Aphra Behn (and also Robert Gould)

In her amusing remarks on the literary scene in the Prologue to Sir Patient Fancy (1678), Behn writes, with characteristic good-humor,: "Nay, even the Women now pretend to Reign, / Defend us from a Poet Joan again!" Contrarians hold that "Poet Joan" is a typesetting error for "Pope Joan." But this explanation falls short on two grounds: (i) Behn's context at this moment in the prologue is literary, specifically women writers, not women (cross-dressed or otherwise) in Church history; and (ii) the monosyllabic "Pope" fails to satisfy the metrical value of the line in which it appears. See my extended letter, "Poems by Ephelia," TLS (3 September 1993).

Behn's "Poet Joan," as I explain in my H.B. Wheatley link, could have been Mary Villiers in her urban persona of "Joan Phillips." Behn's circle included blue-bloods of the Stuart court, as well as denizens of Grub Street. Behn's reference to "a Poet Joan" may suggest Behn's knowledge of 'Mall' Villiers's frolics. The lovely homage, "To Madam Bhen" (a contemporary alternate spelling of "Behn") in Female Poems...by Ephelia, discloses a personal and literary link between these two writers, not to mention Behn's longstanding membership in the Villiers family-circle. She, in truth, tenderly elegized the passing of George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham. Charles II's Court Wits included only two women poets who were clever enough to negotiate such company: Aphra Behn and Mary Villiers.

In 1683, Robert Gould, a talented poet-playwright and protegé of John Oldham, spun off a gritty urban sketch of Behn and Ephelia as a sororal team of poet-prostitutes, working the literary fringe. In the following excerpt, an angry Robert Gould thinks that either Behn or Ephelia had penned a response to his verse-satire, Love Given O're (1683), whose shocking misogyny kept the female pen busy for twenty years:

"Ephelia! poor Ephelia, ragged Jilt!
And Sappho, famous for her gout and gilt.
Either of these, tho' both debauch'd and vile,
Had answer'd Me in a more decent Stile.
Yet Hackney Writers; when their Verse did Fail
To get 'em Brandy, Bread and Cheese, and Ale,
Their Wants by Prostitution
Show but a Tester, you might up and ride:
For Punk and Poetess agree so Pat,
You cannot well be this, and not be That.

(A Satyrical Epistle, [1683], 1691)

In "English Femmes Savantes at the End of the Seventeenth Century," A.H. Upham valuably provides a list of feminist verses inspired by Gould's poem (JEGP 12 (1913): 10-16). Sarah Egerton's "Female Advocate" (1687) is the most notable of these. I contributed the first profile of Egerton to Janet Todd's Dictionary of British & American Women Writers, 1660-1800 (1985, 1987); the reigning specialist on Sarah Egerton is Jeslyn Medoff.