Behn, Aphra (c. 1640–1689)

views updated May 29 2018

BEHN, APHRA (c. 16401689)

BEHN, APHRA (c. 16401689), English writer. Aphra Behn was the first female writer to produce a substantial dramatic canon and was also an innovator in prose fiction, and a highly accomplished poet. The details of her early life are unclear. Recent scholarship has concluded that she was probably baptized at Harbledown, near Canterbury, Kent, on 14 December 1640, the daughter of Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth (née Denham). Her mother seems to have been employed as wet nurse to Sir Thomas Culpepper, who may have provided Behn with an introduction to the nobility and an entry into royalist circles.

Behn indicates in several of her works that she spent time in Surinam during her youth or early adulthood. Although posthumous accounts of her life claim that her father was appointed governor there, it seems more likely that she made her own way, perhaps in service or as a spy or agent. Returning to England around 1664, Behn married a man later described as "a merchant of Dutch extraction." The marriage seems to have been brief, and Behn's shadowy husband may have died in the savage outbreak of plague that took hold of London in 16651666.

A clearer picture of her career emerges only in the mid-1660s. In August 1666 Behn was sent to Antwerp on a spying mission, using the code name "Astrea." She seems to have been recommended by Sir Thomas Killigrew, dramatist, theater manager, and sometime politician, perhaps indicating that she already had some involvement in the literary sphere. Whatever its political effects, the trip was financially disabling for Behn, and in 1668 she was forced to appeal directly to Killigrew and Charles II to preserve her from destitution.

On 20 September 1670 her first play, The Forced Marriage, was performed by the Duke of York's Company at Lincoln's Inn Fields, London. A total of nineteen plays have been attributed to Behn, the most famous of which include The Rover; or, the Banished Cavaliers: Parts I and II (1677, 1680), The Feigned Courtesans; or, A Night's Intrigue (1679), The City Heiress (1682), The Lucky Chance; or, An Alderman's Bargain (1686), and The Emperor of the Moon (1687). Although she experimented with tragicomedy and, in Abdelazer; or the Moor's Revenge (1676), with tragedy, Behn's characteristic mode was comedic. She frequently claimed an equal status as a writer with her male contemporaries. In a statement appended to The Lucky Chance she wrote: "had the Plays I have writ come forth under any Mans Name, and never known to be mine; I appeal to all unbyast Judges of Sense, if they had not said that Person had made as many good Comedies, as any one Man that has writ in our Age; but a Devil on't the Woman damns the Poet." Rather than trying to claim a separate status as a female poet, however, Behn demanded that the "Masculine Part the Poet in me" be taken seriously.

Although she made her living from plays and nondramatic prose, like many writers she seems to have viewed poetry as the more prestigious form. Behn wrote in a variety of genres, many of them generally associated with male poets: erotic poetry, social poetry, and outspoken political verse. She was a staunch royalist, writing in "Pindaric on the Coronation of James II" of the need for her muse to celebrate "the Royal HERO . . . Thy Godlike Patron, and thy Godlike King. " Her poems and plays constantly reworked contemporary political issues and the recent past, notably Sir Patient Fancy (1678) and The Roundheads: or, The Good Old Cause (1681), both staged at times of great political ferment.

Her best-known nondramatic works are Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister (1684) and Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave (1688). The former is a risqué and edgy experiment with the epistolary form, probably based on the affair between Lady Henrietta Berkeley and her brother-in-law Forde, Lord Grey of Werke. The latter is an account of the life and death of the noble African prince Oroonoko, taken to work as a slave in Surinam.

Although her literary output remained prodigious, Behn's health failed in the late 1680s; in an elegy to the poet Edmund Waller she presented herself as one "who by Toils of Sickness, am become / Almost as near as thou art to a Tomb." She died on 16 April 1689, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, a tribute that would probably have pleased her. "I am not content to write for a Third day only," she writes in The Lucky Chance, "I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero. "

See also Drama: English ; English Literature and Language .


