Aphra Behn

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Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn by Peter Lely ca. 1670.jpg
Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely
Baptised14 December 1640
Died16 April 1689 (aged 48)
Resting place Westminster Abbey
OccupationNovelist, dramatist, poet
Spouse(s)Johan Behn

Aphra Behn ( /ˈæfrəbɛn/ ; [lower-alpha 1] bapt.  14 December 1640 [1] – 16 April 1689) was an English playwright, poet, translator and fiction writer from the Restoration era. As one of the first English women to earn her living by her writing, she broke cultural barriers and served as a literary role model for later generations of women authors. Rising from obscurity, she came to the notice of Charles II, who employed her as a spy in Antwerp. Upon her return to London and a probable brief stay in debtors' prison, she began writing for the stage. She belonged to a coterie of poets and famous libertines such as John Wilmot, Lord Rochester. She wrote under the pastoral pseudonym Astrea. During the turbulent political times of the Exclusion Crisis, she wrote an epilogue and prologue that brought her into legal trouble; she thereafter devoted most of her writing to prose genres and translations. A staunch supporter of the Stuart line, she declined an invitation from Bishop Burnet to write a welcoming poem to the new king William III. She died shortly after. [2]


She is remembered in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own : "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." [3] Her grave is not included in the Poets' Corner but lies in the East Cloister near the steps to the church. [4]

Life and work

Versions of her early life

Title page of the first edition of Oroonoko (1688) Behn Oroonoko title page.1688.jpg
Title page of the first edition of Oroonoko (1688)

Information regarding Behn's 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. [5] Another story has Behn born to a couple named Cooper. [5] 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. [5] [6] 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" [lower-alpha 2] to a Mr Johnson and that she had a sister named Frances. [2] Another contemporary, Anne Finch, wrote that Behn was born in Wye in Kent, the "Daughter to a Barber". [2] In some accounts the profile of her father fits Eaffrey Johnson. [2]

Behn was born during the buildup of the English Civil War, a child of the political tensions of the time. One version of Behn's story has her travelling with a Bartholomew Johnson to the small English colony of Willoughbyland (later captured by the Dutch and renamed 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. [5] [7] During this trip Behn said she met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, Oroonoko . [5] [6] It is possible that she acted a spy in the colony. [2] There is little verifiable evidence to confirm any one story. [5] 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. [2] [5] 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". [7] It is notable that her name is not mentioned in tax or church records. [7] During her lifetime she was also known as Ann Behn, Mrs Behn, agent 160 and Astrea. [8]


A sketch of Aphra Behn by George Scharf from a portrait believed to be lost (1873) Aphra Behn.jpg
A sketch of Aphra Behn by George Scharf from a portrait believed to be lost (1873)

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. [5] [7] He died or the couple separated soon after 1664, however from this point the writer used "Mrs Behn" as her professional name. [6]

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. [9] 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. [9] Behn was dedicated to the restored King Charles II. As political parties emerged during this time, Behn became a Tory supporter. [9]

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. [2] [5] [6] This is the first well-documented account we have of her activities. [7] Her code name is said to have been Astrea, a name under which she later published many of her writings. [5] 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. [2] [7]

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 jewellery. [7] 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. [2] [7]

Portrait by Mary Beale Aphra Behn by Mary Beale 2.jpg
Portrait by Mary Beale

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. [5] While she is recorded to have written before she adopted her debt, John Palmer said in a review of her works that, "Mrs. Behn wrote for a livelihood. Playwriting was her refuge from starvation and a debtor's prison." [10] 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. [7] She gradually moved towards comic works, which proved more commercially successful. [6] Her most popular works included The Rover .

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. [2] [7] 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. [9]

Final years and death

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. [2] During the 1670s and 1680s she was one of the most productive playwrights in Britain, second only to Poet Laureate John Dryden. [8]

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." [11] She was quoted as stating that she had led a "life dedicated to pleasure and poetry." [2] [7] [12]

Published works

Behn earned a living writing, one of the earliest Englishwomen to do so. After John Dryden she was the most prolific writer of the English Restoration. [13] Behn was not the first woman in England to publish a play. In 1613 Lady Elizabeth Cary had published The Tragedy of Miriam, in the 1650s Margaret Cavendish published two volumes of plays, and in 1663 a translation of Corneille's Pompey by Katherine Philips was performed in Dublin and London. [14] Women had been excluded from theatre in the Elizabethan era, but in Restoration England they made up a significant part of the audience and professional actresses played the women's parts. This changed the nature and themes of Restoration theatre. [15]

