Behn, Aphra 1640–1689 English Writer

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Behn, Aphra
English writer

Aphra Behn, playwright, novelist, and poet, was the first Englishwoman to make an independent living as a writer. She was the most productive female author of the late 1600s, a period that witnessed a surge of female writers in England. Many of her works highlight the position of women in English society.

Behn lived an adventurous life. As a young woman, she traveled with her family to the South American colony of Suriname. In the 1660s, she served as a spy for the English crown. Behn gained fame as a writer by composing 16 plays for the English stage during the 1670s and 1680s. Behn's plays are typical of the period, featuring bawdy* language and sexual situations. However, her female characters are better developed than those of her male contemporaries. She also addressed serious issues, such as women's lack of power in romantic relationships and the role of the monarchy in England.

Along with her plays, Behn penned several poems and some of England's earliest novels. Her novel Oroonoko; or, the Royal Slave (1688) describes a slave revolt she witnessed during her visit to Suriname. It focuses on some of her favorite themes, such as the importance of honor and the evil influence of wealth. In 1688 Behn translated the book A Discovery of New Worlds, by French author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. This work featured a young woman who pursued scientific studies. However, Behn noted that the author seemed to mock his main character's intellect by making her "say a great many very silly things."

(See alsoEnglish Language and Literature. )

* bawdy

indecent; lewd