She is thought to have been the first woman to make her living purely by writing. But that one fact — whether or not it is actually true — does not do justice to the person or to the work of Aphra Behn.
Behn lived from 1640 to 1689, a time known as the Restoration in English history because it was then that Charles II was returned to the throne after the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell’s reign had been an oppressive one that included the closing of all theaters. Behn made much of her living by writing popular plays, which were often bawdy and risque. In addition to being a playwright, Behn was also a poet and essayist who had a distinct voice and point of view.
We know relatively little about Aphra Behn’s origins and family. We do know that in 1663, she accompanied the family of the governor-general to Surinam and the time that she spent there became an important part of her later writing experience. Shortly after her return to England In 1664, she married Johan Behn, but the marriage did not last long, either because they separated or because her husband died. From that point on, she often referred to herself as “Mrs. Behn.” She also used the name “Astrea” to identify herself as the author of her writings.
Behn’s connections with the court of Charles II got her an assignment to go to Holland as a spy and to gather information about possible threats to Charles II’s reign. When she wrote to the King to ask that her expenses be covered, she received no reply and no money. Consequently, she had to borrow money for the return voyage. Sometime after she returned to England, she had to spend a short time in debtors’ prison because she still lacked the funds to pay for the voyage. All of this happened between 1665 and 1670.
It was at that point, apparently, that been decided she had to make her own way in the world. She chose to do that by writing. Her first play The Forc’d Marriage was produced in 1670, and for the next two decades, she was one of London’s foremost playwrights. She had 19 plays produced, more than any of her contemporaries during that time.
Behn did not confine herself to writing for the theater. She published two volumes of poetry 1 and 1684 and the other in 1688. Behn had a well-developed poetic voice and a distinctive style. She wrote in both short verses and long narratives, and her poetry exhibited her intelligence and her knowledge of literature. Her poetry was well received by her contemporaries. Here is part of what is said about her on the Poetry Foundation website:
Behn’s contemporary reputation as a poet was no less stunning than her notoriety as a dramatist. She was heralded as a successor to Sappho, inheriting the great gifts of the Greek poet in the best English tradition exemplified by Behn’s immediate predecessor, Katherine Philips. Just as Philips was known by her pastoral nom de plume and praised as “The Matchless Orinda,” so Behn was apostrophized as “The Incomparable Astrea,” an appellation based on the code name she had used when she was Charles’s spy. (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/aphra-behn)
Aphra Behn was also a novelist. Her most lasting work was Oroonoko, a novel about an African prince who was tricked into becoming a slave for European colonists. It is the first novel to treat Africans in a sympathetic light. In the book, the protagonist insists that the oath to a King must be respected. That idea had serious political implications in 1688, the year the book was published, because James II was on the throne, and there was a faction in England that was seeking to replace him with a non-Catholic monarch. Behn was a supporter of the Stuart line of succession and was likely a Catholic.
The novel was popular at the time of its publication and became even more so when it was produced as a stage play.
Aphra Behn died in 1689, a year after her most famous novel was published. She was 49 years old.
After her death, her life and her work were marginalized due in part to the changing political climate in England — Mary II and her Dutch husband William of Orange, both Protestants, secured the throne in 1688 — and also because she was a woman. Behn’s work came to be considered lewd and scandalous, and she was dismissed as a writer of no consequence.
Interest in her work revived in the early 20th century, particularly when author Virginia Woolf praised her as the first woman who made her living purely from her writing. Her poems are now regularly read, and her plays are occasionally produced.
In addition to the detailed assessment of Behn’s poetry on the Poetry Foundation website cited above, LibriVox.org has a number of her poems that you can listen to or download. The BBC’s Radio 4 In Our Time interview show has an excellent program on Aphra Behn that is well worth listening to.
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