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“Such Masculine Strokes”: Aphra Behn as Translator of A Discovery of New Worlds

  • Sarah Goodfellow


Aphra Behn (1640–89) stands simultaneously at the center and on the edge of Restoration literature. As one of its most prolific writers, her success as a playwright was rivaled only by Dryden; however, as a woman, she defied and challenged contemporary ideas about sex, gender, and authorship. Behn was remarkably aware of the ambiguity of her position; a widow, a writer, and a professional, she inhabited and personified the grey areas of seventeenth-century gender roles. For these reasons, her work provides an interesting window through which to view the relationship between gender and literature in the late seventeenth century.

The subject of several book-length studies and many more articles, Behn has experienced a renaissance in the academic community during the last ten to fifteen years and has been installed in the seventeenth-century literary canon. Two related aspects of her career however have been overlooked. The first is her interest in natural philosophy, including her criticism of philosophers for not sharing their knowledge. The second aspect is her work as a translator, especially as a translator of scientific texts. Perhaps the enduring perception of translation as an essentially derivative activity has led scholars to dismiss Behn's translations as uninteresting or unoriginal. In so far as natural philosophy was a “masculine” discipline, however, Behn's translations demonstrated her ability to participate in and translate between elite natural philosophy, often written in Latin (the most “masculine” language), and a general or female audience.



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1 See for example, Hutner, Heidi, Rereading Aphra Behn (Charlottesville, 1993); Goreau, Angeline, Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn (London, 1980); and Duffy, Maureen, The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640–89 (London, 1977).

2 Cowley, Abraham, The Second and Third Parts of the Works of Mr. Abraham Cowley…never before published in English…translated by several hands…. (London, 1689).

3 On how natural philosophy became deeply gendered in its approach, language, and practice, see Londa Schiebinger, Nature's Body (Boston, 1993) and Keller, Evelyn Fox, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven, 1985).

4 Catherine Gallagher has also noted Behn's skill at manipulating and capitalizing on her roles as both woman and playwright, creating for herself a persona, the “heroine/victim of the marketplace,” whose outspoken frankness relied on her defamation for ambitious and unwomanly behavior (“Who Was That Masked Woman? The Prostitute and Playwright in the Works of Aphra Behn,” in Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1820 [Berkeley, 1994], pp. 1–48).

5 On the education of upper class women, see Pollock, Linda, “‘Teach her to live under obedience’: The Making of Women in the Upper Ranks of Early Modern Society,” Continuity and Change 4, 2 (1989): 231–58.

6 Behn claimed to regret that she did not know Latin; however, she must have had at least a working knowledge of the language because she translated both Ovid's Epistle of Oenone to Paris (1680) and a section of Abraham Cowley's Plantarum from Latin. Behn's subsequent translations were all from French, and include works by the Abbé Paul Tallemant, La Rochefoucauld, and Bernard de Fontenelle.

7 SirOverbury, Thomas, “The Wife,” Overburian Characters, ed. Paylor, W. J. (Oxford, 1963), p. 105.

8 For a survey of recent scholarship on patriarchy in the seventeenth century, see Fletcher, Anthony, “Men's Dilemma: the Future of Patriarchy in England, 1560–1660,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (London, 1994), pp. 6182.

9 Goreau, , Reconstructing Aphra, p. 13.

10 Sir Thomas More, for example, warned his educated daughters that their learning should remain private, for the enjoyment of their father and husbands only. See Smith, Hilda, Reason's Disciples: Seventeenth-Century English Feminists (Chicago, 1982), p. 5.

11 Tina Krontiris has suggested that when it came to publishing, concepts of modesty were a greater obstacle for aristocratic women than for women of lower social standing who, supposedly, had less at stake on their reputations (Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance [New York, 1992]).

12 According to David Cressy, about five percent of English women were literate during most of the seventeenth century (Literacy and the Social Order [New York, 1980], pp. 145–47). However, Cressy makes no distinction between being able to read and being able to write one's name. Hull, Suzanne, in Chaste, Silent, and Obedient (San Marino, 1982), suggests that many more women could read than could sign their own names on official documents.

13 See Smith, , Reason's Disciples, p. 154.

14 Though Behn did sometimes publish under the name Astrea, this was not an attempt to disguise or conceal her identity, but a practice begun by Katherine Philips who called herself Orinda.

15 Krontiris, Oppositional Voices.

16 These defenses are frequently read as an articulate “proto-feminism.”

17 Behn, Aphra, from the Epilogue of Sir Patient Fancy, in Summers, Montague, The Works of Aphra Behn, 6 vols. (New York, 1967), 4: 115.

