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date: 16 July 2024

Behn, Aphra [Aphara]free


Behn, Aphra [Aphara]free

  • Janet Todd

Aphra Behn (1640?–1689)

by Robert White, pubd 1716 (after John Riley)

Behn, Aphra [Aphara] (1640?–1689), writer, kept her early life obscure. The only person who claims to have known her as a child was the cavalier Colonel Thomas Colepeper who declared in his manuscript 'Adversaria' (BL, Harley MSS 7587–7605) that her mother had been his wet-nurse, that she was born 'at Sturry or Canterbury', that her father's name was Johnson, that she had a 'fayer' sister, Frances, and that she herself was 'a most beautifull woman, & a most Excellent Poet'. Another contemporary testimony is that of Anne Finch, countess of Winchilsea, who in 'The Circuit of Apollo' gives 'the desolate Wye' as the place of her birth, and in marginalia on the poem (Finch MS Collection, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington) states that she was reputed to be 'Daughter to a Barber, who liv'd formerly at Wye a little market town (now much decay'd) in Kent'.

The two accounts fit an Eaffrey Johnson, sister of Frances and daughter of Bartholomew Johnson from Bishopsbourne, who was, among other functions, a barber in Canterbury. His wife, Eaffrey's mother, was Elizabeth Denham from a trading family in Smeeth; Elizabeth's brother was a doctor educated at Oxford. The JohnsonDenham marriage took place at St Paul's, Canterbury, on 25 August 1638. Frances was baptized in Smeeth on 6 December. Eaffrey was born on 14 December 1640 at Harbledown near Canterbury. At least two other births followed, of George, buried at St Margaret's in 1656, and of an unnamed boy alive in the 1660s. In 1654 Bartholomew was appointed an overseer of the poor for St Margaret's in central Canterbury. When she wrote her fiction Oroonoko, Behn created a more elevated identity for herself as narrator, and her first biographer, author of the 'Memoir' (published with the 1698 edition of her histories and novels), accepted it as fact; thus she is often described as the daughter of a gentleman who became the 'lieutenant-general of six and thirty islands, besides the continent of Surinam'. No contemporaries gave her this high status, however, and John Dryden after her death implied she was lowly born. The lack of clarity has allowed much interesting speculation from readers wanting her to be more ethnically or aristocratically connected.

Surinam and Antwerp

During the final years of the interregnum Behn may have acted as a royalist spy or agent, since she was later trusted with an important mission and somewhere got to know Charles II's courtier Thomas Killigrew, himself involved in espionage. Or, since she wrote a good hand, she may have acted as a copyist for Killigrew and others. By 1664 her father was probably dead, since the hearth tax returns for his parish do not list him. Late in 1663 she apparently arrived with her mother and siblings, but not her father, in Surinam, the new English colony in the proprietorship of Lord Willoughby but administered by a deputy governor, William Byam. She stayed on a plantation owned by Sir Robert Harley and became involved in the political squabbles of the colony. It is possible that Behn was acting in some intelligence capacity in the colony, since Byam probably denoted Behn in his letters under the pseudonym Astrea and described with distaste her intimacy both professionally and personally with the dangerous dissident William Scot, whom he named Celadon, son of the executed regicide and former secret service chief Thomas. Behn later used the pseudonym Astrea in her documented mission to Antwerp and adopted it for her literary career.

In Surinam, if Oroonoko can be credited, Behn also became friendly with John Trefry, Lord Willoughby's agent, and with George Marten, brother of the famous republican Henry; she used George's name for the hero of The Younger Brother (1696). Behn claimed that her virgin muse was American and implied that it was in Surinam that she wrote her first play, The Young King, partly based on the romance Cléopâtre by La Calprenède. When Behn and her family left Surinam early in 1664, Scot followed shortly and was soon collaborating with the Dutch in the Netherlands. Back in London, Behn apparently married a merchant of German extraction resident there, possibly Johann Behn, the man who served on the King David in the Caribbean in the 1650s; she immediately lost him through death or separation. A reference to a 'Widow Behn' in connection with a dead husband's involvement in a ship called the Abraham's Sacrifice in 1669 occurs in a letter in the Huntington Library from William Blathwayt; this may refer to Behn, although she never called herself a widow. In 1666, probably through the influence of Killigrew, Behn was sent to Antwerp as a government agent under the name Astrea by the secretary of state, Lord Arlington, to liaise with Scot to see if he would turn double agent and betray his Dutch masters. From letters in The Hague archives there is evidence that he double-crossed her while giving her snippets of useful information; at the same time letters from a fellow spy, William Corney, tended to undermine her in London. As weeks passed she became desperate for money in expensive Antwerp and appealed both to Arlington and to Killigrew. Neither sent sufficient funds and in the end she had to borrow in order to return to England. She could not repay the loan and was threatened with the debtors' prison. It is unclear whether or not she was incarcerated, but it is possible that she bought her freedom with another espionage mission.

