The Aphra Behn
CHAMELEON IN A MIRROR
All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she — shady and amorous as she was — who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
Professor Fogerty had a small mole near the corner of one eye, and it was twitching. Billie concentrated on the twitch to keep her temper in check. All the power might be on his side of the desk, but at least she didn't have any nervous tics.
"You have to remember that Mrs. Behn was little more than a marginal writer, Miss Armstrong," the professor said in that smarmy way he had. "A transitional force, yes, but not innovative, not really. If being a woman in itself were innovative — why the world would be in constant revolution."
Billie ignored his weak attempt at a joke and took a deep breath. "But what about Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister? It was an epistolary novel written sixty years before Samuel Richardson, after all."
He chuckled, a sound intentionally jovial. "You cannot seriously claim that Behn influenced Richardson!"
Since that was precisely what she had intended, she kept her mouth shut. It seemed she was going to have to find a different thesis advisor — or else go back home to the States in shame, without a dissertation.
Autumn sun spilled through the high windows of Fogerty's office, hampered by streaks of grime. The buildings of London Blackfriars University were much like those of the Inns of Court nearby, lofty and arching, a metaphor for freedom of thought and high ideals made stone. It was too bad that even a modest attempt at redefining literary history had no place here, at least not as long as Fogerty had a say in it.
"What I'm trying to show is that Behn used autobiographical material in a very original way, and it influenced a number of people," Billie said carefully.
"Miss Armstrong, Mrs. Behn was a hack — a very talented hack, but a hack nonetheless." He shook his massive head. "Don't get carried away by causes in your academic work. Literature is not about the odds."
"But she was one of the most respected dramatists of the Restoration," she couldn't help protesting.
Fogerty's insincere smile spread across his face. "Respected? Come now, Miss Armstrong! Certainly you know of the lampoons written about her?"
"Those were written about her morals, not her writing. A lot of her contemporaries were envious of her success."
"It's a mistake to equate popularity with literary merit."
"Oh, I would never make that mistake," she muttered under her breath.
"What was that?"
"Defoe for one respected Aphra Behn," she said, loud enough for him to hear. "He called her one of the 'giants of wit and sense' — along with Milton, no less."
He gazed at her critically over the top of his glasses. "Are you implying that Behn influenced Defoe now?"
Billie couldn't keep her mouth shut any longer. "Among others, yes," she said, rising and gathering up the papers on the desk between them. Her preliminary abstract for her dissertation, all shot to hell now. "I see I will have to reconsider my approach."
Fogerty rose too and shook her hand. "Very wise, Miss Armstrong. I'll be looking forward to your new proposal."
She shut the door of his office behind her, closing her eyes briefly. That had gone even worse than she'd expected. It was well known that Fogerty had been bullied into helping host the upcoming Aphra Behn symposium after Billie's former advisor had been bullied out of the department, but she hadn't realized his resentment of a female playwright dead for over three hundred years went that deep. But what did it mean for the symposium? Maybe Fogerty and his ilk — the ones who had mobbed Professor Bentley until she fled to a foreign university with a Women's Studies department — thought they could turn the clock back, envisioning themselves as an antidote to the Great Feminist Danger and its Trivializing Impulses.
Chuckling, Billie pushed away from the wall. As long as she could still laugh about the situation, she'd be ok.
Still, she wished there were some way to give representatives of the old guard like Fogerty a kick, make them wake up and acknowledge the importance of Aphra's role in literary history. But what would it take? Most of the facts were there, the prose fiction Aphra had written long before the "beginning of the novel," her plays, her poetry, the admiration from and attacks by her contemporaries.
And yet there were still Fogerties out there who denied her any real influence on the literature that came after her.
Making her way past a few evening stragglers, laughing and flirting on the steps, Billie climbed the stairs to the first floor (or second, to her American way of thinking) and headed for the room that was to hold the exhibit during the Aphra Behn symposium. Even though her former advisor had fled Blackfriars months before for more fruitful feminist soils, at least she'd left Billie officially in charge of the historical goodies.
The big, old-fashioned key opened the door with a satisfying clunk. Most of the tables had been cleared out of the classroom, except for the ones needed for the exhibit. Those remaining now lined the walls, on top of them glass cases, several still empty.
It was not a large room, but the high ceiling made it appear bigger. Tall windows looked out over the Thames and Blackfriars Bridge,. Despite the double-glassed windows, the sound of traffic was a constant roar of white noise in the background. On the walls to the left and right hung portraits of Aphra Behn. They weren't the real thing, of course; the symposium might be important enough to borrow some antique junk from the Victoria and Albert, but not important enough to get an authentic Lely.
