Authors: Aphra Behn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English playwright and poet

July 1640

Kent, England

April 16, 1689

London, England

Biography

Aphra Behn (bayn) has been called the first woman to support herself by her writing, yet her origins are so controversial and obscure that scholars are not even sure of her name. Some accounts claim that she was born Aphra or Aphara Amis, and one states that she was a barber’s daughter named Aphra Johnson. As a young woman she journeyed with her family to Suriname, where her father (or foster father) was to be the lieutenant-governor, but he died at sea. Apparently Behn and her mother and brother stayed for several years in Suriname, where she met William Scot, the son of the regicide Thomas Scot. About 1658, she returned to England, married a Dutch merchant named Behn, and was soon left a destitute widow.

Aphra Behn

(Library of Congress)

To support herself, Behn became a secret agent. She was sent to Antwerp by the British government to woo William Scot back to England with the promise of a pardon and to gather information for the government in their war against the Dutch. When she warned the British of the impending attack on London, she was ignored, humiliated, and dismissed unpaid. Because she had used her own money to live in Antwerp, she went into debt and ended up in a debtor’s prison.

Although she maintained herself by writing poetry and translating works from the French, Behn’s skill in drama first brought her monetary and literary success. Her first play, The Forced Marriage: Or, The Jealous Bridegroom, staged at the Duke’s Theater in 1670 and followed by two others, led to recognition with her most popular play, The Rover: Or, The Banished Cavaliers. She produced a parody of Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire under the title Sir Patient Fancy in 1678, but political opposition to her satire of the Whigs in The City Heiress: Or, Sir Timothy Treat-All (1682) and a prologue for the anonymous Romulous and Hersilia (1682) forced her to withdrawal from stage work for several years. Her 1686 comedy The Lucky Chance: Or, An Alderman’s Bargain was followed by The Emperor of the Moon in 1687.

Her theatrical success brought Behn celebrity status; she numbered famous actors and directors among her friends and possibly her lovers. She had her portrait painted by Sir Peter Lely; she became friends with Edmund Waller, the infamous duke of Rochester, and John Dryden, who published some of her poems and translations.

Behn is known as the author of Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave, the romantic tale of an African prince who leads a slave revolt in Suriname. Behn claimed that she was an eyewitness to the events, and the strength of the novel lies in her use of verisimilitude to present her themes of racial injustice, romantic love, heroic sacrifice, and abolitionism. Her other novels equally stress the plight of woman as outsider struggling for identity and freedom.

Heralded as an early feminist who created an ideal world in her poetry, Behn criticized Restoration society for its rigid double standard, embedding her social and literary criticisms in the prefaces of her plays. Most Restoration comedies were so suggestive as to be lewd, but Behn’s explicit sexual themes were judged doubly hard because they came from the pen of a woman. Although considered immoral for her irregular personal life and her writings, Behn hid herself behind the veil of the multiple personalities of her characters so well that, finally, few hard facts are available. She died, it is said, of starvation in London on April 16, 1689.

