Aphra Behn

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Aphra Behn (Johnson)

Also Known As: "Astrea"
Birthdate: (49)
Birthplace: Harbledown, Kent, England
Death: April 16, 1689 (49)
Place of Burial: London, England
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Bartholomew Johnson and Elizabeth Johnson
Wife of Johan Behn

Occupation: Poet, dramatist, novelist, Spy
Managed by: Terry Jackson (Switzer)
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Aphra Behn


Born Aphra Johnson Harbledown, Kent Died 16 April 1689 (aged 48) Nationality English Occupation novelist, dramatist Aphra Behn (baptised 14 December 1640 – 16 April 1689) was a prolific dramatist of the English Restoration and was one of the first English professional female writers. 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."

Early life

One of the first English women to earn her livelihood by authorship, Behn's life is difficult to unravel and relate. Information regarding her, especially her early life, is scant, but she was almost certainly born in or near Canterbury to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham, a wet-nurse. Johnson and Denham were married in 1638 and Aphra, or Eaffry, was baptized on 14 December 1640 in Harbledown, a village just outside Canterbury. Elizabeth Denham was employed by the wealthy Colepeper family, who lived locally, and so it can be speculated that Aphra grew up in close proximity to and spent time with the family's children. The younger child, Thomas Colepeper, later described Aphra as his foster sister.

In 1663 Aphra is believed to have visited an English sugar colony on the Suriname River, on the coast east of Venezuela (a region later known as Suriname). During this trip she is reputed to have met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, Oroonoko. The veracity of her journey to Suriname has been called into question; however, enough evidence has convinced the majority of Behn scholars today that her visit did indeed take place.

Though little is known about Behn’s early years, evidence suggests that she may have had a Catholic upbringing. She once admitted 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 certainly have aroused suspicions during the anti-Catholic fervor of the 1680s (Goreau 243) 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 (247).

Behn was firmly dedicated to the restored King Charles II. As political parties emerged during this time, Behn became a staunch Tory supporter. Tories believed in absolute allegiance to the monarch, who governed by divine right (246). 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. Like most Tories, Behn was distrustful of Parliament and Whigs since the Revolution and wrote propaganda in support of the restored monarchy (248).

Life in England, writing career, work as a spy

A sketch of Aphra Behn by George Scharf from a portrait believed to be lost. Shortly after her return to England from Surinam in 1664, Aphra Johnson married one Johan Behn, a merchant of German or Dutch extraction. Little conclusive information is known about their marriage, but it did not last for more than a few years since her husband died soon afterwards.

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[2] 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 subsequently published many of her writings. Her chief role was to establish an intimacy with William Scott, son of Thomas Scott (the regicide who had been executed on 17 October 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.[2]

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. She began to work for the King's Company as a scribe, eventually becoming the first woman known to earn her living by writing. 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 most popular works included The Rover, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, and Oroonoko. 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.

Aphra Behn died on 16 April 1689, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The inscription on her tombstone reads: "Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality."[3] She was quoted as once stating that she had led a "life dedicated to pleasure and poetry."[4]

Status among other writers

Author Virginia Woolf believed that Behn's career is more important than any particular work it produced. Woolf wrote, "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."[5] Vita Sackville-West called Behn "'an inhabitant of Grub Street with the best of them, . . . a phenomenon never seen and . . . furiously resented.' She was, as Felix Schelling said, '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.' . . . She was, as Edmund Gosse remarked, 'the George Sand of the Restoration,' and she lived the Bohemian life in London in the seventeenth century as George Sand lived it in Paris in the nineteenth." (Entry on Behn in British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary Ed. Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1952. p. 36.)

After a hiatus in the late 19th century (when both the writer and her works were dismissed as indecent) that Behn's fame underwent an extraordinary revival. She now dominates much cultural-studies discourse as both a topic and a set of texts. Much early criticism emphasized her unusual status as a female writer in a male-dominated literary world; more recent criticism has offered more thorough discussions of her works.[6]

Today, the affinities between Behn's work and that of Romantic writers seem more pronounced than the publicly acceptable discussion of sexuality.[7] According to scholars,

Behn's writings unveil the homosocial role of male rivalry in stimulating heterosexual desire for women and explores the ways in which cross dressing and masquerade complicate and destabilize gender relations. Behn also analyzes female friendships.[7] In several volumes of writings by author Janet Todd, Behn's explorations of some of the key issues in Romantic studies, such as the role of incestuous and homosocial bonding in romance, the correlations between racial and gender oppression, female subjectivity, and, more specifically, female political and sexual agency are detailed.[7]

The noted critic Harold Bloom calls Behn a "fourth-rate playwright" (in comparison to William Shakespeare) and notes her resurgent popularity as a case of "dumbing down".[8]

She appears as a fictional character in Daniel O'Mahoney's Faction Paradox novel Newtons Sleep.

Her 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 volume 4 The Magic Labyrinth and volume 5 Gods of Riverworld of the series Riverworld by the science fiction writer Phillip Jose Farmer.



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)

Posthumously performed The Widow Ranter (1689)[9] The Younger Brother (1696)

Novels The Fair Jilt Agnes de Castro Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684) Oroonoko (1688)

Short stories The History of the Nun: or, the Fair Vow-Breaker (1688) The Dumb Virgin: Or, The Force of Imagination (1700) [edit] PoemsLove Armed (1677) The Disappointment (1680) On Her Loving Two Equally (1682) Poems upon Several Occasions (1684) The Lover's Watch or The Art of Making Love (1686) On Desire (1688) To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More Than Woman (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, Reconstructing Aphra: a social biography of Aphra Behn (New York: Dial Press, 1980). 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

Other sources

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.[10] Todd, Janet. The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn. Columbia: Camden House, 1998. 69-72.

In stage works and literature Aphra Behn is the subject of Liz Duffy Adams 2009 play "Or".[11] Aphra Behn is mentioned in Patrick O'Brian's fifth Aubrey-Maturin novel, Desolation Island. O'Brian has his chief of British Naval Intelligence, Sir Joseph Blaine, tell Stephen Maturin that "she was first and foremost an intelligence agent. I had some of her Antwerp reports in my hands not a week since... and they were brilliant, Maturin, brilliant. ... She told us De Ruyter was coming to burn our ships. It is true we did nothing about it, and that the ships were burnt; but the report itself is a masterpiece of precision. Yes, yes. ... She was a brilliant agent, brilliant." (Desolation Island p56-7) [edit] Footnotes^ Montague Summers. The Works of Aphra Behn. London: William Heineman, 1913 ^ a b c Feminism and Women's Studies: Memoir of Aphra Behn ^ http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/images/behn_aphra.JPG ^ 17thwomen ^ Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. 1928, at 65 ^ Walters, Margaret. Feminism: A very short introduction. Oxford University 2005 at 24 (ISBN 0-19-280510-X) ^ a b c Review of Todd's edition of Behn's Works ^ Bloom, Harold (24 September 2003). "Dumbing down American readers". The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2003/09/24/dumbing_down_american_readers/. ^ Online etext ^ Project MUSE ^ [1] NY Times review 11/09/2009

Other References

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Aphra Behn's Timeline

Harbledown, Kent, England
April 16, 1689
Age 49
London, England