18 Summers, , The Works of Aphra Behn, 6: 167–68.

19 Behn, Aphra, preface to The Lucky Chance, in Summers, , The Works ofAphra Behn, 3: 187.

20 Gould, Robert, Satirical Epistle to the Female Author of a Poem called “Sylvia's Revenge” (London, 1691).

21 Behn, , The Lucky Chance, p. 186.

22 Robert Adams Day has used Mary Douglas' anthropological theories of social taboo-systems to discuss the position of literary women: “Three or four taboo-systems operate here—that of clean and unclean literature, that of public behavior for men and for women, that of clean and unclean literary persons, and that of classical education and higher knowledge—reserved, like the fat of beasts, for the priestly class…” (Muses in the mud: the Female Wits anthropologically considered,” Women's Studies 7 [1980]: 67).

23 Behn, , Sir Patient Fancy, in Summers, , The Works of Aphra Behn, 4: 7.

24 See for example “The Description of a Poetress” (c. 1670–80), which refers to Behn as “guilty of all other sins,” including “buggering with Jews.” The verse concludes, “Thus have you seen the Poetress described,/ And so you might have often seen her swived [fucked].” Goreau, , Reconstructing Aphra, p. 221. Another critic, William Wycherley, made much of the poetess/prostitute analogy with remarks such as, “Now Men enjoy your Parts for Half a Crown,” and “Since lately you Lay-in, (but as they say)/ Because, you had been Clap'd another Way.” Wycherley, William, The Complete Works of William Wycherley, ed. Summers, Montague, 4 vols. (London, 1924), 3: 155–56.

25 Gallagher claims that Behn created “a distinctively female integrity out of the very metaphor of prostitution” (Nobody's Story, p. 22).

26 The theater too was a kind of oasis where social conventions were often ignored or flouted. It is, therefore, not surprising that Behn's first literary ventures were plays. For a discussion of the theater as a masculine domain and of Behn's presence there as a woman, see Gallagher, “Who Was That Masked Woman?”; Munn, Jessica, “‘I by a Double Right Thy Bounties Claim’: Aphra Behn and Sexual Space,” in Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660–1820, ed. Schofield, Mary Anne and Macheski, Cecelia (Athens, Ohio, 1991), pp. 193210; and Lussier, Mark, “‘Marrying that Hated Object’: The Carnival of Desire in Behn's The Rover,” in Privileging Gender in Early Modern England, Vol. 23, Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies (Kirksville, Mo., 1993), pp. 225–40.

27 Behn, , The Lucky Chance, p. 185.

28 Behn, , preface to Sir Patient Fancy, in Summers, , The Works of Aphra Behn 4: 7 (emphasis in original).

29 Behn, , The Lucky Chance, p. 187.

30 Jessica Munn has also noted Behn's “literay androgeny,” in what she calls “double dressing,” i.e., Behn's insistance on asserting both her maleness and femaleness in her roles as author and woman.

31 Judith Kegan Gardiner argues that human sexuality is the most dominant theme of Behn's work (Aphra Behn: Sexuality and Self-respect,” Women's Studies 7 [1980]: 6778).

32 Behn's reputation, if not wholly justified, is at least understandable: no one seems to know or have known anything about Mr. Behn, to whom she was married for two years at the most; she was employed by Charles II as a spy in Antwerp and spent time in debtors' prison on at least two occasions. She also carried on a long affair with John Hoyle, a known bisexual; furthermore, her writing often is direct, addressing sexual matters frankly. Her poem “The Disappointment,” for instance, recounts a seduction foiled by premature ejaculation.

33 In Rereading Aphra Behn Heidi Hutner has proposed that our entire characterization and understanding of Restoration literature needs to be revised in light of the fact that Behn was one of its major figures.

34 Michel Foucault, among others, has challenged the post-Freudian tendency of modern scholarship to treat sexuality as a key to an individual's identity or essence. See for example Foucault, Michel, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (New York, 1978), and Halperin, David, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (New York, 1990).

35 Cotton, Charles, “To the Admir'd Astrea,” on Behn's translation of The Lover's Watch, in Summers, , The Works of Aphra Behn, 6: 6.

36 See Spencer, Janet, The Rise of the Woman Novelist (New York, 1986), pp. 2425.

37 For example, Katherine Philips (1631–64) was roundly criticized for attempting to translate Corneille's “La Mort de Pompée.”

38 Behn, Aphra, Aesop's Fables [London, 1687]).

39 For instance, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–73), who preceded Behn in venturing to discuss natural philosophy in print, was widely criticized and believed to be mad (Cavendish, , The Blazing World [London, 1666]).

40 Fontenelle became the prototype for people whom Goethe would christen “popularizers,” and whose works would still later become known as “ladies' philosophy.” Blumenberg, Hans, The Genesis of the Copernican World (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), p. 535.

41 Fontenelle owed much to his association with the précieuses in Paris, and his marquise is an ideal saloneuse, a charming and intelligent woman, ignorant of astronomy but willing and able to learn.

