Aphra Behn on the Move

deadline for submissions: 
September 15, 2024
full name / name of organization: 
Sorbonne Université/ Sorbonne Nouvelle/ Université Paris-Cité

Date and Location: 19-20 June 2025, Paris, France


Keynote Speakers: Claire BOWDITCH, Loughborough University, UK, Elaine HOBBY, Loughborough University, UK, Leah ORR, University of Louisiana, USA


With a new edition of Aphra Behn’s works on the go, and as Canterbury prepares to erect a statue in her honour, the moment seems ideal to re-examine Behn’s place and her work in criticism and in the collective imagination. Challenging the image of Behn as loyal to a conservative Tory imagination, this conference aims to emphasize movement, mobility, decentering, and innovation in her oeuvre.


Whether through adventure or escape, mobility is first and foremost spatial in Behn’s works, as in her own life. One of her most famous plays, The Rover (1677), signals movement and wandering from its very title: the hero, an exiled royalist, is mobile by necessity as well as choice. Many plays and novels invite the audience to shift their gaze elsewhere, to consider other spaces: Spain and Africa with Abdelazer (1676), the Netherlands with The Dutch Lover (1673) and The History of the Nun (1689), the New World with Oroonoko (1688) and The Widow Ranter (1690), or even the Moon and the cosmos with The Emperor of the Moon (1687) and A Discovery of New Worlds (1688), her translation of Fontenelle's bestseller. Imagined distant lands often offer the author an opportunity to critique her home country, yet Behn herself was also a great traveller, moving from France and Flanders to Surinam. This taste for linguistic and geographical de-centering fuels her intense activity as a translator and author.


In her works, spatial mobility often goes hand in hand with social mobility. Many of Behn’s characters step out of their initial place, whether in an economic, social or even sexual capacity – albeit temporarily in some cases. Socially mobile characters ranging from upstarts to colonial merchants abound in her works, even if these characters are not always depicted favourably. For example, Angellica Bianca is a charismatic courtesan who, driven mad by jealous rage, holds her lover at gunpoint in The Rover, denying feminine ideals of modesty and self-control; Oroonoko, an African prince, is torn from his native Africa to be enslaved in Surinam. Behn herself seems to have been a product of this mobility, from her native Kent to the very masculine social and economic world of London’s literary and theatrical scene.


The hybridity and thematic inventiveness of her works also contribute to their generic and formal complexity. Questions of representation, generic innovation, and dramaturgy are central to this discussion. On stage, one might consider the art of the actor and actress as well as innovations that can be either formal – variations on the figure of the rake, reflections on female agency, questions of speed and rhythm… – or technical – with the use of sliding scenery for revelations, or experiments on group scenes, blocking and movements… In fiction, Behn’s works are also hybrid as they borrow from letter-writing, history, gallant fiction (or the prosimetrum that was then fashionable in France) to create complex narratives with an unstable and often ambiguous narrative voice.


This conference will welcome proposals (in English) on the question of movement and mobility, as well as on the innovative aspects of Behn’s writing – particularly in poetry, drama, and novels. These proposals may address, but are not limited to, the following questions:


  • Representation of geographical and spatial mobilities, including wandering and forced mobilities; representations of distant lands, including the imperial other and colonial society; representations of international trade and diplomacy, representations of travel, confinement, of an impossible mobility;
  • Behn’s innovations compared to the theatrical and novelistic traditions she draws from; phenomena of generic hybridity;
  • Conservatism and innovation in gender representation; transgressions and boldness in representations of sexuality, love, and marriage; questions of self-fashioning and metamorphosis;
  • Behn’s assertion and hesitations in the construction of a public authorial persona and in political alignment;
  • Questions of social mobility and its limits;
  • Representation of “new” subjects such as science and curiosity;
  • Innovations in dramatic techniques; the role of song and dance in performance; the body language, blocking and stage business of actors; the modernization of diction;
  • Behn, France, the Low Countries, and the question of linguistic mobility;
  • Regarding reception, the question of Behn’s “modernity” in contemporary productions, particularly her “feminism”;
  • Innovations and new perspectives in Behn studies; the contribution of textual studies, new archives, etc.


To combine theory and practice, the conference will be accompanied by a theatrical intervention proposed by students.


(The conference is funded by the following research centres : UR 4398 PRISMES at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, l’UMR 8225 LARCA at Université Paris Cité, UR 4085 VALE and Initiative Théâtre at Sorbonne Université)


Organized by: Line COTTEGNIES, Sorbonne Université, Aurélie GRIFFIN, Sorbonne Nouvelle, Clara MANCO, Université Paris Cité


Abstracts (300 words), accompanied by short bios, should be sent before September 15, 2024, to:line.cottegnies@sorbonne-universite.fraurelie.griffin@sorbonne-nouvelle.frclara.manco@u-paris.fr.