Imagining Mayfair – Aphra Behn
Mayfair is famous as an urban village in London which was uniquely owned and built by women, for women, and remains central to the history of women everywhere as the birthplace of feminism, the centre of Roman Catholic London and a shopping Mecca for the world.
Home to royals, eccentrics, writers and artisans, it was Aphra Behn; writer actress and spy to King Charles II’s court who first ignited the imagination of ordinary Londoners with her character’s antics in the newly fashionable drawing rooms of Mayfair.
The history of Mayfair began in 1660 during the Restoration of King Charles II and his wife Catherine, the last Roman Catholic Queen. At this time it was known simply as The Hundred Acres, a parcel of land owned by Mary Davies who was married at aged 13 to Sir Thomas Grosvenor and Mayfair’s street layout and buildings were designed by a woman architect, Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham and her talented young pupil, Sir Christopher Wren.
It was a great time for women. King Charles II and his brother King James II were both great lovers of women, both physically and intellectually, as their education in exile had been heavily influenced by the famous proto-feminist and writer Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Unsurprisingly, Mayfair became the birthplace of women’s emancipation through the Mayfair Bluestocking Salons she held in her Mayfair house from the 1670’s onwards.
Like any village Mayfair has a grocers – Fortnum and Masons on Piccadilly, its annual fete in Mount St Gardens, gossip whispers through the local butchers Allens on Mount St, post office queues on Albermarle St and Grosvenor St and in pubs like the Audley on the corner of South Audley and Mount St – some of the gossip even finds its way into print in the local rag The Mayfair Times.
Mayfair also has its priests on Farm Street where Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh were always sure of good conversation and fine wine. Like any village it has its local school and church in Mount St Gardens which has nearby Claridges and The Connaught opposite for celebrations after hatches matches and dispatches.
But Mayfair is also a village of royal palaces and its parks are St James’s, Green Park and Hyde Park. For Mayfair is a village unlike any other in that it houses the world’s finest galleries, hotels, shops, restaurants and the finest men’s bespoke tailors, gunmakers and private members clubs. Non of this is surprising when one remembers that it is a village built by women for women – as women of taste and refinement appreciate the finer things of life. We know how to live and we like to ensure that our men are well suited and booted and ensure our men have quality guns, cigars and port, and private clubs where they can get a chop on cook’s night out.
Mayfair, more so than any other village, let alone city in the world, represents the world as women would have it, especially perhaps Catholic women, for Mayfair remains the centre of eccentrics and Catholicism. For Mayfair – this urban village of all the finer things in life – was first implanted into the imagination of Restoration London as the place of lotus eaters by a woman playwright called Aphra Behn.
The village of Mayfair was created from a woman’s dowry – Mary Davies – designed by a lady architect, Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham but it was the playwright Aphra Behn who first breathed the idea of Mayfair the enclave of the gentry into the lungs of the popular imagination in her play The Rover 1678.
Before this, most Londoners were largely unaware of the of the massive building project of King Charles II who, with his architect Lady Elizabeth Wibraham and builder Sir Christopher Wren had been creating a fashionable enclave on the area west of Covent Garden hitherto known as Mary Davies’ hundred acres since 1660.
Aphra Behn, the most prolific and popular playwright of her age who had more plays put on in the West End than any other playwright of the age – including Dryden, had her characters paint pictures in words describing the luxurious drawing rooms and salons of the houses of Mayfair and the naughty goings on there. It was Aphra Behn who lit the match in the imagination of Londoners, defining Mayfair as the most exclusive enclave of the world. From that point on Londoners and soon the world knew, that to be a person of quality you must dine in Mayfair.
Aphra Behn would be at the very top of any list of the women who changed, not just the way women are perceived in the world, but in what they dare to dream and do.
The name of Aphra Behn still resonates today, over three hundred years after her death. In Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own (1929) Woolf declared that, ‘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.’
Aphra Behn’s extraordinary life epitomises the Restoration Era more than anyone else. In this new age where women could act and write and think, she experienced it all.
Her daring do exploits started from humble beginnings as the daughter of a wet nurse and barber in Kent. By the time she was 27 (code name Astrea) had led a slave rebellion in the West Indies, saved the British fleet from a Dutch attack and endured debtors prison.
Her cheeky wit and charm made her a court favourite but her greatest fame came as the most prolific and celebrated playwright of the age. For her life was peppered not just with derring do adventures and glory but danger, heart ache and multiple spells in debtor’s prison.
Aphra Behn’s life spanned the tyranny of Cromwell, the decadence and opulence of the Restoration and even saw a return to Puritan values under Queen Mary and her consort William the IV the misshapen little Protestant chap from Holland whom King Charles II had married her off to in order to quell the murmurs of dissent at his attempts to enable all men to worship as their conscience willed – which many feared would give free reign to Jews and Catholics as well as Protestants alike.
But not even the fist of William’s puritanical reign could quell Aphra Behn’s indomitable wit nor the laughter and imagination of her West End audience.
Aphra was nine years old when Cromwell ordered the murder of King Charles I in 1649 and saw first hand the misery and violence of life under Cromwell’s purge on Catholicism, tolerance, the arts and women from 1649-60.