Primary Source

Behn, Aphra. The Works of Aphra Behn. Edited by Janet Todd. 7 vols. London, 19921996.

Secondary Sources

Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn 16401689. London, 1977.

Goreau, Angeline. Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. Oxford, 1980.

Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. London, 1996.

Todd, Janet, ed. Aphra Behn Studies. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Wiseman, S. J. Aphra Behn. Plymouth, U.K., 1996.

Lucy Munro

Aphra Behn

views updated Jun 27 2018

Aphra Behn

English poet, novelist, and playwright Aphra Behn (c. 1640-1689) was the first of her gender to earn a living as a writer in the English language.

Aphra Behn was a successful author at a time when few writers, especially if they were women, could support themselves solely through their writing. For the flourishing London stage she penned numerous plays, and found success as a novelist and poet as well-and through much of her work ran a decidedly feminist strain that challenged society's restrictions upon women of her day. For this she was scorned, and she endured criticism and even arrest at times. Another similarly free-thinking female novelist of a more recent era, Virginia Woolf, declared that "all women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn," according to Carol Howard's essay on Behn in the Dictionary of Literary Biography,"… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."

A Childhood in Kent

It is likely that Behn was the infant girl Eaffry Johnson, born in late 1640 according to baptismal records from the church of St. Michael's in Harbledown, a small village near Canterbury, England. This region of England, Kent, was a conservative, insular county during Behn's youth, but the English realm itself was anything but calm during her era; Behn's fortunes and alliances would be tied to the series of political crises that occurred during the seventeenth century, and her literary output drew from and even satirized the vying factions. First came a Civil War that pitted Puritans against King Charles I; the monarchy was abolished with the king's beheading in 1649. Until 1658 England was ruled by Puritan revolt leader Oliver Cromwell, and upon his death in 1658 the monarchy was restored; hence the term for the era in which Behn wrote, Restoration England.

Behn was likely the daughter of a barber and a wet-nurse, and through her mother's care for the children of local landed gentry, the Colepeppers, Behn probably had access to some educational opportunities. Literary scholars agree that Behn most likely left England as a young woman with her family in 1663 when her father was appointed to a military post in Surinam, on the northeast coast of South America. It was an arduous journey, and some evidence suggests that Behn's father did not survive the trip. In any event, Behn, her mother, and sister stayed on at the English settlement for a time until a return trip home was possible, and the experience provided the basis for her most famous literary work, Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave.

Oroonoko in the Annals of English Literature

This novel, published only near the end of Behn's career in 1688, chronicles the tale of a cultivated, intelligent West African prince who speaks several European languages. He falls in love with a West Indian woman named Imoinda, who is also the lover of his grandfather, the king. Imoinda is sold into slavery, and Oroonoko is kidnapped by the English and brought to Surinam as a slave. Imoinda is also in Surinam and becomes pregnant by him. Oroonoko then leads a slave rebellion-an actual event from the era-but is captured, and falsely promised freedom for Imoinda and her unborn child. When this is rescinded, he kills her so she and his child will not fall into enemy hands, and dies by rather barbarous means in English hands at the conclusion. Some of the villains and heroes were actual names from the period, English men who held posts in Surinam before it became a Dutch colony.

Literary historians trace the development of realism in the novel back this 1688 volume. Realism is a literary style that uses real life as the basis for fiction, without idealizing it or imbuing it with a romantic bias, and it became prevalent in the nineteenth century. Behn's Oroonoko has also been termed groundbreaking for its depiction of the institution of slavery as cruel and inhumane, making it one of literary history's first abolitionist proclamations. Behn has been praised for her characterization of Oroonoko, a just and decent man who encounters some very cruel traits among his white enemies; critics point to him as European literature's first portrayal of the "noble savage."