In front of the tables stood the crates. This installment of baroque memorabilia from the museum had only arrived today, and she was eager to examine the rest of her treasures. It was a good thing Fogerty didn't know about the playful attitude she was taking towards the display, or he probably would have tried to take the job away from her.
Drawing on the gloves the curator had insisted she wear to handle the antiques, Billie opened the largest crate. This must be the mirror. She grabbed either side and slid it carefully out of the box, grunting with the effort. It was heavier than it looked. She leaned it against the wall beneath one of the portraits of Aphra and removed the protective wrapping. The thing was a gaudy monstrosity, the mahogany frame a swirling pattern of snakes and leaves topped by a looming face with deep-set, hollow eyes. Billie trailed one gloved finger over the elaborate carvings, tracing intertwining snakes through a maze of branches until they melted into the hair of the figure at the top. The design seemed to pull her gaze into the sunken eyes, and she gave an involuntary shudder. It was as if the mirror were staring at her.
Billie shook her head, chiding herself for her overactive imagination, and devoted her attention to the next crate. Sifting through the wood shavings, her hands hit on something solid, and she pulled out a long cardboard box which opened to reveal a delicate silk fan decorated with a painting of a stage scene. It would be perfect next to the folio in the display. She unlocked the glass case and lifted the cover. Gingerly, she picked up the ancient copy of Behn's play The Dutch Lover, overcome by a sense of awe. She knew she wasn't supposed to think that way about a research subject, but she couldn't help it: a world traveler, a spy, a woman who had fought her way to the top in a man's world, the first woman in English literature to make a living through her writing. What wasn't there to love about Aphra Behn?
Smiling, she skimmed over the date on the title page with her fingertip: "1673." She leafed through the brittle pages until she found a suggestive passage Fogerty was sure to hate, and arranged the fan and the manuscript to catch the visitor's eye.
She dug deeper in the crate. It was just like Christmas! Her searching hand closed around an object with a familiar feel, and she pulled out an instrument case. Elated, Billie snapped open the lid and took out the lute. Did it work? Could she even figure out how to play it if it did? Well, there was no question of trying, since this was a museum piece, but it still made her curious how different a lute would be from a guitar or a mandolin.
At the sound of voices in the hall, Billie quickly returned the lute to its case. Her boyfriend Richard entered the room with Professor Fogerty, the two of them chuckling like old buddies. Billie felt a stab of betrayal. Before Richard had turned in the first draft of his dissertation, they'd laughed about Fogerty together: now here was Richard laughing with him.
Fogerty leaned over, examining the case with The Dutch Lover, and his chuckle at her arrangement sounded forced. Billie grinned. Willa Armstrong: 1. Professor Fogerty: 0.
The professor straightened and turned to her. "I see we have precisely the right person to set up the exhibit."
"Why is that?" Billie asked, a polite smile on her face.
"This room is becoming a statement of solidarity. Just as it should be." The bushy eyebrows he raised at her seemed to say exactly the opposite.
"I'm glad you like it," she said, knowing perfectly well that he was just as insincere as she was. Her cheeks felt frozen.
Richard sauntered over to the case and laughed out loud after reading the passage under glass. Fogerty gave him a brief, stern look, and she felt more generous towards her significant other again.
"Well, I must be heading home," Fogerty said. "Make sure you lock everything up when you leave, Miss Armstrong."
"I will, Professor Fogerty."
"And you make sure she gets home safely, Richard."
"Of course," Richard said.
Fogerty winked and left.
So it was "Richard" now. Billie wondered when that happened. It was just one more sign of his higher status.
The smile left Richard's face. "You seem worked up. I take it the conference with Fogerty was not a success."
"Nope. I should have known I wouldn't get fair treatment from him." She ran her fingers through her long hair, pulling it back from her face.
"Billie." Richard put a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Fogerty might have a point. Influence is a hard thing to prove."
At his words, the arm felt a lot less comforting. She knelt down and yanked open another packing crate. "He said almost exactly the same thing to me just now."
"Don't you think you should be a bit more careful with the museum goods?"
"Don't you think you should stop telling me what to do?" Billie retorted, even though she knew he was right. But on some stupidly irrational level, that made his comment even worse. Since he'd handed in his dissertation, Richard had developed the irritating habit of giving her advice in an almost fatherly tone of voice, which made it impossible for her to agree with him. The past weekend, they'd had a row about her busking at Piccadilly Circus, something she'd been doing ever since she'd come to London, to earn a few extra pounds and pence to offset the high cost of living.
Besides, street music was her creative outlet these days. She didn't write much in the way of fiction anymore, not enough time, but she did still write poetry, the raw material for her song lyrics. Given the present disappointments of her academic life, she needed the music more than ever.
