Maureen Duffy at 80: In Times Like These


Header image: "Aphra Behn," by the Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Peter Lely, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Karen Gevirtz gives an account of Maureen Duffy’s role in opening up Aphra Behn studies, and indeed, in discovering an approach to female scholarship which has transformed Karen’s academic work.

We find out how Maureen Duffy has brought people together around the world in thought, language and action through the Aphra Behn community, to work together towards a literary canon that is representative of all voices - not least women - in a way that frees intellectual work about our heritages and histories from closed offices or libraries and brings it out into the world.

Katie Webb, Editor

For Maureen Duffy, Poiêtes

by Karen Gevirtz

To speak in celebration of Maureen Duffy, I should begin with a few words about the 1980s and early 1990s in the United States. That was a tremendously exciting time, when the “culture wars” were being fought overtly and everywhere, from talk shows, cocktail parties, classrooms and college quadrangles to newspapers, New York Times best-selling books, curricula and syllabi. It seemed that everyone recognized the role that literature played in creating a person and creating a society, and that everyone was invested in shaping what we read in order to shape who we are. Huge tectonic changes were taking place in the canon. When, in my freshman year of college, I took the two-semester History of British literature sequence required of English majors, I read two women: Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. By the spring of my senior year, I could take a course in eighteenth-century British women writers that enrolled twenty students: full capacity.

For me, this revolution was thrilling. As William Wordsworth put it in The French Revolution, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” Vast and varied realms of possibility opened up—what one could be, who and what one could know, what one could say (or even think) and how one could say it. Academically, the changing canon, not to mention the idea that the canon could change, offered the same vast and varied possibilities. That course in eighteenth-century British women writers, for example, revealed that there were many women who wrote, that they did not all say or think the same things, and that the aesthetic standards and literary methods that I had been trained to apply were highly political and contingent. There was room for discovery and innovation. In fact, there was a need for them. Equally important, the revolution as I experienced it still maintained a high standard of intellectual rigor. This was a revolution based on thought, research and reasoning. It wasn’t just real, it was scholarly.

Karen Gevirtz's copy of Aphra Behn's Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister

What I came to understand later is that I and my cohort owe a great debt to Maureen Duffy for the fact of our existence. In college, I felt her influence but was unaware of whose it was or whence it came. In graduate school, however, her name whispered through everything. Aphra Behn? Well, of course you must read Maureen Duffy. Feminist literary history rather than feminist theory? Go to Maureen Duffy. Want to be a scholar of Restoration (as we called it then) and Eighteenth-Century British women writers? You can start with an example like Maureen Duffy. Maureen’s research and keen insights showed Aphra Behn worthy if not demanding of further study. Her method proved that feminist literary history could be done, and in a way that silenced accusations that feminist scholars disguised wishful thinking as legitimate inquiry. (It also chastised those critics who really did indulge in wishful thinking). I cannot function without her Virago edition of Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. There have been other editions since hers and I certainly need them, too. Still, by now my Duffy edition is covered with notes, from the exhilarated exclamation points of graduate school to the comments and connections penciled in during the last few months. It bristles like a porcupine with sticky notes. It feels good in the hand, an old friend. It epitomizes Maureen’s work for me: accessible and revelatory.

Not that she did it on her own. She would probably be the first to remind me that it was the thorough, careful, innovative research of a cadre of scholars, including her, that catalyzed the debates and revelations that made my world. She has been vital to the development of Aphra Behn scholars, and scholars of women in the late seventeenth- through early nineteenth centuries, from a vulnerable collection of individuals to a vibrant, self-supporting community. Maureen has been significant to efforts to promote and support the study of Aphra Behn, and to promote and support a sustaining community for that study. When the Aphra Behn Society for Women in the Arts, 1660-1830, founded in the U.S., proved too unwieldy to function as a trans-Atlantic venture, Maureen, Mary Ann O’Donnell, and the late Bernard Dhuicq established a sister organization in Europe, with sister being a crucial adjective. Both organizations are dedicated to thorough scholarship, to inquiry and exploration, to collaboration and collegiality and mentoring. We do not compete or imperil the other’s existence; on the contrary. Impelled by Maureen and Elaine Hobby, who organized the Aphra Behn Society of Europe’s 2012 conference at the University of Loughborough, the societies and communities have drawn closer together.  Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world continue to work together and consider ourselves one community, not several. Behn’s spirit—her smarts; her wit; her love of language, camaraderie, and a good party—is alive and well when her scholars gather, a trait programmed into our collective DNA long ago as we became a field and a community.

In October, 2013 I had the chance to travel with Maureen to the Aphra Behn Society’s biennial conference, that year in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then back to New Jersey, where she gave a reading at my university. Her novel had just come out that week; her book of poems, Environmental Studies, had just been nominated for an award. It was a tremendous time for her but the very last thing one could lay to her charge was that she was thinking of herself. We spoke about Bernard Dhuicq, whose memorial service was coming up. We discussed American and British politics, the developments in our respective educational systems that concerned and outraged us, the need to reassert the value of originality and creativity in an age of digital reproduction and 140-character limits, how one could track down Aphra Behn’s mysterious husband, seventeenth-century convents in the Low Countries, the vital work of advocating for authors in the international copyright negotiations.

It was a week full of powerful moments but one in particular seems to epitomize the many aspects of Maureen’s impact. At the conference’s closing banquet, Maureen gave a talk about her life with Aphra Behn. A combination of memoir, reflection and poetry, Maureen offered her audience a love letter: to her family, especially her mother; to history; to Aphra Behn; to poetry; to language; to those who are stifled and to those who recover their voices. After the standing ovation for Maureen, I found myself in line at the bar in a knot of scholars of my generation and the one just after ours. The conversation began with how moved we were, how beautifully she had spoken, what a privilege it was to be there. We agreed that it was the kind of event that years later you would say, “I was at Maureen Duffy’s talk at the Aphra Behn conference in Tulsa.” Then the conversation modulated: what were we going to do, thus inspired and moved? What kind of scholarship did we resolve to invest or re-invest in? What kind of teaching? What could this experience help us to do back in our homes, departments, classrooms? We proposed a special issue of a journal, trading syllabi, helping someone’s dissertator with a challenging aspect of her work. In paring herself down to the essence, Maureen had pared us down to our essence, too. At the bar, wiping our eyes, deeply moved, nevertheless we were at it again, working toward a vision of the future catalyzed and inspired—again and still--by Maureen.

My favorite poem in Environmental Studies is “Parakeets.” Here, Maureen simultaneously advocates for the different, the creative, the “jungly brilliant / … daubed in emerald / and ruby-beaked,” and brings charges against the staid, conventional, and closed-minded, “the usual / blackbirds psalming from the unleaved branches.” Frightened and hostile, the “natives squawk” that the “frolicking, raucous” newcomers drown out their “drab, muted calls.” This may not be what Maureen had in mind when she wrote the poem, but I can’t help reading it as a celebration of the troublesome, determined, different woman scholar, the one who insists on her own voice and makes everyone else listen, too, because what we have to say is not just a “new commotion,” but also “jungly brilliant.” We scholars made possible by Maureen and others like her are parakeets in the bishop’s garden—because although the 1980s are over, the canon wars are not. On that evening in Tulsa, Maureen did it again, reminding us that it is never just an intellectual exercise. What she has been doing and saying for the academy is what she has been doing and saying for literature, language, authors, women, people: rendering audible hitherto silenced voices, revealing the beauty in their speech, creating a world in which the power of language and of presence belongs to the many, not the few. A poet and a maker, truly.