Astrea the Spy

England's troubles with Holland played a decisive part in Behn's fortunes as a young woman. Following her return to England in 1664, she met and married a Dutch merchant by the name of Hans Behn. Though it has been hinted that her brief marriage may have been her own fiction-widows were more socially respectable than single women during her era-other sources indicate the unfortunate Hans Behn died in an outbreak of the bubonic plague that swept through London in 1665. Later, many of Behn's works satirized Dutch merchants, the cultural icons of the era when Holland was growing rich from trade and giving birth to the first class of savvy capitalists. Behn may have been well-off herself for a time, and became a favorite at the Court of Charles II for her ebullient personality and witty repartee.

But then Behn's fortunes took a turn for the worse. It appears that she suddenly became destitute-perhaps after her husband died-and in 1666 was summoned into the service of the King as an agent in the war against Holland. She went to Antwerp to renew contact with a former lover, William Scot, who was a spy in the city; Scot was an Englishman who was involved in an expatriate group who once again wanted to abolish the monarchy. Behn's mission was to get him to switch sides, and to send reports on behalf of Charles II back to England in invisible ink using the code name "Astrea." During her work as an infiltrator Behn learned of plans to annihilate the English fleet in the Thames and, in June of 1667, Dutch naval forces did so. Yet her English spymasters left her virtually abandoned in a foreign enemy nation with no money-for a woman in the seventeenth century, this necessitated a very distressing and extreme crisis. She probably borrowed a sum, managed to return to England, and still was unremunerated by Charles II. Her numerous pleading letters, which still survive, were met with silence. She landed in debtor's prison in 1668, but at this point someone paid her debt and she was released.

Writing as a Profession

It was at this juncture that Behn resolved to support herself. She moved to London, and took up writing in earnest-not a revolutionary act at the time for a woman, but to expect to make a living at it certainly was. In Behn's day, a woman possessed no assets, could not enter into contracts herself, and was essentially powerless. Financial support came from a woman's father, and then her husband. Some well-born women escaped such strictures by becoming mistresses; others did so by entering a convent. The Restoration was a somewhat debauched period in English history, however, and its libertine ways were well-documented. Behn's ambitions coincided with the revival of the London stage; the Civil War had darkened the city's already-famed theaters in the 1640s and the London plague further shuttered them, but as England regained stability Charles II re-instituted the two main companies. Behn began writing for one of them, Duke's Company at Dorset Garden, and her first play was produced in September of 1670. The Forc'd Marriage; or, The Jealous Bridegroom ran for six nights, a successful run, since playwrights usually went unpaid until the third evening's box-office take. The plot concerned a romantic comedy of errors, which was standard fare for the day.

Behn would pen a number of works for the stage over the next dozen years. Most were lighthearted tales of thwarted love and cavalier seduction. These included The Amorous Prince; or, The Curious Husband (1671); The Dutch Lover (1673), with its vicious caricature of a Dutch merchant; Abdelazer; or, The Moor's Revenge (1676); and her most successful play, The Rover; or, the Banish'd Cavaliers. This 1677 work is centered around an English regiment living in exile in Italy during the Cromwell era; one of its officers, Willmore, is the "rover" of the title, a libidinous sort for whom Behn seemed to have modeled on the similarly randy Charles II.

Found Fodder in Restoration Foibles

One of her final plays, The Roundheads; or, The Good Old Cause, was produced in 1682 and achieved notoriety for the way in which Behn's pen ridiculed a faction of republican parliamentarians. But Behn's strong opinions landed her in trouble that same year when she was arrested for writing a polemic on the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's illegitimate son and claimant to the throne. This also coincided with a merging of London's two main theaters and a subsequent decline of the medium. Behn then turned to writing novels. One of her best-known works was published in three volumes between 1684 and 1687, and was based on an actual scandal of the time. Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister was a thinly-disguised fictional treatment of the antics of one Lord Grey, who in 1682 eloped with his wife's sister; Grey was a Whig, or anti-monarchist, and would go on to play a real-life role in other political machinations between the throne and Parliament.

