Behn, Aphra 1640–1689
Aphra Behn is one of the more controversial and fascinating women writers of the English Renaissance. Virginia Woolf (1929) acknowledged Behn's contribution to the world of women's letters by suggesting "all women together ought to should let flowers fall upon [her] tomb … for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds" (1977, p. 63). Catherine Gallagher (1993), however, is less certain. She argues that Behn "did not take up the pen with fear and trembling, deeply impressed by its undoubted resemblance to a penis … Nor do her writings reveal a hidden female culture or firm bonds of solidarity between women." Janet Todd's biography confirms that Behn "is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks" (2000, p. 1). Her date and place of birth is uncertain, although it is thought she was born in Harbledon, on December 14, 1640. It is probable she grew up in Kent in the period of the Civil War and Commonwealth and was a royalist sympathizer. During her lifetime she was known as Aphra or Ann. But Astrea, the goddess of justice, was the name she adopted for herself as both spy and author.
To assist her family after the death of her father en route to a top administrative position in Surinam, the young Aphra Johnson married a German merchant, Mr. Behn (c. 1664). Little is known of Behn or the marriage, but by 1666 Aphra was an impoverished widow, a status that usefully enabled her to travel to Antwerp as a spy to gather information on Dutch activities in the West Indies for Charles II. Behn was poorly paid if at all, and she returned to England in 1667 penniless and confined in debtor's prison where she was forced to write to support herself. Her lack of visible means of support led many to conclude that she was a kept woman or prostitute, but there is no evidence for such a claim. Her "Memoirs" state that after Antwerp, her life was entirely dedicated to pleasure and poetry, writing, she said "for bread, fame and my cause." She is widely accredited with being the first English professional woman writer.
Behn supported herself mostly by writing for the theater. Nineteen plays were performed in her lifetime. The first was the witty The Forc'd Marriage (1670); the best known, The Rover (1677, 1681 parts 1 & 2), is still performed in the early twenty-first century. The theater, however, was never a secure living and Behn frequently endured financial crises. During her lifetime, her reputation was controversial but her talent never in doubt, winning her strong supporters like the Earl of Rochester, as well as powerful detractors. Later critics found her difficult to place. Algernon Charles Swinburne admired her as a "sweet songstress"; Julia Kavanagh argued that her plays were "so coarse as to offend even a coarse age." Behn's way of life as well as the topics she chose for her verse have often been criticized for their lack of propriety.
Behn is a writer of remarkable range. Her contemporary reputation was highest for her plays and prose writing; the latter has recently been acknowledged as contributing to eighteenth century developments in prose fiction. Her imperialist romance novella set in Surinam, Oroonoko, is notable; despite the Eurocentric beauty of its black slave hero, the piece lent its voice to the anti-imperial and anti-slavery movement of its time. Behn's provocative verse remains as problematic as it was in the seventeenth century, for different reasons. While she describes the circuit of female desire, she does not directly promote a female cause. In The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1988), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar include only five of her poems, all featuring a distinctly female voice or ungendered speakers. Janet Todd's more recent edition of the complete poems suggests, however, that it is hard to detect a consistent poetic persona or sustained voice, in part because many of the poems are loosely adapted from French originals often employing the male voice. Even her original pieces are frequently occasional, written as poetic exchanges among friends or in praise of another writer's work. A favorite poetic form is the pastoral, but, against the idealizing bent of the mode, Behn frequently depicts relationships that degenerate into something closer to the comic, as in The Disappointment.
Despite the controversial nature of her writing, Behn's professional reputation was such that she was asked to write a poem commemorating the ascension of William III to the British throne; she stood by her principles, however, as a partisan of the Stuart cause rather than the House of Orange, and refused. She died on April 16, 1689, shortly after William's coronation, and was buried in Westminister Abbey—an odd triumph! The inscription on her tomb is fitting: "Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be/Defence enough against Mortality."
Gallagher, Catherine. 1993. "The Networking Muse: Aphra Behn as Heroine of Frankness and Self-Discovery." Times Literary Supplement.
Hobby, Elaine. 1988. Virtue of Necessity: English Women's Writing 1649–1688. London: Virago Press.
Spencer, Jane. 1986. The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Todd, Janet. 1996. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Todd, Janet, ed. 1992–1996. The Works of Aphra Behn. 7 vols. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Todd, Janet. 1998. The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn. Columbia, SC: Camden House.
Woolf, Virginia. 1977. A Room of One's Own. London: Granada Publishing Limited. (Orig. pub. 1929.)