Author Works Drama: The Forced Marriage: Or, The Jealous Bridegroom, pr. 1670 The Amorous Prince: Or, The Curious Husband, pr., pb. 1671 The Dutch Lover, pr., pb. 1673 Abdelazer: Or, The Moor’s Revenge, pr. 1676 The Town Fop: Or, Sir Timothy Tawdry, pr. 1676 The Debauchee: Or, The Credulous Cuckold, pr., pb. 1677 The Rover: Or, The Banished Cavaliers, Part I, pr., pb. 1677 Part II, pr., pb. 1681 Sir Patient Fancy, pr., pb. 1678 The Feigned Courtesans: Or, A Night’s Intrigue, pr., pb. 1679 The Young King: Or, The Mistake, pr. 1679 The Roundheads: Or, The Good Old Cause, pr. 1681 The City Heiress: Or, Sir Timothy Treat-All, pr., pb. 1682 The Lucky Chance: Or, An Alderman’s Bargain, pr. 1686 The Emperor of the Moon, pr., pb. 1687 The Widow Ranter: Or, The History of Bacon of Virginia, pr. 1689 The Younger Brother: Or, The Amorous Jilt, pr., pb. 1696 Long Fiction: Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, 1683-1687 (3 volumes) Agnes de Castro, 1688 The Fair Jilt: Or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda, 1688 Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave, 1688 The History of the Nun: Or, The Fair Vow-Breaker, 1689 The Lucky Mistake, 1689 The Nun: Or, The Perjured Beauty, 1697 The Adventure of the Black Lady, 1698 The Wandering Beauty, 1698 Poetry: Poems upon Several Occasions, with A Voyage to the Island of Love, 1684 (includes adaptation of Abbé Paul Tallemant’s Le Voyage de l’isle d’amour) Miscellany: Being a Collection of Poems by Several Hands, 1685 (includes works by others) Translations: Aesop’s Fables, 1687 (with Francis Barlow) Of Trees, 1689 (of book 6 of Abraham Cowley’s Sex libri plantarum) Miscellaneous: La Montre: Or, The Lover’s Watch, 1686 (prose and poetry) The Case for the Watch, 1686 (prose and poetry) Lycidus: Or, The Lover in Fashion, 1688 (prose and poetry; includes works by others) The Lady’s Looking-Glass, to Dress Herself By: Or, The Art of Charming, 1697 (prose and poetry) The Works of Aphra Behn, 1915, 1967 (6 volumes; Montague Summers, editor) Bibliography Altaba-Artal, Dolors. Aphra Behn’s English Feminism: Wit and Satire. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1999. Examines Behn’s writings from the perspective of feminism. Includes bibliography and index. Anderson, Emily Hodgson. “Novelty in Novels: A Look at What’s New in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Studies in the Novel 39, no. 1 (Spring, 2007): 1-16. Explores the aspects of novelty in novels through a focused reading of Oroonoko. Argues that the novel demonstrates a concern for didacticism and its own newness that was characteristic of many eighteenth century novels. Carnell, Rachel K. “Subverting Tragic Conventions: Aphra Behn’s Turn to the Novel.” Studies in the Novel 31, no. 2 (Summer, 1998): 133-151. Discusses Behn’s experiments with the novel form and the strategies she employed to counter the blatantly misogynistic resistance to her participation in political exchange. Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640-1689. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977. This reliable, scholarly examination of Behn and the Restoration period in which she wrote informs readers about the social and political life that governed Behn’s style. Treats Behn as a serious artist, not as the superficial, almost unknown figure that earlier biographers painted. Generously illustrated with portraits, maps, and drawings of theaters. Goreau, Angeline. Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. New York: Dial Press, 1980. Goreau attempts to recover a heroic life in the story of the first woman to earn her living by her pen. The contradictions of a woman trying to be both independent and competitive in the theater world and at the same time trying to live the feminine roles of lover and wife occupy Goreau’s attention throughout the study. Presents the political background and the social scene of fashionable London in the 1660’s and 1670’s. Includes sixteen pages of portraits and theater scenes. Hughes, Derek. The Theatre of Aphra Behn. New York: Palgrave, 2001. An authoritative study of Behn’s dramatic oeuvre by a prominent scholar of Restoration drama. While concentrating on the playwright and her work, this study assumes the reader has a good understanding of the era and theater in Behn’s day. Hughes, Derek and Janet Todd, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Replete with tools for further research, this is an excellent aid to any study of Behn’s life and work. Includes two essays discussing various aspects of her novel Oroonoko. Hutner, Heidi. Colonial Women: Race and Culture in Stuart Drama. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Contains history and criticism of Stuart drama, including a section on Behn’s The Widow Ranter. Bibliography and index. Kreis-Schinck, Annette. Women, Writing, and the Theater in the Early Modern Period: The Plays of Aphra Behn and Suzanne Centlivre. Cranbury, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 2001. An analysis of the lives and writing of Behn and Mrs. Susannah Centlivre. Bibliography and index. Link, Frederick M. Aphra Behn. New York: Twayne, 1968. Provides a comprehensive survey of Behn’s novels, plays, poems, and translations, with the plays receiving the greatest attention. Includes a chronology, notes, bibliography, and index. O’Donnell, Mary Ann. Aphra Behn: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. New York: Garland, 1986. After a detailed description of more than one hundred primary works, O’Donnell annotates 661 books, articles, essays, and dissertations written about Behn after 1666. These works are listed chronologically. Indexed. Rivero, Albert J. “Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and the ’Blank Spaces’ of Colonial Fictions.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 39, no. 3 (Summer, 1999): 443-462. Discusses Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which first appeared as a serial in 1899 and was published in book form in 1902) and Behn’s Oroonoko. Both works feature characters that begin as civilized and go spectacularly native, and both attempt to preserve hierarchies of race and class while representing the impossibility of doing so in chaotic colonial settings. Sackville-West, Victoria. Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea. New York: Russell & Russell, 1927. Brief study of Behn’s life relies heavily on biographical passages in Behn’s novels. Whereas Sackville-West finds her subject engaging as a woman, she does not wholeheartedly admire Behn’s writing. An appendix lists Behn’s works and production or publication dates. Spencer, Jane. Aphra Behn’s Afterlife. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Examination of Behn’s works, including Oroonoko, emphasizes Behn’s influence. Features a discussion of the author’s reputation as a novelist. Includes bibliography and index. Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Speculative biographical work includes an introduction that summarizes efforts to study Behn’s work and life, her place in literature, her ability to write in so many different genres, and the biographer’s efforts to overcome the paucity of facts available. Features bibliographies of works written before and after 1800. Todd, Janet, ed. Aphra Behn Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Collection of essays is divided into four parts: Part 1 concentrates on Behn’s plays, part 2 on her poetry, part 3 on her fiction, and part 4 on her biography. Includes an introduction outlining Behn’s career. Wiseman, Susan. Aphra Behn. 2d ed. Tavistock, England: Northcote House, 2007. Biography examines Behn’s life and work. Discusses her works in all genres, including her novels Oroonoko and Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. Woodcock, George. Aphra Behn: The English Sappho. 1948. Reprint. Montreal: Black Rose, 1989. First published in 1948 in England, this book is now reprinted in its entirety with a short introduction by the author. Woodcock reflects that since writing the original version, he has come to see Behn less as a revolutionary and more as a participant in her times. Reviews the history of the debate about her childhood in Central America, her life as a spy, her prison experience, her career as a playwright, and her years of success.

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