Behn's first play The Forc'd Marriage was a romantic tragicomedy on arranged marriages and was staged by the Duke's Company in September 1670. The performance ran for six nights, which was regarded as a good run for an unknown author. Six months later Behn's play The Amorous Prince was successfully staged. Again, Behn used the play to comment on the harmful effects of arranged marriages. Behn did not hide the fact that she was a woman, instead she made a point of it. When in 1673 the Dorset Garden Theatre staged The Dutch Lover , critics sabotaged the play on the grounds that the author was a woman. Behn tackled the critics head on in Epistle to the Reader. [16] She argued that women had been held back by their unjust exclusion from education, not their lack of ability. After a three-year publication pause, Behn published four plays in close succession. In 1676 she published Abdelazar , The Town Fop and The Rover . In early 1678 Sir Patient Fancy was published. This succession of box-office successes led to frequent attacks on Behn. She was attacked for her private life, the morality of her plays was questioned and she was accused of plagiarising The Rover. Behn countered these public attacks in the prefaces of her published plays. In the preface to Sir Patient Fancy she argued that she was being singled out because she was a woman, while male playwrights were free to live the most scandalous lives and write bawdy plays. [17]

Under Charles II of England prevailing Puritan ethics was reversed in the fashionable society of London. The King associated with playwrights that poured scorn on marriage and the idea of consistency in love. Among the King's favourite was the Earl of Rochester John Wilmot, who became famous for his cynical libertinism. [18] Behn was a friend of Wilmot and Behn became a bold proponent of sexual freedom for both women and men. Like her contemporary male libertines, she wrote freely about sex. In the infamous poem The Disappointment she wrote a comic account of male impotence from a woman's perspective. [19] Critics Lisa Zeitz and Peter Thoms contend that the poem "playfully and wittily questions conventional gender roles and the structures of oppression which they support". [20] In The Dutch Lover Behn forthrightly acknowledged female sexual desire. Critics of Behn were provided with ammunition because of her public liaison with John Hoyle, a bisexual lawyer who scandalised his contemporaries. [19]

By the late 1670s Behn was among the leading playwrights of England. Her plays were staged frequently and attended by the King. The Rover became a favourite at the King's court. Behn became heavily involved in the political debate about the succession. Because Charles II had no heir a prolonged political crisis ensued. Mass hysteria commenced as in 1678 the rumoured Popish Plot suggested the King should be replaced with his Roman Catholic brother James. Political parties developed, the Whigs wanted to exclude James, while the Tories did not believe succession should be altered in any way. Charles II eventually dissolved the Cavalier Parliament and James II succeeded him in 1685. Behn supported the Tory position and in the two years between 1681 and 1682 produced five plays to discredit the Whigs. The London audience, mainly Tory sympathisers, attended the plays in large numbers. But Behn was arrested on the order of King Charles II when she used one of the plays to attack James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of the King. [21]

As audience numbers declined, theatres staged mainly old works to save costs. Nevertheless, Behn published The Luckey Chance in 1686. In response to the criticism levelled at the play she articulated a long and passionate defence of women writers. Her play The Emperor of the Moon was published and staged in 1687, it became one of her longest running plays. [21] Behn stopped writing plays and turned to prose fiction. Today she is mostly known for the novels she wrote in the later part of her life. Her first novel was the three-part Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister , published between 1682 and 1687. The novels were inspired by a contemporary scandal, which saw Lord Grey elope with his sister-in-law Lady Henrietta Berkeley. [22] At the time of publication Love Letters was very popular and went through more than 16 editions. [23] Today Behn's prose work is critically acknowledged as having been important to the development of the English novel. [6] Following Behn's death, new female dramatists such as Delarivier Manley, Mary Pix, Susanna Centlivre and Catherine Trotter acknowledged Behn as their most vital predecessor, who opened up public space for women writers. [2] [8]

In 1688, less than a year before her death, Behn published Oroonoko: or, The Royal Oroonoko, the story of the enslaved Oroonoko and his love Imoinda. It was based on Behn's travel to Surinam twenty years earlier. The novel became a great success. In 1696 it was adapted for the stage by Thomas Southerne and continuously performed throughout the 18th century. In 1745 the novel was translated into French, going through seven French editions. As abolitionism gathered pace in the late 18th century the novel was celebrated as the first anti-slavery novel. [23]

Legacy and re-evaluation

After her death in 1689, Behn's literary work was marginalised and often dismissed outright, notwithstanding the 1700 publication of her Histories, Novels, and Translations which preserved her literary production for future re-discovery. [24] Until the mid-20th century Behn was repeatedly dismissed as morally depraved minor writer. In the 18th century her literary work was scandalised as lewd by Thomas Brown, William Wycherley, Richard Steele and John Duncombe. Alexander Pope penned the famous lines "The stage how loosely does Astrea tread, Who fairly puts all characters to bed!". In the 19th century Mary Hays, Matilda Betham, Alexander Dyce, Jane Williams and Julia Kavanagh decided that Behn's writings were unfit to read, because they were corrupt and deplorable. Among the few critics who believed that Behn was an important writer were Leigh Hunt, William Forsyth and William Henry Hudson. [25]

