Aphra Behn (16401689)



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Biographical details

Note: the 19th- and early 20th-century biographies below preserve a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

BEHN, AFRA, APHRA, APHARA, or AYFARA (1640–1689), dramatist and novelist, was baptised at Wye on 10 July 1640. She was the daughter of John Johnson, a barber, and of Amy, his wife. A relative whom she called her father was nominated by Lord Willoughby to the post of lieutenant-general of Surinam, which was then an English possession. He went out to the West Indies with his whole family when Aphra was still a child. The father died on the outward voyage, but the family settled in the best house in the colony, a charming residence called St. John's Hill, of which the poetess has given a probably overcharged picture, painted from memory, in her novel of 'Oroonoko.' She became acquainted, as she grew up, with the romantic chieftain whose name has just been mentioned, and with Imoinda his wife. A great deal of nonsense was long afterwards talked in London about this friendship, in which the scandal-mongers would fain see a love-affair between Aphra and Oroonoko. The latter, to say the truth, is a slightly fabulous personage, although the poetess says that 'he was used to call me his "Great Mistress," and my wishes would go a great way with him.' England resigned Surinam to the Dutch, and Aphra returned to her native country about 1658. She presently married a city merchant named Behn, a gentleman of Dutch extraction. It appears that through her marriage she gained an entrance to the court, and that she amused Charles II with her sallies and her eloquent descriptions. Her married life, during which she seems to have been wealthy, was brief. Before 1666 she was a widow. When the Dutch war broke out, Charles II thought her a proper person to be entrusted with secret state business, and she was sent over to Antwerp by the government as a spy. During this stay in the Low Countries she was pestered with attentions from suitors, of whom she has left a very lively account. One of those, in a moment of indiscretion, gave her notice of Cornelius de Witt's intention to send a Dutch fleet up the Thames. Accordingly she communicated the news to london, but her intelligence was ridiculed. She was doomed to adventure in all that she undertook, for having promised to marry a Dutchman named Van der Aalbert, the two lovers separated to meet again in London. But Van der Aalbert was taken with a fever in Amsterdam and died, while Aphra Behn, having set sail from Dunkirk, was wrecked in sight of land, and narrowly escaped drowning. She returned to London, and, as her biographer puts it, she dedicated the remainder of her life to pleasure and poetry.

The fact is that Aphra Behn from this time forth became a professional writer, the first female writer who had lived by her pen in England, and that her assiduity surpassed that of any of the men, her contemporaries, except Dryden. Her works are extremely numerous. The truth seems to be that she had been left unprovided for at the death of her husband, and that the court basely failed to reward her for her services in Holland. She was driven to her pen, and she attempted to write in a style that should be mistaken for that of a man. Her earliest attempt was taken from a novel of La Calprenède, a tragedy of 'The Young King,' in verse. She did not find a manager or even a publisher who would take it, and she put it away. She gradually, however, made friends among the playwrights of the day, and particularly with Edward Ravenscroft, with whom there is reason to believe that her relations were very close. He wrote many of her early epilogues for her. In 1671 she produced at the Duke's Theatre the tragicomedy of the 'Forc'd Marriage,' in which Otway, a boy from college, unsuccessfully appeared on the stage for the first and only time in the part of the king. Still in 1671, she brought out and printed a coarse comedy, called 'The Amourous Prince.' It would appear that she had been for some time knocking in vain at the doors of the theatres; it does not seem to be known what induced the management of the Duke's to bring out two plays by a new writer within one year. In 1673 she published the 'Dutch Lover,' a comedy. Her tragedy of 'Abdelazar,' a rifacimento of Marlowe's 'Lust's Dominion,' was acted at the Duke's Theatre late in the year 1676, and published in 1677. This play contains the beautiful song, 'Love in fantastic triumph sat.' In 1677 she enjoyed a series of dramatic successes. She brought out the 'Rover,' an anonymous comedy. This play took the fancy of the town, was patronised by the Duke of York, and, being supposed to be written by a man, gave rise to great curiosity. She immediately followed it up with the 'Debauchee,' 1677, also anonymous, the worst and least original of her plays, and with the 'Town Fop,' also 1677, in which she makes extraordinary efforts, first, to write as uncleanly as any of her male rivals, and, secondly, to revive the peculiar manner of Ben Jonson, which had quite gone out of fashion. Mrs. Behn never scrupled to borrow, and she took the plot of her next play, 'Sir Patient Fancy,' 1678, from Molière's 'Malade Imaginaire.' She was blamed for this, and for the startling indelicacy of her dialogue, and she tartly responds in an extremely amusing preface to the first edition of this play. Engaged in a great variety of other literary work, she was silent on the stage until 1681, when she brought out a second part of the 'Rover,' with her name attached to the title-page. The next one or two years were years of great prosperity to Aphra Behn. Her comedies produced and printed in 1682, the 'Roundheads' and the 'City Heiress,' were very well received by packed tory audiences; Otway wrote a prologue to the latter; the former was rapturously dedicated to the Duke of Grafton. The 'False Count,' 1682, was her next comedy, Aphra Behn was encouraged in 1683 to publish her mild little first poem, the 'Young King.' After this she appealed to the stage but once more during her life with the 'Lucky Chance,' a comedy, and the 'Emperor of the Moon,' a farce, in 1687; both of these pieces were failures. In 1684 she had collected her 'Poems,' the longest of which is a laborious amorous allegory entitled 'A Voyage to the Isle of Love.' In 1688 she published 'A Discovery of New Worlds,' from the French of Fontenelle, with a curious 'Essay on Translation,' by herself, prefixed to the version. Her laborious life, however, was now approaching its close. In a beautiful copy of elegiac verses which she contributed to a volume of poems in memory of Waller in 1688, she speaks of long indisposition and 'toils of sickness' which have brought her almost as near to the tomb as Waller is. She died, in fact, in consequence of want of skill in her physician, on 16 April 1689, and was buried in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, where her name may still be seen inscribed on a slab of black marble. Her tragi-comedy of the 'Widow Ranter' was brought out in 1690 by 'one G. J., her friend,' and finally in 1696 another of her posthumous plays, the 'Younger Brother,' was published by Gildon, with a short memoir prefixed.