Career as a playwright

By 1670 Behn had turned to the stage. During the 1660s she had probably written poems and some comic fiction but, with The Forc'd Marriage, which opened the season of the Duke's Company on 20 September 1670, she began a career as a professional writer working for the Duke's Company, primarily under the actor–manager Thomas Betterton; her sex and past were alluded to in her first prologue ('The Poetess too, they say, has Spies abroad'), and possibly in the character of Falatius, who with his patches may have represented Arlington who had abandoned her in Antwerp. In writing for the stage Behn was a remarkable phenomenon. Katherine Philips, Frances Boothby, and possibly Elizabeth Polwhele preceded her as Restoration dramatists, but they each wrote only one or two plays or translations. Over the next years Behn had at least nineteen plays staged and probably contributed to many more. Her first plays—the tragicomedies of sex and power struggles The Forc'd Marriage and The Amorous Prince (staged 1671), and The Young King (not staged until 1679 when it was adapted for the political situation of the Exclusion crisis)—were probably all written at about the same time, since they draw on the common 1660s theme of royal restoration and, like Caroline plays, use masques and depend on costume and disguise. At the same time they already reveal Behn's remarkable command of the new theatrical medium and suggest an early interest in state politics and the interaction of power and sex. The Forc'd Marriage suggests the power of legitimacy over brute force and the appropriateness of marrying for love; The Amorous Prince openly alludes to fornication and homosexuality, and shows the abuse of power when a prince is ruled by sex. Both plays were mocked in Buckingham's The Rehearsal.

In 1671 Edward Howard's The Six Days Adventure failed, and Behn wrote a commendatory pindaric poem for its publication, urging Howard to ignore critics and continue writing. She was possibly the editor of The Covent Garden Drolery (1672), a theatrical anthology of verse mainly from the King's Company, possibly supplied by Killigrew; it included four of her poems, one of which was the versatile and popular description of pastoral lovemaking, 'I led my Silvia to a grove'. By now Behn seems to have known many theatrical people including the young Elizabeth Barry, possibly 'Amoret' in her poem 'Our Cabal', Thomas Otway, and Edward Ravenscroft to whom she addressed her 'Letter to a Brother of the Pen in Tribulation' when he undertook a cure for syphilis. Possibly at this time she began a liaison with John Hoyle, a bisexual lawyer with a reputation for violence, republicanism, and freethinking. It seems to have continued for some years since her name was coupled with his throughout her professional life; Roger Morrice in a manuscript record in Dr Williams's Library, London, wrote in 1687 that it was 'publickly known that Mr Hoyle 10. or 12. yeares since kept Mrs. Beane'. Her depictions of libertines may have drawn on Hoyle, as may her portrayals of Amyntas and Lycidus, to whom some of her most complex love poems are addressed. It was possibly to Hoyle that she wrote a series of cajoling letters complaining of neglect; they were posthumously published as the short story 'Love Letters to a Gentleman'. Behn seems to have responded emotionally to many people in her life, and her works, which may or may not have an autobiographical component, address both men and women amorously.

Behn's The Dutch Lover was performed in 1673 on the new stage at Dorset Garden; it tried to exploit the anti-Dutch feeling of the Third Anglo-Dutch War and cleverly amalgamated several short stories of Francisco de Quintana from The History of Don Fenise. Although another tragicomedy of sexual intrigue, cruelty, and apparently incestuous love, it was for Behn a new departure in its depiction of the rake—a 'brisk young Lover'—and a pert heroine, a minor character in the earlier plays, but one she would thoroughly exploit in later ones. The play was unsuccessful and she published it with a burlesque epistle to the reader mocking male pretensions to dominate playwriting and the notion of dramatic rules which she had been criticized for flouting. Plays were not the highest human endeavour, she argued, but 'among the middle if not the better sort of Books'. In 1676 her only tragedy, Abdelazer, was performed. An adaptation of an old play, Lust's Dominion, which followed the mode for horror and vicious women, it opened with her powerful song 'Love in fantastique triumph satt', later much anthologized. Her play was similar to a group of curious horror plays by Nathaniel Lee and Elkanah Settle, depicting motiveless and exotic evil and vicious women who preyed on rivals and children; Behn changed the story in her source to avoid any repentance in the evil queen. The play was moderately successful and was revived with Purcell's music in 1695.

