The following is adapted from Aphra Behn’s preface to The Lucky Chance, which strikes me as emblematic of the fraught balance she and others like her (mostly unknown, we must assume) had to strike, to hold her own as a writer of serious power while treading very carefully around the prejudices and biases of her detractors. I don’t know what moved me to revisit Behn this morning, but I am grateful for its nudge.
I reject old Horace’s idea of literature as some tool to instruct and delight. You want a morality lesson, read the holy books. This is something else. However, it seems like a long walk to go from my avoidance of moral instruction to the assumption of the innately corrupting influence of my work, a stance that seems so popular among my critics. I think that those attribute the capacity of my work to offer vile offense to “feminine sensibilities” do significantly underestimate what the average woman is exposed to on a regular basis, living and moving through a world of men. I daresay her daily movements should afford her plenty that is amply more objectionable than anything I can deliver. But somehow, the taint seems to come from the inherent corruption on my part. Any woman so bold as to demand an audience, must, after all, be possessed of something that some men may wish to permanently prevent others from having contact with, lest it be catching. Considering the self interest in their malice, I challenge any person of common sense not so willfully bent on ill nature that they will read some double entendre in anything, to resist the impulse to charge what frightens them with alternate blows of scandal and pity.