In a time when very few authors - let alone female authors - could support themselves through their craft, Aphra Behn was a well known and highly regarded writer in London. She wrote many plays for the London stage, penned poetry, and wrote what some consider the first English novel (though others consider it a novella or a somewhat long short story). Much of her work decries the unequal treatment of women in her era, and she suffered the consequences of these claims by enduring harsh criticism and even arrest.
Not much is known about the early life of Aphra Behn; one scholar describes the author as having "a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess, which makes her an uneasy fit for any narrative, speculative or factual” (Todd 1). Best estimates place Behn's birth in Kent, on December 14th of 1640. She was born to Elizabeth Denham and Bartholomew Johnson; it is believed that her father was a barber. Because her mother cared for the children of an upper class family, it is likely that Behn received some form of education. During Behn's childhood, a civil war broke out in England between the Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, and the British monarch, Charles I, which ended with the king's beheading in 1649. In 1658 the monarchy was restored (this period became known as the Restoration).
It is considered more than likely that she left England for Surinam in 1663 when her father was appointed to a military outpost in South America; it is possible that her father did not survive the journey. The short time she spent at the English settlement in the company of her mother and sister provided her with the material for Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave, which chronicles the story of an African prince who is brought to Surinam as a slave. After England surrendered Surinam to Holland, Behn returned to England in 1664.
It is believed she married a Dutch merchant named Hans Behn. Some scholars speculate that this wedding might not actually have occurred and that Behn invented it so as to be viewed as a respectable widow.
A favorite at the Court of Charles II, Behn was greatly admired by the King for her outgoing personality and great wit, and she was possibly employed by him as a spy in Antwerp during the war from 1665 to 1667. Here she renewed her relationship with her former lover, the spy William Scot, an Englishman expatriate intent overthrowing the monarchy. Behn, whose code name was Astrea, was to send reports back to Charles II in invisible ink. Although she was enormously helpful in exposing the secret plans to exterminate the English fleet in the River Thames in 1667, she was abandoned by the English in Holland with no money - a highly dangerous situation for a woman alone at that time. Somehow she borrowed money; but, despite many letters, she was still left unpaid by the King and consequently cast into debtor's prison in 1668. Thankfully, her debt was paid by an unknown person and she was allowed to leave.
At this point, Behn took up writing to support herself financially. It should be remembered how monumental this was during a time when women could not even sign a contract and were completely reliant on men for financial security. Her entry into a writing career coincided with the opening of the London theatres that had been closed during the Interregnum. Behn began writing for Duke's Company at Dorset Garden. Her 1670 romantic comedy The Forc'd Marriage; or, The Jealous Bridegroom debuted as her first play, which proved successful. Most of her plays were romantic comedies, including The Amorous Prince; or, The Curious Husband, The Dutch Lover, and her most successful play, The Rover; or, the Banish'd Cavaliers, which dealt with an English regiment living in exile in Italy during the Puritan era.
Behn became notorious in 1682 when she was arrested for writing a polemic centering on the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's illegitimate son, who thought he had a claim to the throne since Charles II had failed to produce a legitimate heir. At this point, Behn began to write narrative fiction. Her first such work, the three volume Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-1687), was successful, and The Lucky Chance; or, An Alderman's Bargain, drew from the time she spent as a female spy in Holland. Her 1688 heroic love story, Oroonoko, was very well received and became her most popular work.
Behn still suffered financially, however, and her health began to fail; the last four years of her life were marked by poverty and illness. She died in 1689, was buried in the cloisters at Westminster Abbey, and for a while rested in obscurity. In the 20th century, the novelist Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own that "all women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn - for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." Although many attempts were made in the 19th and early 20th century to damage her reputation and attack her literary importance, her works persist, and are read more widely and presented in theaters more often today than at any other time except during her life (O'Donell, 9-10).
Study Guides on Works by Aphra Behn
Although it was not popular duing Behn's lifetime, today Oroonoko (1688) is Aphra Behn's most widely read and most highly regarded work. Oroonoko: or the Royal Slave remains important. It also influenced the development of the English novel,...
"The Rover," alternatively known as "The Banish't Cavaliers," is the most frequently read and performed of Aphra Behn's plays (Burke, 118). First performed by the Duke's Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1677, the play was initially...