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Campaign for Aphra Behn statue in Canterbury launched

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Campaigners are hoping to raise £125,000 for a statue of trailblazing author Aphra Behn to be erected in Canterbury.

Known as the first professional female writer in the English language, Behn is believed to have been born in Sturry in about 1640 and to have lived in the city until her late teens.

Author Aphra Benn
Author Aphra Benn

Her extraordinary life saw her gain fame as a playwright, poet, novelist and spy, before she died at the age of 48 and was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey.

Now, Canterbury charity A is for Aphra has been established with the ambition of seeing Behn “at last celebrated and memorialised” with a bronze effigy in her home city.

No permission has yet been sought, but possible locations for the statue include Westgate Gardens, outside the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, near the Marlowe Theatre, outside Westgate Towers, or in Solly’s Orchard.

A for Aphra chair Charlotte Cornell says it was her nine-year-old daughter Evelyn who came up with the idea.

“I was talking to my daughter about how amazing Aphra was, and she asked why there wasn’t a statue of her seeing as Aphra had grown up here,” said Mrs Cornell, a former English teacher.

“It was a lightbulb moment really.

A mock-up showing a possible location for the statue. Picture: A is for Aphra
A mock-up showing a possible location for the statue. Picture: A is for Aphra

“My daughter loves writing and theatre and I wanted her - and everyone else - to know Canterbury as a truly literary city, of Chaucer and Marlowe AND Behn and that we celebrate the groundbreaking achievements of our women, just as much as we celebrate those of our men.”

Behn is often regarded as the first English woman to have earned a living by writing.

Among her output was her 1688 Oroonoko - a tragic tale of slavery and nobility, which is believed to be one of the first-ever novels written in English.

She has been praised widely over the centuries by the female authors who followed in her footsteps.

Among them, Virginia Woolf said: “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.”

A is for Aphra chair, Charlotte Cornell. Picture: Charlotte Cornell
A is for Aphra chair, Charlotte Cornell. Picture: Charlotte Cornell

A is for Aphra has joined forces with the Canterbury Commemoration Society to launch its campaign to raise funds for the statue.

MP Rosie Duffield is among those backing the project.

She said: “Canterbury is a city full of treasures; we have our cathedral and Christopher Marlowe and we are steeped in the history of pilgrimage that Chaucer immortalised...yet even among all of that, Aphra Behn remains special.

“She was a pioneer for all women: she broke down boundaries, earning her own living off her own talents and remains a world-class feminist, writer and inspiration for many. She deserves a statue in our wonderful city.”

Also lending support are Royal Shakespeare Company actress Alexandra Gilbreath; Behn biographer and academic Janet Todd; television historian and HistFest founder Rebecca Rideal; and screenwriter Jessica Lambert.

Alex Gillbreath. Picture: Charlotte Cornell
Alex Gillbreath. Picture: Charlotte Cornell

Ms Gilbreath said: “It boggles my mind that this extraordinary playwright and poet, this iconoclast and original punk-rocker, has no permanent legacy.”

A for Aphra hopes to source ideas for the statue through summer workshops with schoolchildren, before creating a sculptors’ brief.

In autumn, sculptors will then be invited to tender expressions of interest and a longlist will be created.

Next year, the public will be invited to shortlist four of the sculptors’ initial ideas via an online poll.

Donations to the project can be made through A for Aphra’s website, which also invites people to vote on where the statue should be sited.

It also features school education packs on Aphra Behn, along with an online auction for a pair of tickets to the Wimbledon Ladies’ Final, including a champagne afternoon tea for two.

Visit www.aisforaphra.org.

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