Behn was probably by now associated with the circle of the earl of Rochester who, she claimed, helped her with her poetry, and whose elegy she wrote in 1680. It was probably within the Rochester circle that she wrote some of her most risqué poems, including 'The Disappointment', a translation from the French which, by stopping before the original, stressed the woman's rather than the man's amorous irritation, and 'On a Juniper-Tree, Cut Down to Make Busks', which presented a voyeuristic and leering tree watching the copulation of mortals. These and other poems were more explicitly sexual than those published by any other woman of her time; in print they were first attributed to Rochester. The most significant poem probably from this period is 'The Golden Age', an adaptation via an untraced French intermediary of a famous passage from Tasso's Aminta, in which she pleaded for a love untrammelled with economy and for sex as pleasure not power. By 1680 she had a reputation as a competent poet, and contributed a paraphrase of Oenone's complaint to the DrydenTonson collection of Ovid's Epistles, although she knew no Latin.

In the theatre Behn followed Abdelazer with her first London comedy, The Town-Fopp (performed 1676), adapted from George Wilkins's Miseries of Inforst Marriage; it displayed an unpleasant and foppish rake, and at moments came close to tragicomedy. Probably other adaptations and collaborations followed, including The Debauchee (staged 1677), a shortened version of a Richard Brome comedy, published anonymously. These works form a transition to her first light comedy of intrigue and her most enduringly popular play, The Rover, based on Killigrew's Thomaso. The play, featuring a comic drunken rake, a sprightly heroine, and an impassioned whore, was set in the interregnum and called on cavalier nostalgia for a poorer but politically simpler moment. Elizabeth Barry, who seems to have become a friend of Behn's, played Helena and William Smith Willmore. The Rover was twice performed at court and was admired by James, duke of York. Anonymously published in 1677, it appeared with a postscript defending the playwright against the charge of plagiarism—a charge which, together with that of bawdiness, would plague Behn throughout her career; the next issue declared her name.

In the late 1670s the Exclusion crisis and Popish Plot politicized dramatists, and Behn became a propagandist for the king and the emerging tory faction. She took many opportunities to attack the duke of Monmouth, whom she saw as a danger to legitimacy and national stability, and she lambasted City dissenters regarded as the heirs of the 1640s rebels. Sir Patient Fancy (staged 1678), taking some plot elements from several Molière plays, was another sex comedy like The Rover; the most cynical of her dramas, it allows adultery to go unpunished and hypocrisy to be rewarded. It mocked old dissenting merchants and country bumpkins; its assertive epilogue defended a woman's right to compose plays. When published, Sir Patient Fancy included a defence of Behn against both plagiarism and bawdiness: she was writing 'for Bread and not ashamed to owne it'. In 1679 she published her next play, The Feign'd Curtizans. Up to this point she had not dedicated her plays to great personages, but this one was addressed to the king's mistress Nell Gwyn. Subsequently she dedicated her works to many elevated men and one more royal mistress, the duchess of Mazarine, whose style she greatly admired. The Feign'd Curtizans was set in Catholic Rome and follows The Rover in presenting a troupe of intermeshed young people trying to form themselves into suitable couples; there is the usual libertine contempt for moral reputation but all end married. The topical comedy derives from a Titus Oates figure, a travelling chaplain called Tickletext. Probably early in 1680 there followed an anonymously published, partly revised and partly adapted version of Marston's The Dutch Courtezan called The Revenge, in which Marston's moral was changed so as to explain wrongdoing and forgive the whore; the play was ascribed to Behn by the collector Narcissus Luttrell.