Aphra Behn was a graceful, comely woman, with brown hair and bright eyes, and was painted so in an existing portrait of her by John Ripley. She is said to have introduced milk punch into England. She deserves our sympathy as a warm-hearted, gifted, and industrious woman, who was forced by circumstance and temperament to win her livelihood in a profession where scandalous writing was at that time obligatory. It is impossible, with what we know regarding her life, to defend her manners as correct or her attitude to the world as delicate. But we may be sure that a woman so witty, so active, and so versatile, was not degraded, though she might be lamentably unconventional. She was the George Sand of the Restoration, the 'chère maítre' to such men as Dryden, Otway, and Southerne, who all honoured her with their friendship. Her genius and vivacity were undoubted; her plays are very coarse, but very lively and humorous, while she possessed an indisputable touch of lyric genius. Her prose works are decidedly less meritorious than her dramas and the best of her poems.

Mrs. Behn published a great number of ephemeral pamphlets, besides her once famous novels. Works of hers which have not been hitherto named are: 1. 'The Adventures of the Black Lady,' a novel, 1684. 2. 'La Montre, or the Lover's Watch,' a sketch of a lover's customary way of spending the twenty-four hours, in prose, 1686. 3. 'Lycidus,' a novel, 1688. 4. * The Lucky Mistake,' a novel, 1689. 5. * Poetical Remains,' edited by Charles Gildon, 1698. Aphra Behn published a great number of occasional odes in separate pamphlet form, among which may be mentioned 'A Pindarick on the Death of Charles II,' 1686, and 'A Congratulatory Poem to her most Sacred Majesty [Mary of Modena],' 1688. She joined other eminent hands in publishing a version of 'Ovid's Heroical Epistles' in 1683. Her plays were collected in 1702, her 'Histories and Novels' in 1698, the latter including, besides what have been mentioned above, 'Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave,' which inspired Southerne's well-known tragedy; 'The Fair Jilt,' a story, the scene of which is laid in Antwerp, and recounts experiences in the life of the writer; 'The Nun; 'Agnes de Castro;' and 'The Court of the King of Bantam.' The works of Aphra Behn passed through many editions in the eighteenth century, the eighth appearing in 1735, and one of her plays, 'The Rover,' long continued to hold the stage in a modified form.

[The birthplace of Mrs. Behn is here given for the first time. The writer was led to believe, from a note in the handwriting of Lady Winchilsea in a volume which he possesses, that Mrs. Behn was born, not at Canterbury, as has hitherto been stated, but at Wye, in Kent. On application to the vicar of Wye, it appeared that the register contains the baptism of Ayfara, the daughter, and Peter, the son, of John and Amy Johnson, 10 July 1640. Lady Winchilsea states that her father was a barber. The only other authority for her life is that by an anonymous female hand prefixed to the first collected edition of her novels. For other information reference has been made to original editions of her writings, which are now unusually rare. Some particulars about her were preserved in the manuscript notes of Oldys the antiquary.]

E. G.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

BEHN, APHRA (otherwise Afra, Aphara or Ayfara) (1640–1689), British dramatist and novelist, was baptized at Wye, Kent, in 1640. Her father, John Johnson, was a barber. While still a child she was taken out to Surinam, then an English possession, from which she returned to England in 1658, when it was handed over to the Dutch. In Surinam Aphra learned the history, and acquired a personal knowledge of the African prince Oroonoko and his beloved Imoinda, whose adventures she has related in her novel, Oroonoko. On her return she married Mr Behn, a London merchant of Dutch extraction. The wit and abilities of Mrs Behn brought her into high estimation at court, and—her husband having died by this time—Charles II. employed her on secret service in the Netherlands during the Dutch war. At Antwerp she successfully accomplished the objects of her mission; and in the latter end of 1666 she wormed out of one Van der Aalbert the design formed by De Ruyter, in conjunction with the DeWitts, of sailing up the Thames and burning the English ships in their harbours. This she communicated to the English court, but although the event proved her intelligence to have been well founded, it was at the time disregarded. Disgusted with political service, she returned to England, and from this period she appears to have supported herself by her writings. Among her numerous plays are The Forced Marriageor the Jealous Bridegroom (1671); The Amorous Prince (1671); The Town Fop (1677); and The Rover, or the Banished Cavalier (in two parts, 1677 and 1681); and The Roundheads (1682). The coarseness that disfigures her plays was the fault of her time; she possessed great ingenuity, and showed an admirable comprehension of stage business, while her wit and vivacity were unfailing. Of her short tales, or novelettes, the best is the story of Oroonoko, which was made the basis of Thomas Southerne’s popular tragedy. Mrs Behn died on the 16th of April 1689, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

See Plays written by the Late Ingenious Mrs Behn (1702; reprinted, 1871); also “Aphra Behn’s Gedichte und Prosawerke,” by P. Siegel in Anglia (Halle, vol. xxv., 1902, pp. 86-128,329-385); and A. C. Swinburne’s essay on “Social Verse” in Studies in Prose and Poetry (1894).