Behn, Aphra (1640?–1689)

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Behn, Aphra (1640?–1689)

English Restoration dramatist and novelist, usually acclaimed as the first English woman to make her living as a writer. Name variations: Afra, Aphara, Ayfara; (pseudonym) Astrea. Pronunciations: Ben or Ban. Possibly born in Wye, Surrey, or Canterbury, Kent, around 1640; died in 1689 and is buried in Westminster Abbey; daughter of John and Amy Johnson, or Amis; married a city merchant of Dutch background named Behn, around 1658 (widowed by 1666); no known children.


The Forced Marriage; The Amorous Prince; The Dutch Lover; The Town Fop; Abdelazer; or, The Moor's Revenge; The Debauchée; The Rover; The Counterfeit Bridegroom; Sir Patient Fancy; The Feigned Courtesans; The Young King; The Revenge; The Second Part of the Rover; The False Count; The Roundheads; Like Father, Like Son; The City Heiress; The Lucky Chance; The Emperor of the Moon; The Widow Ranter; The Younger Brother.

Poems, novels and translations:

Poems upon Several Occasions; Oroonoko, or, The Royal Slave: A True History; Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister; (trans.) La Montre, or, The Lover's Watch; (trans.) The History of Oracles and the Cheats of the Royal Priests; (trans.) A Discovery of New Worlds; (trans.) Agnes de Castro; (trans.) Lycidas: Or, The Lover in Fashion; The Lucky Mistake; The Lady's Looking-Glass, to dress herself by; The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn: In One Volume … Together with The Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn, Histories, Novels, and Translations, written by the most ingenious Mrs. Behn; the second volume.

Aphra Behn wrote during the time of the English Restoration, the period immediately following the return of the Stuart monarchy to the throne in 1660. Restoration London was a lively place and playwriting the center of literary activity. Aphra Behn was exactly the kind of entrepreneurial young woman to have delighted in and, sometimes, profited from this new spirit of adventure in England. She had lived an exotic adolescence in the West Indies and had returned to London, at about age 18, to amuse the new king, Charles II, and his court with her wit. She married, was widowed, sent to Antwerp as a spy during the Dutch wars, then returned to London to earn her living writing for the newly restored theater.

Appropriately, perhaps, the details of Behn's birth and childhood are mysterious. She may have been born in Wye, Surrey, or Canterbury, Kent. Parish registers, her own comments later in life, and suggestive statements by her friends and acquaintances all link her birth to at least three conflicting locations. We are not even sure whether her family was well-born. Some evidence connects her to the local family of Lord Willoughby, and she seems to have been introduced at court through some upper-class connections, as Sir Thomas Killigrew, groom of the bedchamber to Charles II, evidently knew her mother. On the other hand, notations in a manuscript written by one of her younger contemporaries, Anne Finch , Countess of Winchelsea (1661–1720), imply that Behn's father was a barber and that she thus was more likely to have been born into a lower class. Generally—given the extent of Behn's evident education and her social sophistication, neither of which could have been easily acquired by a young woman from the lower classes in late 17th-century England—scholars have concluded that Behn's family must have been from the upper-middle class and fairly well off.

What is known is that sometime during Behn's adolescence, her father was appointed to the post of lieutenant-general of Surinam in the British West Indies, and the family left England, traveling with him to this exotic and decidedly non-British post. Behn's father died at sea, but the family settled in Surinam, in what Behn later described as the best house in the colony, a residence called "St. John's Hill." The young Aphra seems to have delighted in the tropical life she encountered there. Years later, she wrote a novel, Oroonoko, about it, describing with evident pleasure the animals of that colony. There were "marmosets," she recalled, "a sort of monkey … of a marvellous and delicate shape … [with] face and hands like a human creature; and cousheries, a little beast in the form and fashion of a lion, as big as a kitten … little parakeats, great parrots, macaws, and a thousand other birds and beasts of surprising forms, shapes and colours."

In Surinam, Behn began writing verse, read historical romances of the kind she would later write herself, and perhaps even composed her first play. She traveled the area, fell in love, kept a journal, and made the acquaintance of slavery. This last seems to have had the greatest effect on her. (The subtitle of Oroonoko is The Royal Slave.) Her observations on slavery are acute. In her later writings, she records in great detail the operations of the slave trade, noting in particular its most immoral practices, always in ironic juxtaposition with the professed teachings of the Christian tradition. In reference to Surinam, she notes sarcastically that the English colonists did not enslave the local Indian inhabitants, preferring to import Africans as slaves, because the English both feared the Indians, who vastly outnumbered them, and depended on them for their agricultural and hunting skills and for supplies for trading. As one scholar, Angeline Goreau , points out, Behn was insightful for her period in seeing slavery as purely a matter of power, rather than as an example of the "natural" superiority of one race over another.