Politics now dominated the theatre, and to take financial advantage Behn speedily wrote four plays, two adapting and two using earlier plays; all were performed within months of each other from 1681 to 1682. The first was a sequel to The Rover, again based on Thomaso and dedicated to the duke of York; it was more farcical than the earlier play and depicted the hero choosing the whore over the virgin and avoiding the 'formal foppery of marriage'. The False Count was performed with a prologue ferociously but ironically attacking the whigs and praising Behn as a royal propagandist; it delivered a mixed message, that instruction could make a gallant but that a shoemaker and his daughter would never be ‘quality’: property was not, as whigs supposed, the basis of civic worth. The Roundheads, deriving from Tatham's The Rump about the final parliament before the Restoration, was an energetic farce which crudely attacked the whigs as old republicans; it was Behn's most openly propagandist play, even using conventional fear of petticoat rule to make its point that any destabilizing of royal government was to be resisted. The City-Heiress, an innovative play based on Middleton's A Mad World, my Masters and Massinger's The Guardian, again mocked hypocritical whig dissenters, but its main interest was its treatment of Behn's usual trio, especially the relationship between the poxed rake hero Wilding and a rich passionate widow, Lady Galliard, whom he rejects for the rich young virgin. A less politically committed play now lost, Like Father, Like Son, was also performed during this time.

The success of both The City-Heiress and The Roundheads prompted attacks on Behn as a propagandist and bawdy writer from the whig Thomas Shadwell and the satirist Robert Gould, and, more affectionately, from William Wycherley, who compared the crowded theatre for The City-Heiress to a sweating tub for pox. In 1682 Behn provided a prologue and epilogue for the anonymous Romulus and Hersilia in which, with a glance at Monmouth, she declared that rebelling against a king and father was unforgivable. Charles II was displeased and she and the actress Lady Slingsby were briefly taken into custody. Possibly her dislike of Monmouth endeared her to one of his enemies, the earl of Mulgrave, who had improperly courted the Princess Anne. Apparently Behn provided a poem in apology using the story of Ovid and Julia. By now Behn was associated with libertinism and freethinking, as is suggested in a commendatory poem she wrote at the beginning of 1683 to praise a translation of Lucretius's De rerum natura by Thomas Creech. Creech was eager to neutralize his dangerously unchristian subject matter but Behn saw the poem as a triumphant assertion of rationalism and materialism, a victory of reason over faith. She published this uncompromising view of Lucretius in her own Poems upon Several Occasions (1684) but Creech used a different version of her poem for his volume, in which faith became 'the secure Retreat of Routed Argument'. In the same poem Behn praised Creech for rescuing women from the 'ignorance of the female sex'.

Prose fiction and poetry

At this point in her life Behn may have visited Paris—her competence at French seems suddenly to have improved and she became familiar with the latest French writing. Back in England she lodged near one of her publishers, Jacob Tonson, in New Street. The King's Company had long been declining and in November 1682 it had merged with her own Duke's Company into the United Company. Without competition, and with the whole repertory of past drama to choose from, the new company needed few new plays, and playwrights including Behn looked to other genres for income. The need coincided with a major shift in Behn's thinking. After Willmore, her rake figures tended to darken and her passionate women grow more complex; these figures appear in more rounded form in her first published prose fiction, part 1 of Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684), an epistolary novel loosely based on a scandal involving Ford, Lord Grey and Lady Henrietta Berkeley. Grey, who was also a central figure in the Rye House plot and later in the Monmouth rising, had fled to the continent with his sister-in-law Henrietta Berkeley after a sensational public trial before the king's bench in 1682. Behn's novel is a series of letters between the lovers which charts both the political and passionate trajectories of their lives up to their escape from England in 1683.

Shortly after the Monmouth rising Behn published Love-Letters, part 2, which followed the lovers through their exile in Cleve and the breakdown of their relationship. Here, however, letters were framed by a third-person narrative which carried much of the action of the novel, and the heated prose of part 1 became farcical as the partners entered new amours and the servant to whom Silvia had been married for the convenience of his lord woke up to his manhood and desired his wife. In part 3, The Amours of Philander and Silvia (1687), Behn concluded the story of the now debased lovers and dealt with the actual events leading up to the Monmouth rising, again employing the combination of letters and third-person narrative. In its complete form Love-Letters stands at over 1000 pages; it was a popular work which ran to seven editions by 1765, a serialization in the Oxford Journal in 1736, and a verse edition. It is an important landmark in the development of the epistolary novel and the roman à clef, an extraordinary analysis of erotic arousal. The work appeared anonymously and it remains unclear who commissioned it, but, since part 3 was dedicated to the disreputable son of the current secretary of state, the earl of Sunderland, Sunderland seems a possible instigator of the project.

