Last reviewed: June 2018
English playwright and poet
April 16, 1689
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
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.