"I'm not telling you what to do. I'm just warning you not to take your anger out on antiques," Richard said in that low, slow voice that sent shivers down her spin.
She rose and turned. He stood leaning against a wall of the classroom, arms folded in front of his chest. His voice had the same sexy timbre that was part of the reason she'd once fallen in love with him, but his posture was defensive, and his smile little more than the twitch of one cheek.
"I know that well enough myself." She got up and pulled a stepladder next to the wall. After taking down the wall clock, she turned to Richard. "I could use some help with the mirror."
He joined her. "What do you want me to do?"
"Put on those extra gloves and help me hang it up."
A few grunts on both sides and the mirror was in place. "Is it straight?" Billie asked, adjusting the frame.
"A little higher on the left. Now down again. That's right."
She glanced at her reflection, and a strange sensation of depth had her doubting her own perceptions. It seemed to reflect more than her and Richard and the room behind them, as if the opposite wall were making a stab at eternity.
She stumbled on the stepladder, but Richard caught her arm. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." Billie shook her head to clear it. "That's one weird mirror."
Behind her, she heard Richard take a deep breath. "Billie."
"Fogerty told me you're on a crusade. Whether you like it or not, you're going to have to follow his advice if you want to finish your degree."
They'd been talking about her behind her back. She couldn't believe it. "So you're siding with him. Against me."
"I'm not siding with him, I'm just —"
"Oh, stop," Billie interrupted. "You're only going to tell me I should be practical about all this. Well, what if I don't want to be practical? Or respectable? Or any of those things you want me to be?" She glanced up at the nearest portrait. Aphra certainly had not been respectable, as Fogerty had reminded her earlier. The playwright regarded her, regally serene and much too serious. Billie preferred the picture on the opposite wall, an engraving based on a painting by a little-known woman artist. It showed Aphra in the flush of youth, a typical Restoration beauty with her heavy-lidded eyes and wide expanse of bosom. The hint of a smile at the corners of her lips gave her a more playful expression than in the Lely, and the single curl in the middle of her forehead reminded Billie of the nursery rhyme.
"Billie, you're overreacting."
"Yes, perhaps I am." But the fact of the matter was, Billie was beginning to regret coming to London for graduate school, something her friends in the States would never understand. They envied her the dashing boyfriend with the British accent, the fact that she was living in Europe and seeing the world. What more did she want? But after over a year, she was discovering a stubbornly traditional aspect to the system here, at least in her college, that made her squirm. Of course, it had gotten much worse after Professor Bentley left. But now here was Richard trying to persuade her to cave in.
"You're investing too much emotion in your dissertation topic," he was saying now, his deep-set blue eyes settling on her with a look of patience that made her flinch. Those blue eyes were killers, though, and if she hadn't been so irritated they might have melted her. When Richard made it to professor, which wouldn't be long, he'd have the British equivalent of coeds falling all over him.
"Emotion isn't professional, is it," she said. "Not like you."
Richard pursed his lips and ran a hand through his curly hair with a carelessly vain gesture. "When do you think you'll be done here?"
"Not for a while." She bent over a crate, and her long, dark hair fell in front of her face like a curtain.
"Then I take it you don't want me to wait for you?"
She looked up. "No. I'll be home later."
Richard nodded, the perfect gentleman. Only the flaring nostrils betrayed him. "Fine." He bent over and gave her a perfunctory kiss. "Bye, Willa."
She hated being called Willa, and he knew it. "Bye."
"Men," she muttered, turning back to her crates. Thank the powers that be for baroque goodies. A room full of intriguing antiques was an excellent distraction from a spat with her boyfriend. Billie grimaced and made herself relax her shoulders. If only Richard would stop acting like a husband. Next, he might even be expecting her to follow wherever his career took him. On the other hand, she didn't have much to keep her here if he left. The problem was, she didn't know what she wanted to do with herself anymore. Graduate school was a bitch, London was too big, England was too cramped, and Billie was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But she had the keys to the exhibit. And the keys had the power to unlock the past. She dug a hand into the pocket of her jeans and closed her fist around them. No matter that Billie had wanted to give a paper at the symposium and been turned down; no matter that she'd wanted to vindicate Aphra in her dissertation; now she had the keys and the lute.
The lute case was still on top of one of the crates. She stood and took out the instrument again, handling it reverently, admiring the curve of the body, the hue of the old wood. Tucking the lute under one arm, she struck a pose in front of the mirror and admired her reflection, her billowing silk shirt, embroidered brocade vest, and long, curly hair. Billie had spotted the extravagant vest at a flea market the week before. It reminded her so much of the outrageous fashions worn by men during the English Restoration, she'd bought it in honor of the symposium. Fashion for men in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was more exuberant than it would be for hundreds of years, at least until the hippie era of the twentieth century. Billie loved the paintings of those subtly smiling guys with their manes of long, curly hair. But she had to wonder how many of those beautiful heads of hair were real, and how many were wigs.