The details of Behn's return to London are not clear. Perhaps her mother simply decided to go back; perhaps the family's return had something to do with the English resignation of Surinam to the Dutch. In either case, Behn apparently married shortly after returning to London but was evidently widowed quite early, as her husband's name does not appear in subsequent records of her life. Tradition has it that he was a Dutch merchant, possibly because state correspondence of 1666 shows that Aphra Behn acted as a spy in Antwerp during the Second Dutch War.

The extraordinary nature of Behn's employment in the context of spying should be stressed. "Public employments in the field and court are usually denied to women," wrote Bathsua Makin , one of Behn's female contemporaries. And indeed, there were no other women employed in any capacity (other than as servants) at the court of Charles II. Behn herself noted this episode in her life as "unusual" in one of her later poems:

By the … King's Commands
I left these Shades, to visit Foreign Lands;
Employed in public toils of State Affairs,
Unusual with my Sex, or to my Years.

We do not know what she actually did in Antwerp, but we do have records of her correspondence with English government officials indicating that not only was she not paid what was owed her for her services, but the ingratitude was compounded when that same government briefly imprisoned her for debt on her return.

It may be that it was the need to support herself that drove Behn to the writing of plays. The London stage was more receptive to women than it had ever been; for example, actresses rather than young boys were at last being permitted to play the female roles. Moreover, much of London's social life revolved around the theater, which had been closed during the years of republican rule; thus, its reopening, in 1660 with the Stuart restoration, had been a long-anticipated event. The audience had changed considerably since the early 1600s when plays had last been performed, and the new audience wanted variety, wit, social satire, and material more contemporary in characters and setting than Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists had supplied for the earlier era. New plays followed each other in quick succession, and playwrights were encouraged by the success of innovation to try their hands at comedy, tragedy, satire, whatever would sell. Initial runs were short, and there were only two theaters regularly producing plays; thus new plays were much in demand. It was the perfect moment for an innovative, industrious, and resourceful writer, and Aphra Behn was apparently just that kind of playwright.

According to her contemporaries, Behn seems to have written quickly and easily. "Her muse was never subject to bringing forth with pain, for she always writ with the greatest ease in the world, and that in the midst of company, and discourse of other matters," wrote one of her friends (and later literary executor), Charles Gildon. She probably gained entrance to the theater through either Killigrew, who had established one of the theaters, or through other well-connected friends, most likely the Howard family, whom she had known from childhood.

In either case, she learned her craft quickly. Her first recorded performance was the play The Forced Marriage; or, the Jealous Bridegroom (in 1670), which ran for six nights, a good run for that time and especially for a first play. Its popularity must have been particularly welcome for Behn; at this time, a playwright's royalties were the receipts of the box office for the third day's performance. Restoration audiences were notorious for their short attention spans and their demanding requirements for entertainment. Frequently plays did not reach that third-day performance, and thus their authors went unpaid.

Makin, Bathsua (1608–1675)

English educator. Name variations: Basua. Born Bathsua Pell around 1608; died around 1675; daughter of a Sussex rector; sister of John Pell (1610–1685), an eminent mathematician.

Bathsua Makin was a tutor for the daughters of Charles I, including Elizabeth Stuart (1635–1650), instructing them in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish; she also taught them mathematics. After the death of Elizabeth in 1650, Makin returned to the private sector as governess until she established a school of her own in London. In 1646, she met and became a friend of Anna Maria van Schurmann , and the two kept up a lively correspondence. Blending her ideas and that of Schurmann's, Makin published an anonymous polemic, in 1673, entitled, An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen in Religion, Manners, Arts and Tongues. The opening preface disingenuously begins with "I am a man myself, that would not suggest anything prejudicial to our sex," then goes on to show that if women's education were improved, men would reap the benefits.


Goreau, Angeline. The Whole Duty of a Woman: Female Writers in Seventeenth-Century England. NY: Dial Press, 1984.

Although Behn's plays as a whole seem to have been successful in supplying an adequate income for their author, it is also clear from her earliest plays that Behn had interests other than income. In the "Epistle to the Reader" from her third play, The Dutch Lover, Behn directly confronts what must have been one topic of gossip of the day, the writing of plays by women. Setting aside lesser, and to her mind possibly marginal, arguments against women writers, Behn goes directly to the point: plays are not the place for the narrow "learning" of men, what today we would call pedantry: "Waving the examination why women having equal education with men, were not as capable of knowledge, of whatsoever sort as well as they: I'll only say as I have touched before, that plays have no great room for that which is men's great advantage over women, that is learning," she asserts. She then goes on to prove her point: "We all well know that the immortal Shakespeare's plays … have better pleased the world than Jonson's works … and for our modern [dramatists] … I dare to say I know of none that write at such a formidable rate, but that a woman may hope to reach their greatest heights." Plays, she thus vigorously asserted, were for entertainment, not scholarly quibbling over "musty rules," and as such were as "intelligible and as practible by a

woman." Behn thus quickly gained a reputation for such vigor and directness and almost immediately became a member of the group of dramatists and critics who were to dominate the London stage during these years.

