Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn books and biography


Aphra Behn


Portrait of Aphra Behn, aged approximately 30, by Mary Beale.
Portrait of Aphra Behn, aged approximately 30, by Mary Beale.

Aphra Behn (July 10, 1640 – April 16, 1689) was a prolific dramatist of the Restoration, and is considered one of the first English professional woman writers. Her writing participated in the amatory fiction genre of British literature.


Early life

The personal history of Aphra Behn, the first Englishwoman to earn her livelihood by authorship[citation needed], is unusually interesting but very difficult to unravel and relate. Information regarding her, especially her early life, is scanty, but she was almost certainly born in Wye, near Canterbury, on July 10, 1640 to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham. Aphra's parents were married in 1638 and Aphra, or Eaffry, was baptized on December 14, 1640. Elizabeth Denham was employed as a nurse to the wealthy Culpepper 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 Culpepper, later described Aphra as his foster sister.

In 1663 Aphra visited an English sugar colony on the Suriname River, on the coast east of Venezuela (a region later known as Suriname). During this trip Aphra is supposed 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 often been called into question; however, enough evidence has been found that most Behn scholars today believe that the trip did indeed take place.

Life in England, writing career, work as a spy

A sketch of Aphra Behn by George Scharf from a portrait believed to be lost.
A sketch of Aphra Behn by George Scharf from a portrait believed to be lost.

Shortly after her return to England in 1664 Aphra married Johan Behn, who was a merchant of German or Dutch extraction. Little conclusive information is known about Aphra's marriage, but it did not last for more than a few years. She was reportedly bisexual, and held a larger attraction to women than to men, a trait that, coupled with her writings and references of this nature, would eventually make her popular in the writing and artistic communities of the 20th century and present day. [1] [2] [3]

By 1666 Behn had become attached to the Court, possible 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. [4] She became the lover to a prominent and powerful royal, and from him she obtained political secrets to be used to the English advantage. [5]

Aphra's exploits were not profitable, however, as Charles was slow in paying (if he paid at all) for either her services or expenses whilst abroad. Money had to be borrowed for Aphra to return to London, where a year's petitioning of Charles for payments went unheard, and she ended up in a debtor's prison. By 1669 an undisclosed source had paid Aphra'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, also poems and pamphlets. Her most popular works included The Rover, "Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister", Oroonoko.

Aphra Behn died on April 16, 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." [6] She was quoted as once stating that she had led a "life dedicated to pleasure and poetry". [7]

Status among other writers throughout history

In author Virginia Woolf's reckoning, Behn's total career is more important than any particular work it produced. After a hiatus in the 19th century, when both the writer and the work were dismissed as indecent, Behn's fame has now undergone extraordinary revival. She dominates cultural-studies discourse as both a topic and a set of texts. [8]

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."

In an age of libertines, Behn undertook 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. [9]

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. [10] It has been written that "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". [11] [12]

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. [13]

The noted critic Harold Bloom calls Behn a "fourth-rate playwright" and notes her resurgent popularity as a case of "dumbing down." [14]

Quotes of Aphra Behn

  • "Love ceases to be a pleasure, when it ceases to be a secret." [15]
  • "Variety is the soul of pleasure." [16]
  • "Money speaks sense in a language all nations understand." [17]
  • "There is no sinner like a young saint." [18]


  • The Forced Marriage (1670)
  • The Amorous Prince (1671)
  • The Dutch Lover (1673)
  • Abdelazer (1676)
  • The Town Fop (1676)
  • The Rover (1677 [part one] and 1681 [part two])
  • 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)
  • The Lucky Chance (1686) with composer John Blow
  • The Emperor of the Moon (1687)

Posthumously performed

  • The Widow Ranter (1689)
  • The Younger Brother (1696)


  • The Fair Jilt
  • Agnes de Castro
  • Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister (1684)
  • Oroonoko (1688)

Biographies and writings based on her life

  • Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra: a social biography of Aphra Behn (New York: Dial Press, 1980). ISBN 0-8037-7478-8 should be read as the least speculative of the Behn biographies
  • Janet Todd (1997). The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-2455-5. tells a fast-paced story of her life and loves.
  • Virginia Woolf (1929). A Room of One's Own.
  • Maureen Duffy (1977). The Passionate Shepherdess.
  • Derek Hughes (2001). The Theatre of Aphra Behn. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-76030-1.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister

Oroonoko Or The Royal Slave


By Aphra Behn
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The Works Of Aphra Behn, Volume 2

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