42 In light of the work of John Dee, John Donne, John Milton, and even herself, Behn's claims about the novelty of a popular work on astronomy are not justified. However, works such as Fontenelle's, which not only made reference to scientific topics, but specifically tried to explain them, were rare.

43 Behn, Aphra, “The Translator's Preface,” A Discovery of new worlds made English by A. Behn (London, 1688), p. 6 (hereafter cited as “Translator's Preface”).

44 Aphra Behn, “The Emperor of the Moon,” quoted in Laurel Smith, “Aphra Behn and the Popularization of Science in Stuart England,” paper delivered at the Society for Literature and Science, Atlanta, 1992.

45 To Mr. Creech (under the Name of Daphnis) on his Excellent Translation of Lucretius,” in Summers, , The Works of Aphra Behn, 6: 167–68.

46 Robert Adams Day has also treated Behn's “Translator's Preface” with the intent of discovering possible sources of her iconoclastic thought. Day, Robert Adams, “Aphra Behn and the Works of the Intellect,” in Fetter'd or Free? British Women Novelists 1670–1815, ed. Schofield, Mary Anne and Macheski, Cecelia (Athens, Ohio, 1986), pp. 372–82.

47 Behn, “Translator's Preface,” dedication.

48 Ibid., p. 1.

49 She is not however altogether pleased with the personage of the Marquise as Fontenelle created her. She takes the opportunity of the preface to complain that: “he makes her say a great many very silly things, tho' sometimes she makes Observations so learned, that the greatest Philosophers in Europe could make no better” (ibid., p. 7).

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid., p. 6.

53 Ibid., p. 7.

54 Ibid.

55 As to the life on other planets, he clarified that by this he did not mean the descendants of Adam. Fontenelle, , Entretiens sur la pluralite des mondes suivi de Histoire des oracles (Verviers, Belgium, 1973).

56 Behn, , “Translator's Preface,” p. 8.

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid.

59 Official teaching at Oxford University in the Faculty of Arts, for instance, remained Aristotelian by statute, until the end of the seventeenth century, and elementary books on purely Aristotelian physics were published at Oxford as late as 1690. John Russell has proposed that Copernicanism was disturbing to contemporaries not because it “proved” scripture wrong, but because it undermined faith in the power of reason and simple observation. The traditional Aristotelian system had been established with certainty for centuries; now suddenly there were three competing systems with no clear or intuitive way of choosing among them (The Copernican System in Great Britain,” in The Reception of Copernicus's Heliocentric Theory, ed. Dobrzycki, Jerzy [Boston, 1972], pp. 189239).

60 Feingold, Mordechai, The Mathematicians' Apprenticeship (New York, 1984).

61 Behn, , “Translator's Preface,” p. 9.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid., pp. 8–9.

64 Behn echoes Galileo and Averroës when she speaks of the Bible being written for the understanding of “the vulgar.” Galileo also argued for a non-literal interpretation of scripture based on the fact that it contains too many contradictions (Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, trans. Drake, Stillman [Garden City, 1957], pp. 92100).

65 Behn is probably referring to Jesuit Andreas Tacquet, author of Opera Mathematica (1669) and Arithmeticae Theoria et Praxis (1665).

66 Behn, , “Translator's Preface,” p. 13.

67 Ibid., p. 14.

68 Ibid., p. 15.

69 Ibid.

70 Galileo, in his “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” also mentions this same passage from Joshua. Though his argument follows roughly the same line as Behn's, it is questionable whether she was acquainted with Galileo's text.

71 Behn, , “Translator's Preface,” p. 13.

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid., pp. 16–17.

74 It is not clear why Behn equates ten degrees of shadow movement with ten hours; this remark does raise questions about her understanding of sun dials, or “the Dial of Ahaz” as she calls it, and her familiarity with astronomical instruments.

75 The edition to which she refers is probably either one published in 1629 by the Cambridge printers Thomas and John Buck, or in 1638 by Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel. The Bucks printed folios which showed a consistent attempt at revision, and the records suggest that the revisers included two of the original translators. See The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol. 3, ed. Greenslade, S. L. (New York, 1963), p. 458.

76 Behn, , “Translator's Preface,” p. 17. Behn is referring to Thomas Burnet's The Sacred Theory of the Earth, which posits natural causes for Creation and other miracles.

77 Ibid., p. 12.

78 Ibid., p. 17.

79 Ibid.

80 Ibid.

81 It was a common belief, apparently shared by Behn, that English was derived from Latin (ibid., pp. 1–2).

82 Ibid., p. 2.

83 Ibid., p. 3.

84 Ibid.

85 Ibid., p. 4.

86 Ibid., p. 5.

87 Ibid. This arresting remark becomes even more intriguing in reference to Behn's popular novel, Oroonoko, about a black slave from Surinam.

88 Ibid., p. 5.

89 Ibid., p. 19.


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