Aphra Behn Biography

Aphra Behn Biography

Aphra Behn is often incorrectly celebrated as the “first female playwright.” Nuns Hrosvitha and Hildegarde wrote religious closet dramas centuries before her, though their plays were not performed during their lifetimes. As a result, Behn’s career was far more influential, and she is credited with being one of the first women to earn a living writing for the theater. Her best-known play, The Rover, is a quintessential Restoration comedy of intrigue. Complete with masks, mistaken identities, and multiple, intersecting love stories, the play was the kind of raucous, bawdy entertainment that Restoration audiences loved. In fact, the play became so popular that Behn penned a sequel, but it was the original that made her a pioneer in theater history.

Facts and Trivia

  • Like Christopher Marlowe before her, Aphra Behn has often been suspected of being a spy for the Crown. Ostensibly working under Charles II, her code name was Astrea.
  • Critics still argue whether or not Behn was a “feminist” writer. The Rover contains several attempted rapes—all played for laughs.
  • Behn’s writing was not solely limited to drama. One of her most famous and successful works was Oroonoko, a novel about an African prince who becomes enslaved.
  • Little is known about her husband, the mysterious Mr. Behn. Some believe that Aphra invented him and then “killed” him off because the social status of a widow was better than that of an unmarried woman.
  • Renewed interest in Behn’s work has drawn greater attention to The Female Wits, a group of women writers contemporary to Behn.

Biography

Reliable information pertaining to the first half of Aphra Behn’s life is virtually nonexistent. The sparse biographical information for this period is, moreover, frequently contradictory. The earliest account of her career is to be found in the introduction to an edition of her fictional works that was published posthumously in 1696, which purports to be memoirs on her life written by a “gentlewoman” of her acquaintance. It is now believed that the “gentlewoman” in question was, in fact, Behn’s personal friend and editor Charles Gildon (1665-1724). According to his account, she was born into a good family by the name of Johnson, whose ancestral roots lay in the city of Canterbury in Kent. Her father, furthermore, was reported as being related to Lord Francis Willoughby of Parham, a man who used his good offices to secure Johnson an appointment to the administrative post of lieutenant-governor over many islands in the West Indies and the territory of Surinam. When Gildon’s memoirs were reprinted a year later in an anthology devoted to the lives of dramatic poets, the text was revised in such a way as to state explicitly that Behn was born in the city of Canterbury.

Information that runs counter to Gildon’s memoirs on two important issues, however, comes from the hand of another contemporary writer, Anne Finch. Finch, who is better known as the countess of Winchelsea, left a marginal note in a manuscript copy of some unpublished poems of her own in which she mentions that the place of Behn’s birth was the small market town of Wye, near Canterbury, and that her father had been a barber by trade. Finch’s account was first discovered by an English literary scholar in 1884, but it was not until the opening decade of the twentieth century that the pertinent entry in the baptismal registry at Wye received thorough scrutiny. It was thereupon learned that a child listed as Ayfara, along with a brother named John, was duly baptized there on July 10, 1640, but that her family name was not Johnson at all. The parents of Ayfara and her brother are, in fact, identified as a couple named John and Amy Amis. Then, in the 1950’s, another English scholar perused the burial registry at Wye and found that both of these children had died a few days after their baptism: Ayfara on July 12 and John on July 16. In neither the baptismal nor the burial registries, moreover, is there any reference to John Amis’s being a barber by trade. In the light of these discrepancies, it is difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that Finch’s marginal note is nothing more than a false lead.

The only other contemporary evidence pertaining to Behn’s birth comes from some manuscripts now held in the British Library that were composed before 1708 by a member of the gentry named Thomas Culpepper. Culpepper reports that Behn was born at Canterbury or Sturry and that her maiden name was Johnson. He further claims that she was also his foster-sister by virtue of the fact that her mother was his nurse at one time. A subsequent check of the marriage registry at St. Paul’s in Canterbury corroborated Culpepper’s account insofar as a couple named Bartholomew and Elizabeth Johnson was married there on August 25, 1638. It has also been ascertained that Bartholomew Johnson was a yeoman (that is, a member of the class of small freeholding farmers) and that he originally came from Bishopsbourne, a village situated three and a half miles from Canterbury. The first of the couple’s four children was, moreover, named Eaffry (Aphra), but she appears to have been born in neither Canterbury nor Sturry. The baptismal records of St. Michael’s in the village of Harbledown, located just outside the walls of Canterbury, list her as being baptized there on December 14, 1640. Because Culpepper himself was born on Christmas Day in 1637, there would appear to be some question whether Johnson could have served him in the capacity of a wet-nurse.

The question of Behn’s parentage is further complicated by a passage appearing in James Rodway’s Chronological History of the Discovery and Settlement of Guiana, 1493-1796, a work first published in 1888. Here it is reported that a relative of Lord Willoughby named Johnson left his homeland toward the end of 1658 bound for Surinam in the company of his wife and children, along with an adopted daughter named Afra or Aphra Johnson. In the absence of any further corroborative evidence, however, the claim regarding Aphra’s status as Johnson’s foster child is still viewed with a large measure of skepticism by most literary scholars at the current time. Rodway goes on to assert that Johnson never assumed his administrative duties in Surinam because he fell ill during the voyage and died at sea. The rest of the family, according to this history, duly disembarked at Surinam and spent the next two or three years residing on one of Lord Willoughby’s estates in that land.

Rodway’s assertion that Johnson died before reaching Surinam is corroborated by some autobiographical remarks that Behn...

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