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, one of the first English professional female literary writers. Along with Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood, she is sometimes referred to as part of "The fair triumvirate of wit."
Little is known for certain about Behn's life except for her work as an author and as a spy for the British crown. There is almost no documentary evidence of the details of her first 27 years. She possibly spent time in Surinam, although much of her fiction has become entwined with her apocryphal biography. During the 1660s she was deployed as a political operative in the Netherlands. Facing debt and poverty Behn embarked on a writing career, producing over 19 plays, plus poetry, translation and novels. Despite success in her own lifetime, Behn died in poverty.
The bawdy topics of many of her plays led to her oeuvre being ignored or dismissed since her death. Her reputation slowly improved during the 20th century but she is still little known to modern audiences.
Life and work
Versions of her early life
Information regarding her life is scant, especially regarding her early years. This may be due to intentional obscuring on Behn's part. Apocryphally, she was born in 1640 in Harbledown near Canterbury and baptised on 14 December. 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. 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. Colonel Thomas Colepeper, the only person who claimed to have known her as a child, wrote in Adversaria that she was born at "Sturry or Canterbury" to a Mr Johnson and that she had a sister named Frances. Another contemporary, Anne Finch, wrote that Behn was born in Wye in Kent, the ‘Daughter to a Barber.' In some accounts the profile of her father fits Eaffrey Johnson.
Behn was born during the build up of the English Civil War, a child of the political tensions of the time. One version of Behn's story has her travelling with Bartholomew Johnson to Surinam. He was said to die on the journey, with his wife and children spending some months in the country, though there is no evidence of this. During this trip Behn said she met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, Oroonoko. It is possible that she acted a spy in the colony. There is little verifiable evidence to confirm any one story. In Oroonoko Behn gives herself the position of narrator and her first biographer accepted the assumption that Behn was the daughter of the lieutenant general of Surinam, as in the story. There is little evidence that this was the case and none of her contemporaries acknowledge any aristocratic status. There is also no evidence that Oroonoko existed as an actual person or that any such slave revolt, as is featured in the story, really happened.
Writer Germaine Greer has called Behn "a palimpsest; she has scratched herself out," and biographer Janet Todd noted that Behn "has a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess which makes her an uneasy fit for any narrative, speculative or factual. She is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks". It is notable that her name is not mentioned in tax or church records. During her lifetime she was also known as Ann Behn, Mrs Bean, agent 160 and Astrea.
Shortly after her supposed return to England from Surinam in 1664, Behn may have married Johan Behn (also written as Johann and John Behn). He may have been a merchant of German or Dutch extraction, possibly from Hamburg. 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. 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 Culpeper 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 in Antwerp on behalf of King Charles II, possibly under the auspices of courtier Thomas Killigrew. This is the first well-documented account we have of her activities. 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. Scot 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 arrived in Bruges in July 1666, probably with two others, as London was wracked with plague and fire. Behn's job was to turn Scot into a double agent, but there is evidence that Scot betrayed her to the Dutch.
Behn's exploits were not profitable however; the cost of living shocked her, and she was left unprepared. One month after arrival, she pawned her jewellry. King 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 was unsuccessful. It may be that she was never paid by the crown. A warrant was issued for her arrest, but there is no evidence it was served or that she went to prison for her debt, though apocryphally it is often given as part of her history.
Forced by debt and her husband's death, Behn began to work for the King's Company and the Duke's Company players as a scribe. She had, however, written poetry up until this point. The theatres that had been closed under Cromwell were now re-opening under Charles II, plays enjoying a revival. Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was staged in 1670, followed by The Amorous Prince (1671). After her third play, The Dutch Lover, failed, Behn falls off the public record for three years. It is speculated that she went travelling again, possibly in her capacity as a spy. She gradually moved towards comic works, which proved more commercially successful. Her most popular works included The Rover and Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684–87).
Behn became friends with notable writers of the day, including John Dryden, Elizabeth Barry, John Hoyle, Thomas Otway and Edward Ravenscroft, and was acknowledged as a part of the circle of the Earl of Rochester. 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.
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, religiously oriented preface.
In all she would write and stage 19 plays, contribute to more, and become one of the first prolific, high-profile female dramatists in Britain. During the 1670s and 1680s she was one of the most productive playwrights in Britain, second only to Poet Laureate John Dryden.
