By Aphra Behn
A THOUSAND martyrs I have made,
All sacrificed to my desire,
A thousand beauties have betray`d
That languish in restless fire:
The untamed heart to hand I brought,
And fix`d the wild and wand`ring thought.
I never vow`d nor sigh`d in vain,
But both, tho` false, were well received;
The fair are pleased to give us pain,
And what they wish is soon believed:
And tho` I talk`d of wounds and smart,
Love`s pleasures only touch`d my heart.
Alone the glory and the spoil
I always laughing bore away;
The triumphs without pain or toil,
Without the hell the heaven of joy;
And while I thus at random rove
Despise the fools that whine for love.
I have written at some length before of Aphra Behn and her right to be considered the first “modern woman” – the uber-vixen of feminine liberation. The Libertine is as good an example as any other of her works to place her position in social history and her unleashing of the uncorseted female libertine onto the world stage. She is a predator in every way the match of a John Wilmot; a sexual lioness who struts the social jungle singling out likely prey, stealthily encircling the chosen mark with unerring precision.
Libertinism reached it`s height in Restoration England, where many women were not necessarily passive victims of male sexual hunters, but could claim to have had as big an impact upon the sexual mores of the times as any man. This is thanks in part to Charles II making female libertines important members of his court, where he housed many of them in their own apartments, making available mutual visits at their leisure.
This isn`t to claim that the female libertine was an invention of the Restoration; she has had an esteemed place throughout literary history from Homer, Ovid, Chaucer and Shakespeare, but she reached her apogee in the late Stuart and early Georgian periods.
Liberty for a woman can mean something entirely different than it does for a man though; for most of world history men have exercised greater social and legal liberties than women, and the question of relative freedom has always depended upon time, place and social circumstances. Throughout recorded time, women have (for the most part) struggled against restraints imposed upon them by misogynistic attitudes; the male libertine poets of the late Stuart period, often appear to hate women and the constraints of marriage (again John Wilmot is a fine example), while taking from them what they most desire. But intelligent, literate women such as Aphra Behn, not only hitched up their petticoats, got on their bikes and peddled their way to a better life on their own terms, but also took up the greatest weapon of all to strike back – they put pen to paper and ridiculed the animalistic nature of men, while exalting their own sexual conquests and personal freedom to do so.
During the Restoration period women were allowed a fair degree of leeway to take what they wanted from men, if they were presented with the opportunity, circumstances and the will to do so. Sexual and intellectual freedom was the name of the game for Aphra Behn and her super-vixen contemporaries, and for a few short years, they were given a clear track to make their mark for female liberation from fixed gender roles.
It may well be true that if you asked men who their literary role models were they wouldn`t be able to give a clear answer; but women such as Aphra Behn, strong, independent minded and feisty, stand out like beacons of liberty for women, in an otherwise murky, historically misogynistic landscape. The fact that she is not widely known today is not just a literary tragedy, but a social one as well, because her amazing career is a major proto-feminist mile stone on the long road to female emancipation.