent, Canterbury

In mid-April, Elaine Hobby and Mel Evans attended the 2023 conference of the European Society for Textual Scholarship (ESTS). The group explores histories and cultures of text (literary and otherwise) and it was a great opportunity to hear about ongoing research from colleagues and also share some updates about the Behn edition (you can read the organising team’s report of the event here). More pertinently, perhaps, the theme of the conference was ‘authorship’, in all its myriad meanings and interpretations, which allowed us to discuss our explorations of and decisions on this topic so far in relation to our new edition of Behn’s works.

Elaine’s paper outlined the principles of the edition and the evolution of the General Editors’ thinking about how to handle the dubia associated with Behn. Should we have a ‘dubia’ volume? Do we include the dubious texts but provide less mark-up and editorial commentary than for a more reliably attested ‘Behn’ text? How do we frame and position those works, many of which have a long-standing association with Behn, that we do not confidently believe are hers (with authorship conventionally defined)?

Elaine’s paper yielded a lively response; the discussions prompted some reflection and thought on the marketability of an edition that did not include a work that people would expect to find on the basis of its long association with an author. Questions, too, were asked about the role of an editorial team to make pronouncements about what an author did or didn’t write to a degree that it would determine a future generation’s appreciation of their literary and wider outputs. Elaine’s view was that the Behn editorial team was approaching this edition from a feminist perspective, and thereby not seeking to dictate the questions and evidence that future researchers might start with. These are the principles we continue to work to.

The following day, Mel’s talk explored more specifically the process of computational stylistic analysis, and the steps necessary to establish how such tests might be valid when applied to Behn’s works, such as her prose fiction. The prose has been occupying Mel’s research a fair bit recently, as it’s proven a bit of a Pandora’s box. Part of the challenge relates to the limited availability of Behn’s securely attributed prose works, for which we have four texts: Oroonoko, History of the Nun, The Fair Jilt and – despite its publication shortly after Behn’s death – The Lucky Mistake. Methodologically, the analysis conducted so far suggests that using language from Behn’s other writings is of limited use when examining her prose style from an authorial perspective.

And in terms of answering questions about Behn’s prose style and the likelihood of her authorial involvement in the posthumous short fiction, the results at this stage offer little to suggest that these works are typical of Behn’s prose work – nor, indeed, that the eight texts were written by the same person (Behn, or otherwise). For instance, a basic cluster analysis using 600MFW from a corpus of Restoration prose fiction, including Behn’s known works, successfully groups works by Behn, and also works by another author, Belon, together. However, three of the dubia (The Black Lady, The Court of the King of Bantam and The Dumb Virgin) do not share stylistic traits with Behn using this measure. There is still much to explore here, of course, and the feedback on the talk was very helpful in thinking about other directions to prioritise and pursue.

Cluster Analysis (slide from ESTS presentation, Evans 2023)

The trip to Canterbury was a great opportunity to share our thinking and some findings – and provided an ideal trial run in anticipation for next summer’s Aphra Behn Europe conference, which will also take place at the University of Kent: ‘Aphra Behn and her Restoration’, 2-4th July 2024. For more information on that, please visit the University of Kent conference page.

Aphra Behn at the Canterbury Festival (21 October 2022)

Report by Elaine Hobby

‘We’re bringing Aphra home,’ declared Nicola Loud, as she opened the first Aphra Behn Society event at the Canterbury Festival on 21 October. And so we were. The 12th-century St Paul’s Church in Canterbury is where Aphra’s parents were married in 1638, and I’d spent the afternoon in a somewhat dreamy state, finding myself more moved than I’d realized I’d be at having Behn’s words performed in the church where that Bartholomew Johnson—Elizabeth Denham wedding took place.

L: Melanie Gutteridge performs Behn’s words. R: The Musicke Company members in live performance. Images: Elaine Hobby.

The ability of the actor Melanie Gutteridge to bring Aphra’s many voices alive was of course a huge contributor to the power of what followed. Equally important were the extraordinary talents of The Musicke Company, Philippa Hyde (soprano), Ciara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano), Daisy Vatalaro (baroque ’cello), and Helen Rogers (harpsichord) as they wove their way through not only – of course – excerpts from Henry Purcell’s Abdelazer Suite (written for Behn’s tragedy), but also selections from John Playford, Thomas Arne, George Frideric Handel, Giovanni Bononcini, and lots more Purcell.

Musicke company members in rehearsal. Image: Elaine Hobby

My job for the evening had been to suggest the Behn passages that would best harmonise – or challenge – the music. To my delight, most popular with the audience (according to the applause but also the questionnaire that dozens of them kindly completed) was Oroonoko’s speech calling on his fellow enslaved people to rebel. But, as many commented, it was hard to choose a favourite when the options ran from ‘Love in fantastic triumph sat’ to ‘On her loving two equally’, via ‘Epitaph on the Tombstone of a Child, the Last of Seven that Died before’, ‘To the fair Clarinda, imagined more than woman’, and many more. The most applauded piece of music was Arne’s ‘When Daisies Pied’, with its teasing ‘Cuckoo’ chorus. It was a wonderful, magical evening, most ably introduced and curated by Nicola Loud.

View the programme here

Fortunately, The Musicke Companye and Melanie Gutteridge were so delighted with the event and its reception that they are talking of taking the show on a tour. For updates, watch this space. If you are planning an event that might feature a stunning performance of Behn, Purcell and friends, do get in touch with E-ABIDA.

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