Behn was in London for the harsh winter of 1683–4 when the Thames froze; she commemorated the occasion in a comic poem to Creech following the celebration of twelfth night. This may have been the occasion of her meeting Thomas Brown, who was later remarkably free with her works and reputation. The short story attributed to her, 'Memoirs of the Court of the King of Bantam', may have dated from this period since it concerned twelfth night and was said to be her contribution to a story-writing competition. At this time she also expended much effort on a poem based on Abbé Paul Tallemant's Voyage de l'isle d'amour, a 2196-line seduction poem in which the sex act becomes a strenuous journey through Honour, Respect, and Jealousy to Opportunity. All this literary activity did not compensate for lost theatrical revenue, however, and a rare letter to her publisher Tonson reveals Behn trying to get an extra £5 for her 'Island of Love', which Tonson was publishing together with some of her earlier works as Poems upon Several Occasions. The volume included a verse letter to Rochester's half-niece Anne Wharton, in which Behn defended herself from the now common charge of bawdiness, this time levelled at her by the whig clergyman Gilbert Burnet. Probably at Wharton's instigation Behn provided a prologue to Rochester's posthumously performed play, Valentinian, staged in 1684.

Poems upon Several Occasions appeared in 1684 with commendatory poems by Creech and others, one apparently by Dryden but probably written by Tonson himself. In the dedication to the young earl of Salisbury Behn made the point that aristocracy should support monarchy and art: the patron of the poet was the patron of England. She enlarged on the theme in the following year when she published another collection, Miscellany (1685), using her own and other people's poems and including a rather careless translation of La Rochefoucauld's maxims and a curious paraphrase on the Lord's prayer in which she moaned that authors could not earn their 'daily Bread' and 'Trespasses' were not to be resisted. It is likely that The Younger Brother, published and performed posthumously as her last play, was composed at this time, since its subject of sexual adventuring and unrepentant libertine women fits with the theme of some of the poems as well as with the prose Love-Letters. It is unclear why she did not stage the play now, but, having missed the moment, it may have seemed unsuitable for other theatrical seasons when libertine investigations and mockery of elderly cuckolds were less in vogue. The play was altered and staged by Charles Gildon in 1696 following the success of Southerne's adaptation of Behn's short story Oroonoko; it was a failure. Behn now began a sequel to her popular 'Island of Love' in which she switched from the sincere lover Lysander to his cynical friend Lycidus and from romance to intrigue, rather in the manner of her switch from part 1 to parts 2 and 3 of Love-Letters. The work mixed prose and poetry and was closer to Tallemant than the earlier paraphrase.

Behn was interrupted in her projects by the sudden death of Charles II in February 1685. For this event she wrote her first major public poem, A Pindarick on the Death of our Late Sovereign, much concerned with the transfer of legitimate power from one king to another. She followed it with a poem to the widowed Catherine of Braganza and with her longest and most elaborate political poem, A Pindarick Poem on the Happy Coronation of His Most Sacred Majesty James II, nearly 800 lines of baroque extravaganza in praise of her 'Godlike Patron' and his wife, Mary of Modena. She eulogized the loyalty of many in James's entourage who would betray him three years later. Her ode was politically correct in its insistence that the coronation only confirmed and did not make a king. In the same year she provided a graceful 'Pastoral Pindarick' for the marriage of the earl of Dorset and a commendatory poem for Thomas Tryon's book on health (1685). Behn's attraction to freethinking as well as to the trappings of Catholicism make her an unlikely author of the anti-Catholic satire on Dryden written about this time, 'On Dryden Renegade', although her name is added to more than one manuscript copy. In 1687 she provided further commendatory poems for Henry Higden's translation of a Juvenal satire and for Sir Francis Fane's play The Sacrifice; she also wrote a pindaric to the second duke of Albemarle on his departure to become governor of Jamaica. In the same year Francis Barlow reissued his engravings of Aesop's Fables, for which Behn provided four-line stanzas summarizing the fable and two lines to convey the moral commentary. As with her translations from Tallemant she set the material in the present and provided touches of Restoration London as well as making frequent allusions to the recently defeated Monmouth.

