Aphra Behn – Poet, Spy and Playwright
Aphra Behn was born, it is thought in December of 1640 in Kent, England. She was a British 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.
Her origin remains a mystery, in part because Behn may have deliberately obscured her early life. One tradition identifies Behn as the child who traveled in the 1650s with a couple to Suriname, which was then an English possession. She was more likely the daughter of a barber, Bartholomew Johnson, who may or may not have sailed with her and the rest of her family to Suriname in 1663. She returned to England in 1664 and married a merchant named Behn; he died (or the couple separated) soon after. Her wit and talent having brought her into high esteem, she was employed by King Charles II in secret service in the Netherlands in 1666. Unrewarded and briefly imprisoned for debt, she began to write to support herself.
Behn’s early works were tragicomedies in verse. In 1670, her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was produced and The Amorous Prince followed a year later. Her sole tragedy, Abdelazer, was staged in 1676. However, she turned increasingly to light comedy and farce over the course of the 1670s. Many of these witty and vivacious comedies, notably The Rover (two parts, produced 1677 and 1681), were commercially successful. The Rover depicts the adventures of a small group of English Cavaliers in Madrid and Naples during the exile of the future Charles II. The Emperor of the Moon, first performed in 1687, presaged the harlequinade, a form of comic theatre that evolved into the English pantomime.
She belonged to a coterie of poets and famous libertines such as John Wilmot, Lord Rochester. During the turbulent political times of the Exclusion Crisis (1679-1681), she wrote an epilogue and prologue that brought her into legal trouble. She thereafter devoted most of her writing to prose genres and translations.
Though Behn wrote many plays, her fiction today draws more interest. Her short novel Oroonoko (1688) tells the story of an enslaved African prince whom Behn claimed to have known in South America. Its themes of slavery, race, and gender, as well as its influence on the development of the English novel, helped to make it her best-known work. Behn’s other fiction includes the multipart epistolary novel Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684–87) and The Fair Jilt (1688).
Behn’s versatility, like her output, was immense; she wrote other popular works of fiction, and she often adapted works by older dramatists. She also wrote poetry, the bulk of which was collected in Poems upon Several Occasions, with A Voyage to the Island of Love (1684) and Lycidus; or, The Lover in Fashion (1688). Behn’s charm and generosity won her a wide circle of friends, and her relative freedom as a professional writer, as well as the subject matter of her works, made her the object of some scandal.
She is famously 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.”
She died on April 16, 1689 and is buried not in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, but lies in the East Cloister near the steps to the church.