Portrait of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely
|Died||16 April 1689 (aged 48)|
Aphra Behn (baptised 14 December 1640 – 16 April 1689) was a prolific dramatist of the English Restoration, the first English professional female literary writer. Her writing contributed to the amatory fiction genre of British literature. Along with Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood, she is sometimes referred to as part of "The fair triumvirate of wit."
Life and work 
Early life 
Information regarding her life is scant, especially regarding her early years. This may be due to intentional obscuring on Behn's part. One version of Behn's life tells that she was born to a barber named John Amis and his wife Amy. Another story has Behn born to a couple named Cooper. Apocryphally, she was born in 1640 in Harbledown near Canterbury and baptised on 14 December. The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn (1696) states that Behn was born to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham, a wet-nurse.  There is little verifiable evidence to confirm any one story.  Johnson was related to Francis, Lord Willoughby who commissioned him as lieutenant general of Surinam.
In 1663, Aphra may have travelled with Johnson to Surinam. He died on the journey, however his wife and children spent some months in the country. During this trip Behn is reputed to have met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, Oroonoko. The story may be apocryphal; the veracity of her journey to Suriname has been called into question.
Shortly after her return to England from Surinam in 1664, Aphra may have married Johan Behn, a merchant of German or Dutch extraction. As with much of her life, there is little evidence for the facts of her marriage.  He died or the couple separated soon after 1664, however from this point the writer used the moniker "Mrs Behn" as her professional name. 
Behn may have had a Catholic upbringing. She once commented that she was "designed for a nun" and the fact that she had so many Catholic connections, such as Henry Neville who was later arrested for his Catholicism, would have aroused suspicions during the anti-Catholic fervour of the 1680s  and the Exclusion Crisis. She was a monarchist, and her sympathy for the Stuarts, and particularly for the Catholic Duke of York may be demonstrated by her dedication of her play The Rover II to him after he had been exiled for the second time. Behn was dedicated to the restored King Charles II. As political parties emerged during this time, Behn became a Tory supporter. 
By 1666 Behn had become attached to the Court, possibly through the influence of Thomas Culpepper and other associates. The Second Anglo-Dutch War had broken out between England and the Netherlands in 1665 and she was recruited as a political spy to Antwerp on behalf of King Charles II.  Her code name is said to have been Astrea, a name under which she later published many of her writings. Her chief role was to establish an intimacy with William Scot, son of Thomas Scot, a regicide who had been executed in 1660. William was believed to be ready to become a spy in the English service and to report on the doings of the English exiles who were plotting against the King.
Behn's exploits were not profitable, however. Charles was slow in paying (if he paid at all), either for her services or for her expenses whilst abroad. Money had to be borrowed so that Behn could return to London, where a year's petitioning of Charles for payment went unheard and she ended up in a debtor's prison. By 1669 an undisclosed source had paid Behn's debts and she was released from prison.
Forced by debt and her husband's death, Behn began to work for the King's Company as a scribe. She had, however, written poetry up until this point. She cultivated the friendship of various playwrights and poets, including John Dryden, and from 1670 until her death in 1689 she produced many plays and novels, poems and pamphlets. Her first play The Forc’d Marriage was staged in 1670, followed by The Amorous Prince (1671). She gradually moved towards comic works, which proved commercially successful.  Her most popular works included The Rover and Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684–87). In 1688, in the year before her death, she published A Discovery of New Worlds, a translation of a French popularisation of astronomy, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, written as a novel in a form similar to her own work, but with her new, thoughtful, religiously-oriented preface.
Behn often used her writings to attack the parliamentary Whigs claiming, "In public spirits call’d, good o’ th’ Commonwealth… So tho’ by different ways the fever seize…in all ’tis one and the same mad disease." This was Behn’s reproach to parliament which had denied the king funds. 
Aphra Behn died on 16 April 1689, and was buried in the East Cloister Westminster Abbey. The inscription on her tombstone reads:
Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality.
She was quoted as stating that she had led a "life dedicated to pleasure and poetry."
Behn's work Oroonoko (1688) is critically acknowledged as important to the development of the English novel. She was also a key writer in seventeenth century theatre. She is perhaps best known to modern audiences for her short novel Oroonoko (1688), the tale of an enslaved African prince. It is notable for its exploration of slavery, race, and gender. 
Behn was immensely prolific, adapting plays, writing fiction and poetry, translating works from French and Latin. She caused scandal in some of her chosen subject matter, often alluding to sexual desire. She stated that the works would not have caused problems if they had been written by a man.  Behn's work frequently takes homoerotic themes, featuring male to male love and her own sexual interest in women. As an example of her work, her best known poem, "The Disappointment", is a story of a sexual encounter told from a woman's point of view that may be interpreted as a work about male impotence. 
All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds... Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance. 
Vita Sackville-West called Behn "an inhabitant of Grub Street with the best of them". Felix Schelling wrote in The Cambridge History of English Literature, that she was "a very gifted woman, compelled to write for bread in an age in which literature... catered habitually to the lowest and most depraved of human inclinations. Her success depended upon her ability to write like a man." Edmund Gosse remarked that she was "the George Sand of the Restoration". 