Despite the arrival of a welcome new order and her considerable activity in prose and poetry, Behn remained impecunious and an IOU dated August 1685 (Folger Shakespeare Library) recorded a loan of £6 to be repaid from the proceeds of her next play. She may also have done some copying for money, since a manuscript book of lampoons in the Bodleian Library (Firth c. 16), entitled 'Astrea's Booke for Songs & Satyr's', includes a hand which Mary Ann O'Donnell believes to be similar to Behn's; there are also some marginalia supporting her known opinions. The mortgaged play was probably The Luckey Chance, now considered one of Behn's best. It was the final play in her series of intrigue comedies beginning with The Rover and of city plays beginning with The Town-Fopp, and it was probably performed in late spring 1686; it was the last mainly original drama she would stage and it revisits her old theme of an elderly rich man demanding exclusive possession of a young wife. Despite some ambiguity in the depiction of the married heroine, it was more morally respectable than Sir Patient Fancy, which it resembles in plot. There is some pity for the losing old men, and the heroine thoroughly rejects her old husband only when she learns he has gambled her away; the young men are less daring and libertine than her earlier rakes, but love appears a fantasy in both young and old.

Unhappily taste had moved against Behn's kind of sex comedies and for all her care some attacked the play as bawdy and inappropriate for a woman's pen. When she published it in 1687 she provided a spirited preface in defence of her right to write and of her kind of drama. She wrote as men wrote, she claimed, and was no more or less bawdy than they:

All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me … to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv'd in … I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful World, and scorn its fickle Favours.

In contrast to her earlier defences, she no longer insisted that playwriting was trivial. Before Charles II's death she had sought to please the king by beginning a version of the stylized commedia dell'arte based on a published French scenario. She now returned to it, entitling it The Emperor of the Moon. It attacked pedantic male scholarship, one of Behn's butts throughout her career, and mocked gullibility, as Love-Letters had done in its presentation of the credulous Monmouth. The play, concerning theatre, transformation, and pageantry and featuring Harlequin and Scaramouch, was a spectacular demanding blacked actors, descending chariots, embodied signs of the zodiac, and a symphony of music; it was a fitting end to a theatrical career of seventeen years.

Final years

Behn was often in poor health; towards the end of 1686 her health worsened. She had trouble walking and writing, and may have had a form of arthritis. Gould insinuated that it was gout; another satirist asserted pox and poverty. With an elegy to Edmund Waller (1687) she sent a covering note to the poet's daughter-in-law in which she declared that she was 'very ill and [had] been dying this twelve month'. None the less she continued to write furiously. She continued her French adaptations with a prose allegory of Balthasar de Bonnecorse called La montre (1686); it was a lengthy work—too long according to Matthew Prior—which combined prose and poetry. It was more static and playful than the erotic 'Island of Love' and Behn added to its instructions for a day in love her own descriptions of hypocritical and seductive men. She also finished her continuation Lycidus, again combining prose and poetry. In this she changed the sincere hero of 'The Island of Love' into the more worldly and sophisticated Lycidus, and replaced romance with coquetry and flirtation; the atmosphere became more theatrical than pastoral. The ending of the work accepting the death of love and bidding farewell to the genre of escapist and enriching pastoral poetry sounds like Behn's farewell to the genre in which she had had such success.

Affixed to Lycidus were other poems, including the ambiguous 'To the Fair Clarinda, who Made Love to me, Imagin'd More than Woman' addressed to a transvestite, hermaphrodite, or lesbian lover. Other poems suggest a more everyday reality than in her earlier poems: for example they mention a visit to Tunbridge Wells and gratitude for a bottle of orange flower water. She also produced translations from two French works that popularized the new Copernican science, Discovery of New Worlds (1688), from Bernard de Fontenelle's controversial original, and The History of Oracles, also from an original by him. The first, concerning planetary systems, was prefaced by her own 'Essay on translated prose' which treated the idiosyncrasies of particular languages and parodied and exemplified the scholastic method of dispute used by biblical scholars; the second was a comparative history of pagan religions, which by implication mocked the early church fathers. The topics were dangerous since both books implied some doubts about the revealed Christian religion.