Behn's other novels include The Lucky Chance; or, An Alderman's Bargain (1686); a 1688 tale of a clever and remorseless woman serving as a spy in Holland, The Fair Jilt; or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda; and The History of the Nun; or, The Fair Vow-Breaker from the same year. This last work was Behn's fictional saga of Isabella, who breaks her vow of chastity, marries two men, and in the end slays them both. In the twilight years of her brief career, Behn earned a living from Latin and French translations, and also penned versions of Aesop's Fables and poetry-some of which was quite racy. Yet she still struggled financially, and historians surmise that her lack of funds forced her to submit to substandard medical care when her health began to decline, which only worsened the situation. During the winter of 1683-1684, she was involved in a carriage accident, and also may have been plagued by arthritic joints; from some of her letters it can be inferred that she was also suffering from some sort of serious illness that may have been syphilis.

Behn died on April 16, 1689. She was buried in the cloisters at Westminster Abbey, and her admirers paid for a tombstone with an epitaph that read: "Here lies a proof that wit can never be/Defence enough against mortality," which she probably penned herself. Behn's literary reputation then sunk into obscurity for the next few centuries, and in England's Victorian era she was vilified. In 1871 a collection of her works, Plays, Histories, and Novels of the Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn, appeared in print, and the Saturday Review, a leading London periodical of the time, condemned it as a sordid assemblage. The reviewer noted that any person curious about the forgotten Behn and her infamous works will "find it all here, as rank and feculent as when first produced." It was not until well into the twentieth century that literary scholarship restored Behn's contribution to English letters. "Aphra Behn is worth reading," wrote her 1968 biographer Frederick M. Link, "not because she ends or begins an era, or contributes significantly to the development of a literary genre or to the progress of an idea, but because she is an entertaining craftsman whose life and work reflect nearly every facet of a brilliant period in English literary history."

Further Reading

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 39: British Novelists, 1660-1800, Gale, 1985.

Duffy, Maureen, The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640-89, Jonathan Cape, 1977.

Link, Frederick M., Aphra Behn, Twayne, 1968.

Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Volume 1, Gale, 1984.

Todd, Janet, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Saturday Review, January 27, 1872.

Behn, Aphra

views updated May 17 2018

Aphra Behn



Clouded Origins.

The early years of Aphra Behn, the first Englishwoman to support herself by writing, are shrouded in some mystery. She was probably born in the village of Wye in the southeastern English county of Kent in 1640, but the identity of her parents is still not definitely known. Either when she was a teenager or slightly later in her early twenties she traveled to Surinam on the coast of South America. At the time, Surinam was an English trading colony, although it was later transferred to the Dutch. The experiences that Behn had while she was there formed the basis for her later novel, Oroonoko (1688). When she returned to London around 1664, she married Mr. Behn, a trader in the city whose family origins were Dutch and German. Her husband probably died about a year later, and in the years that followed she began to circulate in court circles where she was prized for her wit. Sometime around 1667, Aphra Behn went to Antwerp on a spy mission for Charles II; at this time, she amassed numerous debts in the king's service, and when she returned to England, she was imprisoned for them. She secured her release, but the king did not come to her aid. To pull herself out of her financial troubles, she began to write for the London stage, producing her first play, The Forced Marriage, in 1670. The play was staged by the Duke's Men and was a great success. In seventeenth-century England, it was generally customary for playwrights to receive box office proceeds for every third night that a play was performed. Since the theatergoing public in Restoration times was smaller than in Tudor or early Stuart times, most plays were staged for only a few nights. Behn's The Forced Marriage had six performances and its author consequently received the production's proceeds for two nights, a large sum that might keep a playwright sustained over months and even years.

Success and Failure.