After a hiatus in the late 19th century, when both the writer and her works were dismissed as indecent, Behn's fame underwent a revival. She now features as a key figure in feminist cultural discourse. Authors such as Janet Todd detail Behn's unique exploration of race, gender and sexual agency. Critic Harold Bloom calls Behn a "fourth-rate playwright" and cites the current appearance of her work as set texts in American schools as a case of "dumbing down".
In fiction 
Behn's exploits as a spy, and the misuse of the intelligence she gathered, is alluded to in Patrick O'Brian's novel Desolation Island. She appears as a fictional character in Daniel O'Mahony's Faction Paradox novel Newtons Sleep. She features in the Riverworld series in both The Magic Labyrinth and Gods of Riverworld Phillip Jose Farmer. She is one of the characters in Or (2010) by Liz Duffy Adams. 
- The Forced Marriage (1670)
- The Amorous Prince (1671)
- The Dutch Lover (1673)
- Abdelazer (1676)
- The Town Fop (1676)
- The Rover, Part 1 (1677) and Part 2 (1681)
- Sir Patient Fancy (1678)
- The Feigned Courtesans (1679)
- The Young King (1679)
- The False Count (1681)
- The Roundheads (1681)
- The City Heiress (1682)
- Like Father, Like Son (1682)
- Prologue and Epilogue to Romulus and Hersilia, or The Sabine War (November 1682)
- The Lucky Chance (1686) with composer John Blow
- The Emperor of the Moon (1687)
- The Widow Ranter (1689)
- The Younger Brother (1696)
Short stories 
Poetry collections 
- Poems upon Several Occasions, with A Voyage to the Island of Love (1684) 
- Lycidus; or, The Lover in Fashion (1688)
Biographies and writings based on her life 
- Maureen Duffy (1977). The Passionate Shepherdess. The first wholly scholarly new biography of Behn; the first to identify Behn's birth name.
- Angeline Goreau (1980) Reconstructing Aphra: a social biography of Aphra Behn, Dial Press, New York ISBN 0-8037-7478-8
- Angeline Goreau. Aphra Behn: A scandal to modesty (c. 1640-1689) in Spender, Dale (ed.) Feminist theorists: Three centuries of key women thinkers, Pantheon 1983, pp. 8–27 ISBN 0-394-53438-7.
- Derek Hughes (2001). The Theatre of Aphra Behn. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-76030-1.
- Janet Todd (1997). The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-2455-5. a biography concentrating on the political activism of Behn, with new material on her life as a spy.
- Vita Sackville-West (1927). Aphra Behn - The Incomparable Astrea. Gerald Howe. A view of Behn more sympathetic and laudatory than Woolf's.
- Virginia Woolf (1929). A Room of One's Own. One section deals with Behn, but it is a starting point for the feminist rediscovery of Behn's role.
- Huntting, Nancy. What Is Triumph in Love? with a consideration of Aphra Behn.
- Germaine Greer (1995). Slip-Shod Sibyls. Two chapters deal with Aphra Behn with emphasis on her character as a poet
Further reading 
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Aphra Behn|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Aphra Behn|
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- Hobby, Elaine. Virtue of necessity: English women's writing 1649-88. University of Michigan 1989
- Summers, Montague (ed.). Aphra Behn: Works. London 1913
- Lewcock, Dawn. Aphra Behn studies: More for seeing than hearing: Behn and the use of theatre. Ed. Todd, Janet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
- Steen, Francis F. The Politics of Love: Propaganda and Structural Learning in Aphra Behn's Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister. Poetics Today 23.1 (2002) 91-122. Project Muse. 19 Nov. 2007.
- Todd, Janet. The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn. Columbia: Camden House, 1998. 69-72.
- Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997, p. 4.
- Stiebel, Arlene. "Aphra Behn". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
- "Aphra Behn". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
- "Aphra Behn (1640 - 1689)". BBC History. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
- Angeline Goreau (1980) Reconstructing Aphra: a social biography of Aphra Behn, Dial Press, New York p 243-248 ISBN 0-8037-7478-8
- Poets' Graves UK
- "The Disappointment"
- Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. 1928, at 65
- ( British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary Ed. Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1952. p. 36.)
- Walters, Margaret. Feminism: A very short introduction. Oxford University 2005 at 24 (ISBN 0-19-280510-X)
- Bloom, Harold (24 September 2003). "Dumbing down American readers". The Boston Globe.
- NY Times review 11/09/2009
- Online etext
- Project MUSE
|About Aphra Behn|
|By Aphra Behn|
- Works by Aphra Behn at Project Gutenberg
- Aphra Behn profile at the BBC
- Profile at Encyclopedia Britannica
- Profile at the Poetry Foundation
- Aphra Behn's Grave, Westminster Abbey
- University of Adelaide biography and etexts (a source for the list of works)
- The Aphra Behn Society