Most significant for Behn's future reputation was her publication of five short fictions, The Fair Jilt, Oroonoko, Agnes de Castro, The History of the Nun, and The Lucky Mistake. The first two, her most famous stories, both make use of Behn's past life in Surinam and Flanders and both, like the last two parts of Love-Letters, use an allegedly autobiographical narrator as a character in the story, gauging and responding to public opinion and rumour. The Fair Jilt depicts the career of a ruthless woman who uses sex to gain power in society and over men; in many ways she is another version of Silvia from Love-Letters. The hero, a naïve prince fooled by others, may be a glancing reference to James II, to whom Behn remained extraordinarily loyal but whose political mismanagement was by now taxing the nation. James may also be alluded to in Oroonoko, the hero of which is similarly heroic, exaggerated, and gullible. Oroonoko is Behn's most famous work and it allowed her name to have some currency throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when her plays were denigrated as unladylike and bawdy. Despite its hero's slave owning and his opinion that some men deserved slavery, the work was often taken as an abolitionist tract, and many sentimental versions of the story appeared in England and France. In more recent times it has given Behn fame as a commentator on imperialism, race, and ethnicity.

Another startling short story is Behn's History of the Nun, in which a young girl is led into real crime by being confined too young to a nunnery; its message appears to be that people change and should be allowed to do so, but the moral is supposedly the danger of vow breaking, a useful one for the wavering subjects of James II in 1688. The last of the fictions that can be securely attributed to Behn, The Lucky Mistake, was published posthumously in 1689; it is a slighter, more folkloric tale but with an interesting depiction of a young and vulnerable intellectual girl. Nine further short stories were published posthumously; they may be by Behn or partly by her, or they may be partly or entirely forgeries, possibly by Thomas Brown and Charles Gildon working with the publisher Samuel Briscoe.

Behn hymned James II to the end of his reign. Although the nation was racked with plots and was much aware of William of Orange waiting over the water, Behn provided A Congratulatory Poem … on the Universal Hopes of All Loyal Persons for a Prince of Wales when she learned of the queen's pregnancy; robustly she assumed a live boy child and inadvertently helped to fan the rumour that the king was going to have a male heir by nature or fraud. In June the boy was born, and Behn was ready with A Congratulatory Poem … on the Happy Birth addressed to James; both poems stressed the royal need to reward poets for their loyal efforts and expressed the hope that 'POETS shall by Patron PRINCES live'. For her zeal Behn was mocked by another court poet, John Baber, to whom in retaliation she addressed 'To Poet Bavius' reducing him to a toady and amateur. Her loyalty to James II was further demonstrated by a eulogy to the chief government propagandist Roger L'Estrange for his part in the Popish Plot and his propagandist history, and by her translation of book 6 of Abraham Cowley's Latin original for Nahum Tate's English edition, Of Plants. Into this latter she made her famous insertion 'in her own Person':

Let me with Sappho and Orinda beOh ever sacred Nymph, adorn'd by thee;And give my Verses Immortality.

Her sense of impending doom can be caught in what was probably her final play, The Widdow Ranter, set in the chaotic colony of Virginia and featuring a political rebellion and a doomed hero much in the manner of Oroonoko. The possible accession of William of Orange filled Behn with alarm, but when it occurred she had to make a partial peace if she was to survive as a public writer. From her Pindaric Poem to the Reverend Doctor Burnet it seems that she resisted the idea of writing for William III, while ironically praising Burnet's flexible loyalty and ability to control meaning and the reader's response with his 'fine ideas' and 'nobler pen'; she who could not so easily change notions and principles remains an 'excluded Prophet' on 'Brittains Faithless Shore'. She did, however, supply a Congratulatory Poem to … Queen Mary for Mary II, in which she declared she saw 'the Lines of your great Father's face' and asked James, 'Great Lord, of all my Vows', to accept her tribute to his usurping daughter. Behn died on 16 April 1689, five days after the coronation of William and Mary. She was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.


In her own period Behn was held to be a considerable author, famous as a playwright, propagandist poet and panegyrist, novelist, and translator. Soon after her death a group of women playwrights, including Delariver Manley and Catherine Trotter, entered the theatre, acknowledging their debt to Behn, and for the first half of the eighteenth century The Rover and The Emperor of the Moon continued to be performed. Yet even before her death Behn's personal reputation frequently rested on the binary opposition of modesty and lewdness, and she was contrasted with the chaste Katherine Philips. The eighteenth-century emphasis on femininity brought a demand that the many women writers now entering the market place should write in a feminine style and confine themselves to modest subject matter. Although she was occasionally assessed dispassionately—especially as a playwright, in encyclopaedias such as the English edition of Bayle's Dictionnaire (1734–41)—Behn was most often damned for monstrously writing like men; she was castigated as personally unfeminine by major authors such as Pope, Johnson, and Richardson. As the century progressed, The Rover had to be modernized for ‘decency’ and her poems decreased in number in the anthologies of women authors until by 1800 she was hardly represented at all. Apart from Oroonoko, sentimentalized into an anti-slavery tale in Britain and France, her novels fell from public view.