In 1671, the company for which Behn wrote, the Duke's Men, moved into a handsome new theater designed for them by Sir Christopher Wren, and the author began to write plays at the rate of about one each year. Some of these (The Rover [1677] and The Second Part of the Rover) were successful, while a few others floundered and the author did not even receive one night's proceeds. Except for one tragedy and a tragicomedy, all her works were in the genre of "comedy of manners" that the Restoration theater favored. In particular, she often railed against the custom of arranged murders common in her day. Behn seems also to have been an astute judge of public tastes. In 1670, the wildly popular actress Nell Gwyn had retired from the stage after becoming the king's mistress; in 1677, Behn wrote the female lead in the comedy of manners play The Rover in an attempt to lure Gwyn out of her retirement and back to the stage. The actress obliged, helping to make the play a great hit. The following year, Behn wrote another work, Sir Patient Fancy, to include a role for the famous actress, and to honor her the playwright dedicated to Gwyn the publication of her work, The Feigned Courtesans in 1679. In these years Aphra Behn acquired her own dubious notoriety since her works were often filled with the bawdy humor and suggestions of sexual license that were favored at the time on London's stage. By the 1680s Behn's reputation as a dramatist of light comedies was well recognized, and her output of works was steadily increasing. Of all the Restoration dramatists, she ranked second only to John Dryden for the sheer number of her works. She produced three works, and another two in 1682. The last of these, Like Father Like Son, failed so miserably that the text was never published. In the prologue, too, she had included remarks that the censors found offensive, and she was arrested. While the outcome of her interrogation is not known, she was probably merely given a warning. But the incident, in tandem with the changing theatrical scene in London, seems to have discouraged Behn from writing for the theater for several years. Between 1682 and 1685, she apparently produced no works for the London stage. In the years leading up to her arrest, too, the company for which she wrote, the Duke's Men, entered on hard times, and by 1682 was forced to merge with The King's Men in order to survive. Behn's flagging productivity, then, may have been caused by these internal problems within London's theatrical companies. Whatever the reason, the author eventually returned to write for the theater, but only produced two more works for it in 1686 and 1687. Little is known about the circumstances of her early death in 1689, but she was immediately buried in Westminster Abbey, a sign of the high esteem in which she was held. This prestige and reputation persisted in many quarters, and two new plays were published after her death. Behn's plays were filled with sexual wit and bawdy humor, as were most of the works of Restoration playwrights. At the same time, reigning double standards meant that women were expected to exemplify higher moral standards than men. As a result, in the years following her death Aphra Behn had a dubious reputation for being a woman of loose morals and in the more restrained and conservative theatrical climate that developed in London after 1700, her works were rarely performed. Her career as a playwright, though, inspired a number of other women in the eighteenth century to imitate her example.


Derek Hughes, The Theatre of Aphra Behn (New York: Palgrave, 2000).

Frederick M. Link, Aphra Behn (New York: Twayne Publisher, 1968).

Jane Spencer, Aphra Behn's Afterlife (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Behn, Aphra

views updated Jun 11 2018

Behn, Aphra (1640–89). Dramatist and novelist, Aphra Behn was born on 10 July 1640 at Wye, Kent. Her early childhood, spent in the West Indies, later provided inspiration for her novel Oroonoko, a forerunner to Rousseau's ‘natural man’. Her marriage to a wealthy merchant in 1663 gave her entrance to the court of Charles II. In 1666, Charles chose Behn, then widowed, to carry out spying missions in Holland. She returned to England to concentrate on writing, her reputation as an intelligent and intrepid woman much enhanced. Acclaimed as the first professional female writer, Behn's output was prolific. Although much of her work was published anonymously to overcome male prejudice, fellow Restoration writers, including Dryden, held her in esteem. Behn's continual efforts to promote herself and her works eventually affected her health. She died on 16 April 1689 and was buried in Westminster abbey. A sour epitaph read, ‘Here lies a proof that wit can never be defence enough against mortality.’

Sue Minna Cannon

Behn, Aphra

views updated May 29 2018

Behn, Aphra (1640–89) English playwright, poet, and novelist – the first English professional female writer. A proto-feminist, Behn attracted much contemporary scandal. She produced 15 risqué comic plays, the most well-known being The Rover (1677). She also wrote poetry under an assumed name, but is principally remembered for the first English philosophical novel, Oroonoko (1688), an anti-slavery love story.