Editing Aphra Behn in the Digital Age (E-ABIDA)

Lead Research Organisation: Loughborough University
Department Name: English and Drama


Through systematically integrating digital and established methods, E-ABIDA will produce and disseminate a new, comprehensive edition of Aphra Behn (1640-89), one of the most important English Restoration writers, and one of the most significant women writers in any age or nation. Celebrated by Virginia Woolf as the first Englishwoman to earn her living by her pen, Behn was a leading dramatist, a pioneering author of prose fiction, a skilled poet, an influential literary editor, and a successful translator of poetry, fiction, and philosophical and scientific prose. Her diverse writings address such matters as the challenges facing women writers; colonialism and slavery; the cultural legacy of the classical world; scientific innovation; politics; and sexuality (on which she wrote with a frankness unmatched by any woman of her time). She sustained a 20-year career in the competitive London theatre, worked with leading writers such as Rochester and Dryden, and was published by eminent booksellers including Tonson. Few other writers of any period match these remarkable achievements across multiple genres, or were as well connected in the cultural institutions of their time. Her importance is recognised both by The National Archives (TNA) and The National Theatre (NT), who will work with E-ABIDA to mount a public exhibition about her work as a spy, and to stage one of her plays.

E-ABIDA will integrate digital and standard editorial methods so as to facilitate the swift production of a new Behn Complete Writings for publication by CUP. This will be both print and electronic (with the latter available in both old- and modern-spelling). Generously annotated, it will be accessible to both specialist and general readers; print-on-demand, modern-spelling selections will be available, enhancing its attractions to teachers and theatre companies. The edition will be based on a complete re-evaluation of Behn's literary canon, which includes several texts of contested attribution. The existing standard edition (ed. Todd, 1992-6) was produced with limited means and predates modern digital resources; pioneering in its day, it is lightly annotated, and inadequate to 21st-century needs.

A key dimension of the project is its integration of standard and digital methods, facilitated through a digital workspace. In Phase 1, the software on this platform will facilitate collaboration between contributing editors (CEs) by alerting them when other editors are working on cognate problems. It will also enable the General Editors (GEs) to oversee progress on the various works. In Phase 2, a public-facing website will be added, including: a searchable dataset of Behn's works; materials showing how scholarly editions are made; virtual representations of Behn's connections with theatres, printshops, coffee-houses, and other institutions. Study Packs for schools and workbench tools will be made available as a resource for other editorial projects.

To produce a global Behn edition for the 21st century requires a collaborative team of international, interdisciplinary scholars. E-ABIDA brings together exactly that, with CEs from Britain, France, Austria, North America and Australia. The PI, Co-Is, and RA1, based at two universities, have complementary research interests in literature and language, theatre and book history, and digital humanities. They span the career stages from PDRA to professor, and have worked together since 2013 to build partnerships with TNA and NT and to plan the edition's methods. Behn's works not only span a wide range of genres and subjects but also - given their engagement with New World exploration and exploitation, the relationship of literature with science, cultural difference and dialogue, and translation - have a strong worldwide appeal and present-day resonance. E-ABIDA will ensure this global recognition.

Planned Impact

The public
Behn offers a fascinating way into the 17th-century world, appealing, for instance, to those wanting to know what happened to theatre after Shakespeare; those seeking to discover women's history and writing; or those curious about how scholarly editions change our understanding of the past. Her inclusion in Lucy Worsley's popular Harlots, Housewives and Heroines documentaries (2012, and often re-broadcast) indicates her appeal to many television viewers. Our confirmed plans, outlined in Pathways to Impact, to work with The National Archives to mount an exhibition about Behn's spying, and with The National Theatre to stage The Widdow Ranter, are important initial steps in developing Behn's potential to captivate a very wide audience.

Theatres and their audiences
Through the digital and print resources produced by E-ABIDA, theatre companies will be able to access detailed knowledge to inform their staging of Behn's intriguing plays. Small, notable productions of Behn comedies have been staged in recent years (e.g. RADA's The Rover, 2015), but large professional companies are reluctant to risk older works that lack a continuous theatrical history, especially if accessible texts are not in print. Our edition, supported by materials on E-ABIDA's website, will provide clear texts for directors and actors. CUP has also agreed to provide a print-on-demand facility for Behn's works, through which companies will be able to obtain single plays rather than whole volumes of the edition. This will revive interest in plays that have a late 20th-century theatrical history, such as The Rover (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1986) and The Luckey Chance (The Royal Court, 1984; Derby Playhouse, 1993), as well as promoting others that do not (for instance The False Count, The Widdow Ranter). The National Theatre has already expressed a keen interest in working with us towards a production of a Behn play.

Libraries and archives
Important libraries worldwide hold early Behn books and manuscripts. Six major US ones - the Folger, Huntington, Houghton, Firestone, Illinois, and Ransom - have granted Fellowships to the PI and RA1 to access their collections during 2015-16. All require formal feedback from grantees to expand their own understanding of their collections, and we have also agreed to participate in their public engagement programs during our research visits. These arrangements will provide E-ABIDA with excellent opportunities to enable such institutions to gain a better understanding of their own Behn collections and consequently to re-present them for their user communities.

Behn appears on the current AQA and Edexcel A-level English syllabi. Her works are inspirational to school-students for many reasons. Her pioneering activity as an early professional woman writer, of which Virginia Woolf writes so eloquently - Behn 'earned [women] the right to speak their minds' - is a positive role-model. Given Behn's own modest social origins, her life and works provide a fine example of 'history from below' to set against accounts of the late 17th century that focus on monarchs and university-educated gentlemen. Her writing raises questions of race, colonialism, slavery, gender and sexuality, issues that still resonate today. Her work as a spy in the Low Countries in 1666-7 - attested by her letters (included in the edition) - sheds light on the period's complex politics, as well as on her own life. Study packs on the website will assist teachers in presenting Behn's writings in their classrooms. Learning to make full use of these and other E-ABIDA website materials will also extend students' digital literacy. We have begun discussions with Birmingham and Loughborough alumni who are teachers, with a view to trialling these materials in their classrooms.


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