In her last four years, Behn's health began to fail, beset by poverty and debt, but she continued to write ferociously, though it became increasingly hard for her to hold a pen. In her final days, she wrote the translation of the final book of Abraham Cowley’s Six Books of Plants. She 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 was mocked for her bawdy works and for writing in a masculine style, but she did also have widespread support. Authors such as Dryden, Thomas Otway, Nahum Tate, Jacob Tonson, Nathaniel Lee and Thomas Creech celebrated her work.
Behn was a key dramatist in seventeenth-century theatre, and her prose work is critically acknowledged as important in the development of the English novel. 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, and 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 same-sex love between men. One of her best known poems, "The Disappointment", is the 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.
Following the death of Behn, new female dramatists such as Delarivier Manley, 'Ariadne', Mary Fix Susanna Centlivre and Catherine Trotter acknowledged Behn as their most vital precursor who opened up public space or women writers. During the 19th century, both the writer and her works were ignored or dismissed as indecent. Victorian-era novelist and critic Julia Kavanagh wrote "the disgrace of Aphra Behn is that, instead of raising man to woman's moral standard, [she] sank woman to the level of man's coarseness". Commentator John Doran wrote that her work wallowed in the moral morass.
Following the 19th century, Behn's fame underwent a revival. Montague Summers published a six-volume collection of her work, in hopes of rehabilitating her reputation. 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".
Behn is now regarded as a key English playwright and a major figure in Restoration theatre. Authors such as Janet Todd detail Behn's unique exploration of race, gender and sexual agency. However, 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."
Todd argues that, in addition to patriarchal prejudice, Behn suffered for her dismissal of any liberal agenda. Going against the tide of the times, she believed in the divine right of kings and aristocratic hierarchies. Todd writes that Behn was contemptuous of democracy and the common man in the street, not expressly interested in human rights — for women or slaves or anyone else — and that, because she did not support any kind of a liberal agenda, her causes were not cheered by the progressives. She does not easily fit into any mould of proto-feminism. She had come into adulthood, following the civil war, under harsh puritan rule and regarded political populism as the sign of moral collapse and the triumph of venality. Ironically, the current revival of her reputation rides on the work Oroonoko (1668), a story that is taken to promote modern, progressive views on gender, race and class. However, Todd maintains the fiction has been co-opted by modern interests and are not views Behn clearly expressed. Her reputation is not helped by the fact that almost nothing is known of her first 27 years; and while she was a pioneer, she also faced debt for much of her life and was a propagandist and writer for hire. She was ambitious, desiring fame and literary prestige, which for a woman of the time and in times since, is often regarded as suspect.
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)
- The History of the Nun: or, the Fair Vow-Breaker (1688)
- The Dumb Virgin: Or, The Force of Imagination (1700)
- 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
- Heidi Hutner (1993). Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813914435.
- Todd, Janet (2013) The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. Bloomsbury Publishing 9781448212545
|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:
- Summers, Montague (ed.). Aphra Behn: Works. London 1913Hobby, Elaine. Virtue of necessity: English women's writing 1649-88. University of Michigan 1989
- Lewcock, Dawn. Aphra Behn studies: More for seeing than hearing: Behn and the use of theatre. Ed. Todd, Janet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
- Brockhaus, Cathrin, Aphra Behn und ihre Londoner Komödien: Die Dramatikerin und ihr Werk im England des ausgehenden 17. Jahrhunderts, 1998.
- Todd, Janet. The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn. Columbia: Camden House, 1998. 69-72.
- 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 November 2007.
- "Behn", Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary
- Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997, p. 4.
- Todd (2013) Introduction
- Janet Todd, "Behn, Aphra (1640?–1689)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- "Aphra Behn (1640 - 1689)". BBC History. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
- Stiebel, Arlene. "Aphra Behn". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
- "Aphra Behn". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
- The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn (2004) Editors Derek Hughes, Janet Todd, Cambridge University pp1-10 ISBN 9780521527200
- Angeline Goreau (1980) Reconstructing Aphra: a social biography of Aphra Behn, Dial Press, New York p 243-248 ISBN 0-8037-7478-8
- "17th Century Women". University of Calgary. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
- "Aphra Behn". Cameron Self, Poets' Graves. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
- "The Disappointment". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
- 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.
- Adams, Liz Duffy (2010). Or. Dramatists Play Service, Inc. ISBN 9780822224587.
- NY Times review 11/09/2009
- Behn, Aphra (1690). "The Widow Ranter".
- Project MUSE
|Library resources about
|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
- ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830 (ISSN 2157-7129)