/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on April 7, 2010 at 4:54 pm
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Aphra Behn – a free woman

One of the delights of being a long term Londoner is that you sometimes find little pieces of history that are far more intriguing than the better known sights.

Westminster Abbey cloisters

Westminster Abbey is one of London’s greatest monuments. There’s more than enough in the Abbey to take up a day’s sightseeing, without even scratching the surface. There’s the fine French-influenced ‘rayonnant’ Gothic architecture,there are the tombs of English monarchs, there’s the wonderful chapel of Henry VII with its paper-light, delicate fan vault; there’s Poets’ Corner, where England’s greatest writers (and a few Scots) are commemorated.

I wouldn’t mind betting the majority of tourists don’t even get to see the cloisters. Which is a pity, because it’s there that you’ll find one of those little London surprises – the tombstone of Aphra Behn.

Who was Aphra Behn? Well, there’s a mystery. No one’s quite sure where she was born, when she married, or what happened to her husband. What we do know is that – quite likely driven by the need to make enough money to pay off her debts – she started writing plays for the Restoration stage, and became the first woman in England to make a living out of it.

Her plays are as witty and as naughty – and have as much sex in them – as any of the plays written by men, like Dryden, Wycherley, or Etheredge. Her ‘Rover’ is a Restoration Don Juan – perhaps based on the outrageous Earl of Rochester, an atheist and sexual adventurer.

She produced a poetic translation of the Roman poet Lucretius – a controversial choice in 17th century England, since he had doubted the existence of an afterlife. Whether she agreed with him or not, she was buried here, near the door into the abbey church.

But her gravestone suggests she maintained a certain ambiguity on the issue: it contains a single rhyming couplet.

“Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be

Defence enough against mortality.”

It’s a very plain tombstone – and unusual; there’s no sign of a husband, no mention of her family background, not even a mention of her career. Just the name and the date of death, stark and bold, and that ambivalent couplet.

Photo by Gardenvisit on flickr

    1 Comment

  • meg says:

    Ohh, that’s very cool! I spent some time wandering around the Westminister Abbey Cloisters when I was in London, but I had no idea about that tombstone. I loved all of Westminister Abbey, it was pretty much my favourite thing I saw in London. interesting article!!

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