In the nineteenth century Behn was either ignored or vilified, both as a representative of the culturally disreputable Restoration and as a lewd woman whose works, excepting the redeeming Oroonoko, should not even be opened. Edmund Gosse in English Poets (1880) declared that, although Behn's poems had moments of fire and audacity, they caused later generations to blush for the author; Julia Kavanagh in English Women of Letters (1863) condemned her 'inveterate coarseness' of mind: Behn's plays were 'so coarse as to offend even a coarse age'.

With the twentieth century came a change. The Victorian disapproval gave Behn new champions among the moderns and her supposed role in the development of the novel allowed her to be studied by scholars presumed immune to her grossness. In 1915 Montague Summers produced a six-volume edition of her work, attempting to rescue Behn as a woman and an author by displaying her as a generous, energetic figure who could command the lyrical and personal mode and take a first rank among dramatists. Vita Sackville-West in Aphra Behn: the Incomparable Astrea (1927) portrayed Behn as a writer of fiction and stressed that her importance was less literary than sociological: she was the first professional woman writer, significant for being there rather than for any literary merit in what she wrote. Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own (1929) agreed, declaring that Behn had earned women 'the right to speak their minds'. Despite this limited acclaim, Behn and her works remained largely unknown to a wider public until the women's movement in the 1970s, when she began to be assessed in the tradition of female authors. Even then, however, she did not quite suit a criticism that sought victims or resisters of patriarchal oppression.

Only in the last two decades of the twentieth century was Behn finally thrust into prominence when Oroonoko became part of the new literary canon, with numerous paperback editions appearing, usually with extracts setting it within later discussions of slavery. Now critical taste demanded the fragmentary and playful, and this, coupled with fashionable concern for race and gender, made Behn one of the most frequently taught Restoration writers in colleges and schools on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time, especially in Britain, Behn was discussed by scholars within a historical context: she was seen as woman of letters, a huge influence on the Restoration theatre, from whose history she had largely been omitted by earlier critics, as well as a major force in the development of the early British novel. She also emerged as a political writer of stature, whose work revealed a growing sense of the power of art to influence politics and national culture.


  • J. Todd, The secret life of Aphra Behn (1996)
  • The works of Aphra Behn, ed. J. Todd, 7 vols. (1992–6)
  • M. Duffy, The passionate shepherdess (1977)
  • A. Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra (1980)
  • P. A. Hopkins, ‘Aphra Behn and John Hoyle’, N&Q, 239 (1994), 176–85
  • S. H. Mendelson, ‘Stuart women's diaries …’, Women in English society, 1500–1800 (1985)
  • M. A. O'Donnell, Aphra Behn: an annotated bibliography (1986)
  • M. A. O'Donnell, ‘A verse miscellany of Aphra Behn’, English Manuscript Studies, 1100–1700, 2 (1990)
  • The works of Aphra Behn, ed. M. Summers (1915)
  • G. Woodcock, The incomparable Aphra (1948)
  • W. J. Cameron, New light on Aphra Behn (1961)
  • CSP dom., 1660–70
  • CSP col., 1660–70
  • ‘Life and memoirs’, All the histories and novels (1698)
  • ‘Aphara Behn’, A general dictionary, historical and critical, 3 (1735)


  • attrib. Lely, portrait, 1670–1679, priv. coll.
  • J. Fittler, line engraving, pubd 1822 (after T. Uwins), NPG
  • G. Scharf, drawing, 1873, NPG
  • attrib. M. Beale, portrait (of Behn?), St Hilda's College, Oxford
  • R. White, line engraving (after J. Riley), BM, NPG; repro. in A. Behn, Plays, 2 vols. (1716) [see illus.]
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W. N. Sainsbury & others, eds., , [45 vols.] (1860–1994); repr., vols. 1–40 (1964); addenda, 1688–1699 (1969); K. O. Kupperman, J. C. Appleby, & M. Banton, eds., (2000) [also available as CD-ROM, incl. extra material]
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Notes and Queries