It was not a good time to be either a woman, a writer, a Catholic or a thinker or artist or individual of any kind. The intolerance and barbarity of the Cromwell tyranny shaped the young Aphra, ensuring Behn’s commitment to the Tory and Royalist cause.
She was terrified of a return to the Democratic Puritan regime that had seen theatres and ale houses closed and women banned from wearing make-up or decoration or holding opinions other than those their husbands gave them. She had vivid memories of soldiers roaming the streets scrubbing women’s faces until they bled or putting their faces in metal caged burkas for being cheeky to men.
Aphra believed that King Charles II and his brother James, as flawed as they were, offered both greater personal and artistic freedom, especially for women. “Aphra Behn did not relish return to the old times and was horrified by any growth in City or democratic power — she never wished to see constraining sexual morality linked with politics again” Janet Todd (Life, of Aphra Behn)
We know little about why Aphra Behn set sail for Surinam in 1663. It was a Dutch territory. She may possibly have been acting as a spy for King Charles II. Some historians believe she may have been a Catholic but though she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Catholic King James I there is no hard evidence of her faith.
Her time in Surinam profoundly affected her and it was believed at the time that she may have led a slave rebellion. Whether this was true or not she was certainly horrified by the practice of slavery and would later go on to write Oroonoko the tale of an enslaved African prince, which she billed as “a true story”.
When she returned to London in 1663 she married John Behn who may have been Dutch. The marriage was not a success and he died a year later leaving her saddled with debt.
In need of funds she offered her services to King Charles II. Court documents prove that in 1666 she was employed by King Charles II as a spy in Antwerp under the code name Astrea – Agent 160, and her letters to the King penned in lemon juice saved the British Fleet from destruction when she alerted the king to the Dutch plans.
Remarkably, having saved the fleet, Astrea was abandoned in Antwerp, unpaid for her services and penniless. This would be a perilous situation for a woman at any time let alone a foreign agent in a time in which women could not even sign a contract and were completely reliant on men for money.
Using her wits she managed to make her way back to London in 1668 where she was thrown in debtor’s prison for her husband’s debts.
Despite his oversight in paying Agent 160, Court documents of the time show that King Charles II was inordinately fond of Aphra Behn and delighted in regaling court with stories of her greatly admired cheeky wit. Ultimately one of his friends, finding himself in debtors prison for his own unpaid gambling debts, heard of Aphra’s situation, and upon his release paid her debts, but her harrowing experience in prison forged her determination never to rely on any man, even a king, for money again.
Taking up the quill she set out for fame and wrote her way to success and into history books as the most prolific playwright and authoress of the Restoration according to Pepys and Evelyn’s diaries and she was admired greatly by Dryden the second most popular and prolific playwright.
As a spy, playwright, actress, author, poet and court darling to King Charles II and later King James I, Aphra became the inspiration for women everywhere who dare to dream.
Of all her achievements, Aphra Behn’s writing remains the crown. She was the first celebrity writer in history – in fact it is difficult now to imagine just how brightly her star shone in her day. Her derring do and literary wit inspired many poems and literary works in praise of Aphra (Astrea) by other women. She was certainly a hot topic in the early Mayfair Salon’s of The Bluestocking Margaret Cavendish and others.
Aphra Behn first blazed onto the London stage as both playwright and actor in her play The Forc’d Marriage in 1670. From then on her plays dominated the theatre. In her rom-com, The Rover she coined the now famous phrase, “she stoops to conquer,” which went on to become the name of a play in its own right by Oliver Goldsmith.
It was through the dialogue in Aphra Behn’s plays that she tantalised Restoration London with the idea of Mayfair and St James’s, areas hitherto unknown to ordinary Londoners.
Many had heard and perhaps even attended the annual St James’s fair which was held in May until the reign of Queen Anne (reigned 1702 -1714) when Mayfair’s fashionable residents finally managed to have it banned after years of struggle. It is widely believed that the fair of showmen held north of Piccadilly in May is perhaps how Mayfair acquired its name.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666 had destroyed most of the Old City of London behind the Old Roman Walls, King Charles II moved his court from Westminster to St James’s Palace and escalated his West End building plan entrusting his friend Henry Jermyn, First Duke of St Albans with the task of turning the area north of St James’s Palace into a shopping paradise.
Sir Henry Jermyn enlisted the senior architect Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham and her young apprentice the builder Sir Christopher Wren to draw up plans for a vision of this new London which become the London we know today. Between them they designed an area of glass fronted arcades similar to the Burlington Arcade on Oxford Street none of which survive today. It is a sad reflection on history as written by men that over 18 of the 58 remaining buildings attributed to Sir Christopher Wren were in fact designed entirely by Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham and the rest would have been drawn up under her guidance.
From its inception St James’s and Mayfair have throbbed with the history and spirit of the Restoration. The area’s decadence and tolerance and its unique history of bold and eccentric women, authors, spies, Roman Catholics, and Royals continues to throb with the esprit of Aphra Behn, the legendary Inky Scribe of Restoration London. It is this vibrant energy that continues to draw millions of people and pounds to its tills every day.
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