The books that made me into a woman who writes

I became a woman who writes because I read books as a girl, but it was a seventeenth century female author who opened for me this path.

As a youngster, I loved to read: British girls’ novels about mysterious things like boarding schools and gymkhanas, the Narnia chronicles, Nancy Drew. I felt transported by these books, away from my cozy Canadian suburb and into exotic adventures. Once I hit my teens I added the classics, but my most influential reading came from the romance novels stacked by my mother’s bed. My adolescent Christmas stocking often held a romance delivered by Santa. The big medieval and nineteenth century stories—misunderstood privateers! hot-blooded Highland lairds! rakish English dukes!— provided fantasy pleasure and escapist otherness.

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Knight of Love

It was these romance novels that made me want to be a writer. I wanted to write juicy books whose covers featured a buxom woman with billowy long red hair in a risqué embrace with a muscled hero in black leather boots. I recently finished a project that allowed me to do just that: I wrote academically about the romance genre at the same time that I learned how to write romance fiction. Both forms of wordcraft taught lessons about the joys of voice and the risks and power of writing.

I am inspired by Dale Spender’s notion that “a feminist is a woman who writes.” The French feminist author Hélène Cixous issued a similar rousing call in her 1976 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”: “Write!” Cixous urges women.

“Writing is for you. . . . Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you. . . . Your body must be heard.” Writing, she says of the woman author, will give “her access to her native strength.”

By these definitions, a woman becomes a feminist by putting words on paper (or computer screen) in order to to develop her voice, to work her will, to pursue her pleasure. “Do not underestimate the power of your words!” a keynote speaker urged us as I sat in the audience of the Romance Writers of America conference one summer. Another speaker told her story of being a military wife and mother who had learned to always put the needs of others before her own; she credited romance writing with helping her to grow as a woman. “My heart became braver when I wrote” is how she put it, as she advised us “Don’t let fear hold you back.”

From this perspective, words and books have force to transform both self and world. But wielding this force is not easy. It takes courage. Perhaps the first female risk-taker in this regard was Aphra Behn.

This remarkable seventeenth century woman lies buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, near royalty and the leading statesmen and literary figures of the United Kingdom. During a recent sabbatical in England, I visited the Abbey with my husband for a Commonwealth Day Observance. (I got to see the Queen!) The cloisters adjoining the church were technically closed to the public, but after the ceremony I asked several uncertain officials if it might be possible to visit. Finally I happened upon a young woman verger whose eyes lit up as I explained my request: “Ah, you want to see Aphra Behn! In that case, come with me.” This spirited woman, with dark hair and red lips to match her swirling verger’s cloak, ushered us through an ancient wooden door. “We get lots of visitors wanting to see one tomb or another,” she said as her heels clicked briskly over the worn stones. “But Behn is my favorite.”

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Little is known about Aphra Behn’s early life. It seems she married young and was widowed soon after, leaving her with the social independence of a widow but requiring her to earn her living. This she did in a way never before carried out by any Englishwoman: she wrote. Her output included plays, poetry, stories, and translations and met with both commercial success and critical acclaim. She helped develop the novel as a new literary form. Based on her adventures in Surinam, South America, she penned Oroonoko, the first anti-slavery novel to appear in English. She wrote amatory fiction such as The Fair Jilt that stands as precursor to today’s popular romance novels. Behn’s plays and novels contain frank and erotic plotlines about feisty women who lead bawdy lives. She doesn’t resonate with every ideal of a sex-positive feminist in the twenty-first century, but she worked her will with words to earn her living, her country’s respect, and her place at Westminster Abbey.

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A Room of One’s Own

We stood in the cloister and read the inscription carved into Behn’s gravestone: “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality.” The inscription is only half-true. Yes, Aphra, deemed in her day the “sole Empress of the Land of Wit,” died, as must we all. But the legacy of her writing lives on. In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf states,

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

And so, with the verger’s blessing, I did as Woolf urged. Going to the Abbey, I wore a violet orchid pinned to my breast. After our visit, I left the flower on the tomb and went home to write.

Thank you, Aphra. Thank you Nancy, Mom, Dale, Hélène, Virginia, and every romance heroine I ever identified with. You all made me into a woman who writes.

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Happily Ever After

Catherine Roach is Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies in New College at the University of Alabama.  Her most recent books are Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (Indiana University Press, March 2016)  and, writing as Catherine LaRoche, the historical romance novel Knight of Love.

The painting featured at the beginning of this post is of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely circa 1670.