Aphra Behn 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.
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 Wye, near Canterbury, on 10 July 1640 to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham. The two were married in 1638 and Aphra, or Eaffry, was baptized on 14 December 1640. Elizabeth Denham was employed as a nurse to the wealthy Colepeper family, who lived locally, which means that it is likely that Aphra grew up with and spent time with the family's children. The younger child, Thomas Colepeper, later described Aphra as his foster sister.
In 1663 she 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 supposed to have met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, Oroonoko, widely credited as the book which first brought home to England a sense of the horrors of slavery. The veracity of her journey to Suriname has often been called into question; however, enough evidence has been found to convince most Behn scholars today that the trip did indeed take place.
Though little is really 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, would certainly have aroused suspicions during the anti-Catholic fervor of the 1680s . Her sympathy to the Catholics is further demonstrated by her dedication of her play "The Rover II" to the Catholic Duke of York who had been exiled for the second time .
Behn was firmly dedicated to the restored King Charles II. As political parties first emerged during this time, Behn was a Tory supporter. Tories believed in absolute allegiance to the king, who governed by divine right . 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 .
Life in England, Writing Career, Work as a Spy
Shortly after her return to England in 1664 Aphra Johnson married Johan Behn, who was 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.
By 1666 Behn had become attached to the Court, possibly through the influence of Thomas Culpepper and other associates of influence, where she was recruited as a political spy to Antwerp by Charles II. Her code name for her exploits is said to have been Astrea, a name under which she subsequently published much of her writings. The Second Anglo-Dutch War had broken out between England and the Netherlands in 1665. Her chief business was to establish an intimacy with William Scott, son of Thomas Scott, the regicide who had been executed 17 October, 1660, since William was 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, as Charles was slow in paying (if he paid at all) for either her services or her expenses whilst abroad. Money had to be borrowed for Behn to 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, starting from this point to become one of the first women who wrote for a living. She cultivated the friendship of various playwrights, and starting in 1670 she produced many plays and novels, as well as poems and pamphlets. Her most popular works included The Rover, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, and Oroonoko. In 1688, the year before her death, she published A Discovery of New Worlds, a translation of a French popularisation of astronomy, Entretiens sur la Pluralite 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. Below the inscription on her tombstone read the words: "Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality." She was quoted as once stating that she had led a "life dedicated to pleasure and poetry."
Status among other Writers
In author Virginia Woolf's reckoning, Behn's total 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." 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 Shelling 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."
Ironically then, it was after a hiatus in the 19th century (when both the writer and the work were dismissed as indecent) that Behn's fame underwent an extraordinary revival. She dominates 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.
In an age of libertines, Behn undertook a rebellious approach to proclaim and to analyze women's sexual desire, as manifested in her characters and in herself. She has since become a favorite among sexually liberated women, many of bisexual or lesbian orientation, who proclaim her as one of their most positive influences.
Today, the affinities between Behn's work and that of Romantic writers seem more pronounced than the different level of publicly acceptable discussion of sexuality. 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 and, more rarely, lesbianism.”
One source of speculation has been the identification of Behn with some of her characters. For instance in The Rover, the similarity in names between Behn and the prostitute Angellica Bianca is interesting.
"I, vainly proud of my personal judgement, hang out the Sign of Angellica."
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.
The noted critic Harold Bloom calls Behn a "fourth-rate playwright" (in comparison, however, to Shakespeare) and notes her resurgent popularity as a case of "dumbing down".
Another of her critics was Alexander Pope
, against whom she has been defended.
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 also appears as a fictional character in volume 4 The Magic Labyrinth and volume 5 Gods of Riverworld of the series Riverworld by the noted science fiction writer Phillip Jose Farmer.