Gazing at her image in the mirror, she thought she showed a decided resemblance to male heartbreakers of the Restoration; she would make a very handsome cavalier! Billie extended one booted leg the way a man of fashion in the seventeenth century might and stretched out her arm to an imaginary lady. What did one say to imaginary Restoration ladies? Remembering the verses from The Dutch Lover, she chuckled. Restoration ladies probably didn't want to hear that kind of thing, but if she was practicing to be a cavalier, she might as well begin there.
She gave herself a steamy look in the mirror and recited the lines on display in the case:
"Kind Messenger of Love! Thus, thus a thousand times
"I bid thee welcome from my fair Clarinda.
"Thus joyful Bridegrooms, after long Despairs,
"Possess the yielding Treasure in their Arms;
"Only thus much happier Lover, I,
"Who gather all the Sweets of this fair Maid
"Without the ceremonious Tie of Marriage; —"
Billie felt a vague unsteadiness, as if she'd been spinning around in a circle like she used to do on the lawn as a child. She gave a short shake of her head and read the remaining lines:
"That tie that does but nauseate the Delight,
"Be far from happy Lovers; we'll embrace
"And unconfin'd and free as whispering Air,
"That mingles wantonly with spreading flowers."
Then the room full of Restoration knick-knacks began to shift and fade around her. Billie couldn't tear her eyes away from her reflection; it was as if the mirror were drawing her in. Everything outside her own outline melted away, only her shocked face in the glass remaining distinct and real. Finally, the mirror's hold on her seemed to snap. Feeling dizzy and sick, Billie closed her eyes and gripped the edge of the table next to her with her free hand. She hoped she wasn't going to throw up all over the antiques.
Slowly the feeling of nausea passed, to be replaced by a sensation of cold. Billie prayed she wasn't pregnant, took a deep breath, and opened her eyes.
Her first impulse was to close them again. She was still standing in front of a mirror, but everything else had changed. The same hideous carvings framed the mirror, but the table she gripped was covered with an assortment of masks and fans and feathers, not the glass case containing yellowed documents from the seventeenth century that she expected. She glanced around cautiously, searching for a familiar object, but the only thing she recognized was the lute still clutched under her arm. Heavy silk and brocade garments hung on hooks on the opposite wall, and one bronze velvet dress was draped carelessly over the back of a chair.
"Whatever are you doing in the tiring room, lad?"
Billie whipped around at the strange voice with the even stranger accent. Tiring room? Lad? A woman stood in the doorway, mustering her with an amused eye. She had a wide mouth, a long nose, a plunging neckline, and skirts to the floor. Billie stared.
"Prithee, what pray is the matter? Never seen an actress up close before?"
All Billie could do was shake her head. Prithee? What was going on here? Where was she?
"If you're seeking a part in the play, 'twould be best you speak with the playwright. I'll take you to her. She's plotting it out at this very moment." The actress hooked her arm through Billie's elbow. A wave of ambergris assaulted her nostrils, and the nausea nearly returned.
Billie allowed herself to be led out of the changing room. Was this some kind of elaborate practical joke? But how could she have gotten here, wherever here was? And how could this actress be speaking such authentic-sounding Early Modern English? Perhaps the mirror had fallen off the wall and knocked her out and she was dreaming of Restoration playhouses. Yes, that had to be it: she had blacked out and at this very moment was lying on the floor of the classroom-turned-exhibit-room, and no one would find her until morning. Nothing else made any sense.
They went through a door with a balcony above it that led to the main part of the theater. The stage stretched out into the audience, and a painted screen was pushed halfway across the rear wall. Gathered to one side of the stage stood a richly dressed group of people examining what appeared to be rough sketches hanging on the wall.
The actress kept glancing at Billie under thick lashes, a laugh in her eyes and a smile playing around her wide mouth. "Methinks we have another aspiring actor here, Mrs. Behn," she called out to the group.
The woman who looked up from the manuscript she was examining had an abundance of copper curls, a wide expanse of white bosom set off by some sinfully luxurious material, heavy-lidded dark eyes, and the hint of a smile on her face. Even the stray curl in the middle of her forehead was the same as in the portrait Billie had recently hung on the wall of a London university classroom. Had she been staring at paintings too long and started hallucinating?
The first professional woman writer in English literature gazed straight into Billie's eyes. Billie shivered.
"Cold lad?" Aphra asked, lifting one dark eyebrow. "Or just stage fright?"
Continue to Chapter 2.
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The Aphra Behn Page, winner March 1996 of the Literary
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