Editing Aphra Behn in the Digital Age

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Tag: letters

Adventures in Antwerp

The view from the river back towards the old city.
All blog post images @_MelEvans

In May 2019, I had the pleasure of visiting Prof. Dr. Peter Petre and his colleagues at the University of Antwerp. Prof Petre leads the European Research Council-funded project ‘Mind-bending Grammars‘, which investigates the cognitive and social dimensions of language change across the lifespan using the 90 million word corpus EMMA (Early Modern Multiloquent Authors). The project harnesses quantitative and computational techniques to test and develop linguistic theory surrounding the process of language change at the level of the individual.

Given my work on Behn’s authorial style using computational stylistic methods, the finding of which suggest evidence of linguistic developments over her career, there was a clear overlap with the MBG project. I was invited to discuss our approach to Behn’s style and the pervading questions of attribution with the project members, and they also shared their own insights and expertise in a very rich and productive meeting. My visit also included a guest leacture, in which I provided an overview of some of the most recent results of the attribution work to a mixture of students and staff at the university. This included our extensive work on Behn’s dramatic dubia, such as The Counterfeit Bridegroom, as well as some explorations into the socio-pragmatic properties (and their profiling potential) of dramatic interjections e.g. oh, ah and ha, to which the audience posed some very insightful and thought-provoking questions.

My talk also covered my early-stage editorial work on Behn’s correspondence sent from Antwerp in 1666, during her assignment as a royalist spy. On my wanderings around the old parts of the city, it was fun to try to envisage what Behn’s own experiences might have been, and what areas in the old town she may have made time to visit. Prof Petre and his team took me to the site of the inn, the Rosa Noble, which served as Behn’s accommodation during her mission, and for which she ended up in serious debt to her Antwerp landlord. Today it’s a main thoroughfare, but in Behn’s day it was a canal connecting the city to the vast Scheldt river.

I also made sure to visit the Plantin-Moretus Printing House Museum (as recommended on Twitter). This incredible building, which is the site of one of the oldest and most successful printing businesses in western Europe, dates back to the sixteenth century. The route through the museum takes you around the various rooms of the printing business, including the print room, the correction room, and the front-of-house book shop. On a glorious spring day, this was a wonderful place to explore (including the internal courtyard garden), and I heartily recommend it should you have a spare hour or so, regardless of your bibliophilic qualities).

It seems fair to say that Behn’s time in Antwerp, given her extensive and repetitive complaints about her financial difficulties, was certainly not as enjoyable as mine. I hope to return just as soon as a suitable (Behn-related) excuse arises.

Behn at BSECS

Over the past few years, the E-ABIDA panel at the January meeting of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies has become an annual event. BSECS, regularly hosted by St Hugh’s College Oxford, provides an unparalleled opportunity for members of the Behn team to share their latest findings from across the wide range of research represented by the project. Participants in recent years have included Ros Ballaster, Robert D. Hume and Helen Wilcox, as well as the project’s PI, Elaine Hobby.

This year’s panel, in keeping with the conference theme of ‘Islands and Isolation’, considered issues of separation and connectedness in Behn’s work. Alan Hogarth, representing the digital humanities side of the project, reported on his joint research with Mel Evans in ‘Isolating the Idiolect: Forgery and Style in Behn’s Spying Letters’. Behn’s 1660s letters from the Low Countries, where she had been despatched as a spy for the crown, have long been the subject of great fascination for historians and literary scholars alike. The authenticity of a portion of these letters – the embedded missives from William Scot – has recently been called into question by important new research by Nadine Akkerman, who argues that Scot’s letters may in fact have been creative forgeries by Behn herself. Alan’s paper discussed what digital humanities methods can do to complement traditional literary approaches to authorial attribution, and reported on the results of computational analyses carried out by himself and Mel to test the authorship of the Scot letters. A jointly authored publication is to follow – watch this space for further news!

In the second paper of the panel, ‘Imitation and the Isolated Woman: Aphra Behn’s “Oenone to Paris” in Restoration Literary Culture’, Gillian Wright moved from espionage to poetry, addressing what is perhaps the pivotal poetic publication in Behn’s career. Published in 1680, Behn’s ‘Oenone to Paris’, a rendering of one of Ovid’s Heroides, involved collaboration with two of the leading figures in Restoration literary London, the poet and dramatist John Dryden, and the up-and-coming young bookseller Jacob Tonson.

Pieter Lastman, 1610. Paris and Oenone. <https://high.org/collections/paris-and-oenone/>

Through its inclusion in this prestigious volume, ‘Oenone to Paris’ put Behn on the map as a literary translator – or rather (not quite the same thing) as a literary imitator: the resonances of Dryden’s designation of her poem as ‘in Mr. Cowleys way of Imitation only’ are still debated (and were discussed in at least two other papers elsewhere in the conference). Gillian’s paper discussed Behn’s use (and non-use) of previous translations of ‘Oenone to Paris’ by George Turberville, Wye Saltonstall and John Sherburne in 1639, and briefly considered how her practice in this early poem compares with her methods in later imitative works such as Cowley’s sixth book of plants. A longer version of her paper is to be published in Early Modern Women’s Complaint: Gender, Form, and Politics, ed. Sarah C.E. Ross and Rosalind Smith.

The final paper in the panel, Claire Bowditch’s ‘Readers’ Responses and Press Variants in Aphra Behn’s Works’, reported on the findings of over three years of research in numerous scholarly libraries in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States. With Elaine Hobby, Claire has been responsible for collating hundreds of early copies of Behn’s works for The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Aphra Behn, and has discovered some intriguing evidence of both in-press revisions to volumes issued during Behn’s lifetime and also early readers’ responses to her writings. Was Behn herself connected with these in-press revisions, and which of her works proved most appealing – or most provocative – for early readers? Again, a publication is in progress – watch this space.

The panel was ably chaired by Robert D. Hume (a member of the Project Management and Editorial Boards for the Cambridge Behn), and attracted an excellent (and pleasingly appreciative) audience. E-ABIDA will return to BSECS in 2020.