The life and times of Behn were recounted by a long line of biographers, among them Dyce, Edmund Gosse, Ernest Bernbaum, Montague Summers, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, George Woodcock, William J. Cameron and Frederick Link. [26]

Of Behn's considerable literary output only Oroonoko was seriously considered by literary scholars. This book, published in 1688, is regarded as one of the first abolitionist and humanitarian novels published in the English language. It is credited as precursor to Jean-Jaques Rousseau's Discourses on Inequality. Since the 1970s Behn's literary works have been re-evaluated by feminist critics and writers. Behn was rediscovered as a significant female writer by Maureen Duffy, Angeline Goreau, Ruth Perry, Hilda Lee Smith, Moira Ferguson, Jane Spencer, Dale Spender, Elaine Hobby and Janet Todd. This led to the reprinting of her works. The Rover was republished in 1967, Oroonoko was republished in 1973, Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sisters was published again in 1987 and The Lucky Chance was reprinted in 1988. [27] Montague Summers, an author of scholarly works on the English drama of the 17th century, published a six-volume collection of her work, in hopes of rehabilitating her reputation. Summers was fiercely passionate about the work of Behn and found himself incredibly devoted to the appreciation of 17th century literature. [10] 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," and that, "Her success depended upon her ability to write like a man." Edmund Gosse remarked that she was, "...the George Sand of the Restoration". [28]

The criticism of Behn's poetry focuses on the themes of gender, sexuality, femininity, pleasure, and love. A feminist critique tends to focus on Behn's inclusion of female pleasure and sexuality in her poetry, which was a radical concept at the time she was writing. One critic, Alison Conway, views Behn as instrumental to the formation of modern thought around the female gender and sexuality: "Behn wrote about these subjects before the technologies of sexuality we now associate were in place, which is, in part, why she proves so hard to situate in the trajectories most familiar to us". [29] Virginia Woolf wrote, in A Room of One's Own :

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. [30]

In recognition of her pioneering role in women's literature, Behn was featured during the "HerStory" video tribute to notable women on U2's North American tour in 2017 for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree . [31]

Adaptations of Behn in Literature

Behn's life has been adapted for the stage in the 2014 play Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn by Chris Braak, and the 2015 play [exit Mrs Behn] or, The Leo Play by Christopher VanderArk. [32] She is one of the characters in the 2010 play Or, by Liz Duffy Adams. [33] [34] Behn appears as a character in Daniel O'Mahony's Newtons Sleep , in Phillip Jose Farmer's The Magic Labyrinth and Gods of Riverworld , in Molly Brown's Invitation to a Funeral (1999), and in Diana Norman's The Vizard Mask. She is referred to in Patrick O'Brian's novel Desolation Island . The 2019 Big Finish Short Trip audio play The Astrea Conspiracy features Behn alongside The Doctor, voiced by actress Neve McIntosh. [35]



Plays Posthumously published


Short stories/Novellas

Poetry collections

Biographies and writings based on her life


  1. She inherited this name from her German husband; the German pronunciation is [beːn] .
  2. Sturry is a small town a few miles east of the city of Canterbury in Kent.

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  16. Lizbeth Goodman & W.R. Owens (2013). Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon. Routledge. p. 141. ISBN   978-1135636289.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  17. Lizbeth Goodman & W.R. Owens (2013). Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon. Routledge. p. 142. ISBN   978-1135636289.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  18. Lizbeth Goodman & W.R. Owens (2013). Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon. Routledge. p. 143. ISBN   978-1135636289.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  19. 1 2 Lizbeth Goodman & W.R. Owens (2013). Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon. Routledge. p. 145. ISBN   978-1135636289.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  20. Zeitz, Lisa M.; Thoms, Peter (1997). "Power, Gender, and Identity in Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment"". SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900. 37 (3): 501–516. doi:10.2307/451046. JSTOR   451046.
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  22. "Berkeley, Lady Henrietta [Harriett]". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/68002.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  23. 1 2 Lizbeth Goodman & W.R. Owens (2013). Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon. Routledge. p. 148. ISBN   978-1135636289.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
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  27. Heidi Hutner, ed. (1993). Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. University of Virginia Press. p. 3. ISBN   978-0813914435.
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  31. Sams, Initial design & architecture by Carl Uebelhart. Further development by Aaron. "The Women of Ultra Violet: Light My (Mysterious) Ways: Leg 1". www.u2songs.com.
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  33. Adams, Liz Duffy (2010). Or. Dramatists Play Service. ISBN   978-0822224587.
  34. Isherwood, Charles (9 November 2009). "All They Need Is Love (and Freedom and Theater)" (review). NY Times.
  35. Aggas, James (2 March 2019). "Doctor Who review: The Astrea Conspiracy is a fun little Twelfth Doctor story" (review). Doctor Who Watch. Retrieved 20 February 2020.
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Further reading