Behn was also, evidently, a threatening competitor and thus attracted her share of satirical attacks, most of which used references to her sex as part of the satire. Yet she also formed some secure and influential friendships. The Earl of Rochester, the leading actress Elizabeth Barry , the writers John Dryden, Thomas Otway, and Edward Ravenscroft were all supporters throughout her life. Moreover, the fact that she regularly contributed verses or commentary to collections appended to the writings of others also suggests that she was very much at the center of the production of and discussion about Restoration drama.

During these years, she also had a rather un-happy love affair with a cold, bisexual lawyer named John Hoyle. This certainly seems out of keeping with the recorded character and personality of Aphra Behn. According to the memoir (by an allegedly intimate friend) that was appended to the 1696 collection of her Histories and Novels, Behn was:

of a generous and open temper, something passionate, very serviceable to her friends in all that was in her power, and could sooner forgive an injury than do one. She had wit, honor, good humor, and judgment. She was a mistress of all the pleasing arts of conversation, but used 'em not to any but those who loved … plain dealing. She was a woman of sense, and by consequence a lover of pleasure.

Nevertheless, the attachment to Hoyle continued almost to the end of her life, and he is alleged to have been the author of the verses on her tombstone in Westminster Abbey.

The rest of Behn's life was spent writing for the theater. Her play The Rover; or, The Banish't Cavaliers was her most popular, both in her lifetime and subsequently, and she wrote a sequel to it late in her career. At some point, she also began writing novels and doing translations of French romances into English. Her most popular novel, Oroonoko, depends on those early years in Surinam. As the first treatment of black slavery in English literature, it has remained in print to the present day.

Not only did Behn achieve success as an author, she did it without apologizing for, or, at the other extreme, trading on her oddity as a woman writer. Throughout her life, she met criticism head on. Nine of her plays call attention to her sex, and three have what we might describe as feminist prefaces. As Katharine Rogers , one of her modern biographers, notes: not the least of Behn's contributions to literary history is the fact that she successfully demonstrated that a woman could indeed succeed as an author.

I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero.

—Aphra Behn, Preface to "The Lucky Chance"

Nevertheless, Aphra Behn did die in poverty. Her impoverished circumstances, however, were more a consequence of the demise of the theater than of a lessening in her talent and determination. In 1685, when Charles II died, the theater was operating in severely reduced circumstances, and many of Behn's friends had either died or were suffering financial reversals similar to hers. Indeed, at the end of her own life, Behn borrowed money, a debt which she could ill afford, to help a dying friend. If she died in poverty, however, she did not die in obscurity. Burial in Westminster Abbey has traditionally been the highest tribute that England pays to her literary figures. Aphra Behn lies in the Abbey, near to the greatest of her male contemporaries, John Dryden.


Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, The Rover and Other Works. Edited by Janet Todd. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Cameron, William J. New Light on Aphra Behn. Auckland, NZ: University of Auckland Press, 1961.

Gildon, Charles. "An Account of the Life of the Incomparable Mrs. Behn." Prefixed to The Younger Brother. London: Printed for J. Harris & Sold by R. Baldwin, 1696.

Goreau, Angeline. Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. NY: Dial Press, 1980.

Hutner, Heidi, ed. Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

"The Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn, written by One of the Fair Sex." Prefixed to The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn: In One Volume … London: Printed for S. Briscoe, 1696.

Rogers, Katharine. "Aphra Behn," in Dictionary of Literary Biography 80: British Dramatists, 1660–1800. NY: Bruccoli, Clark, Layman, 1993.

Woodcock, George. The Incomparable Aphra. London: Bordman, 1948.

suggested reading:

Brown, Laura. "The Romance of Empire: Oroonoko and the Trade in Slaves," in The New Eighteenth Century. Edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown. NY: Methuen, 1987.

Cotton, Nancy. Women Playwrights in England, c. 1363–1750. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980.

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

Gosse, Edmund. "Behn, Afra, Aphra, Aphara, or Ayfara," in Dictionary of National Biography. London, 1885.

Mendelson, Sara Heller. The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. Brighton: Harvester, 1987.

O'Donnell, Mary Ann. Aphra Behn: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. NY: Garland, 1986.

Pearson, Jacqueline. The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women and Women Dramatists, 1642–1737. London: Harvester, 1988.

Spencer, Jane. The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Todd, Janet. The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction 1660–1800. London: Virago, 1989.

——. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

——, ed. The Collected Works of Aphra Behn. 7 vols. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University, 1992–96.


Summers, Montague, ed. The Works of Aphra Behn. 6 vols. London, 1915.

Todd, Janet, ed. The Complete Works of Aphra Behn. Vol. 1. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

Ann Hurley , Assistant Professor, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York