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.
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),...
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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 makes in her novel Oroonoko. Other statements in Oroonoko, however, are at variance with several items in Rodway’s account of the surviving family’s subsequent sojourn in the New World. For one thing, Behn herself maintains that their stay in Surinam was a matter of months rather than the two or three years mentioned by Rodway. On the basis of references made to actual events and historical personages in the course of her narrative, it is also most likely that the period of young Aphra’s residence in Surinam lasted from November, 1663, to February, 1664.
Shortly after her return to England, she married a London merchant of Dutch ancestry whose surname was Behn. This marriage ended quite abruptly in 1665 or 1666, owing to the death of her husband, an apparent victim of the plague that raged throughout London during these years. At this point in her life as at several others, the widow Behn appears to have been in need of money. Whether for financial or for idealistic reasons, she chose to become a spy for the recently restored British monarchy, which was at that point engaged in a war with the states of Holland—hostilities that were soon extended to France. She was to take up residence in Antwerp (then part of Holland) for the purpose of collecting information pertaining to the activities of dissident English exiles (supporters of Cromwell) as well as the military plans of the Dutch government. Her Dutch surname must surely have been advantageous to her in this mission.
Behn is believed to have gone to Antwerp in July, 1666, and for the ensuing six months or so, she continued to send cryptographic reports back to her superiors in England, using the code name Astrea to identify herself. It is widely held that she had already adopted this pseudonym while in Surinam. Although Astrea (or Astraea) is the Greek goddess of justice, the name was quite likely suggested by Honoré d’Urfé’s popular three-part novel Astrea (1607-1628). The eponymous heroine of this novel had a lover called Celadon, a name that came to be employed as a code name for Aphra’s good friend William Scot. This individual was the son of Thomas Scot, a man who was one of the judges at the trial that ended with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and who was himself put to death as a regicide in 1660. Because William Scot was in both Surinam and Antwerp at the same time that “Astrea” was in these places, it is tempting to surmise that a close amorous relationship existed between them. It is, moreover, indisputable that Behn diverted much of her energies while in Antwerp to the task of obtaining a royal pardon on behalf of William Scot for political offenses that he had committed against the crown in past years.
Whether Behn received adequate financial compensation from the crown for her espionage mission on the Continent is still a debatable issue. There is no doubt, however, that she was in desperate need of money after her return from Antwerp, for she was jailed for a brief period in 1668, as a result of her inability to repay outstanding debts that she had lately contracted. On her release from debtors’ prison, Behn made a bold decision to try her hand at writing for the theater as a means of achieving financial independence. Her release from confinement was probably achieved through the intercession of Thomas Killigrew. The author of several noteworthy dramas, Killigrew devoted most of his energies to managing the affairs of the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. This organization, commonly referred to as the King’s Company , was the first of two acting ensembles to be granted a monopoly over theatrical performances within the city of London. The other group, known as the Duke’s Company , was managed by Sir William Davenant until his death in 1668. Both of these companies, incidentally, were the first in England to engage actresses to play the roles of women, rather than following the traditional practice of using boys and young men to perform these parts. Despite her close friendship with Killigrew, Behn’s own plays were staged by the Duke’s Company, under the supervision of Davenant’s successors, from the time that her first play was produced in 1670 to the year 1682. The plays that she composed during this period, except for an occasional failure, proved to be popular successes, and she soon established herself as one of the public’s favorite playwrights.
Behn’s career as a playwright was nevertheless placed in severe jeopardy when she decided to promote the fortunes of the Stuart monarchy by using the stage to attack powerful Whig opponents of Charles II. Her chief contribution as a propagandist for the Tory cause is to be found in the pair of plays entitled The Roundheads and The City Heiress. What precipitated a crisis in Behn’s partisan political activity, however, was her composition of a sardonic prologue and epilogue for the production, in 1682, of Romulus and Hersilia, a play by an anonymous author. These supplementary contributions were deemed to be unwarranted aspersions on the character of the duke of Monmouth as well as other persons of quality, and a warrant for Behn’s arrest was issued by the Lord Chamberlain. Subsequent events remain unclear, but she appears to have gotten off lightly in terms of actual confinement. The effect on her literary creativity was far more profound, for she ceased writing plays for a period of nearly four years. During this hiatus from the theater, she found an outlet for her literary talents in composing poetry and narrative fiction. Even though she resumed writing for the theater in the spring of 1686, most of Behn’s succeeding plays never matched the success of her earlier ones, and she increasingly devoted her time to writing fictional works and to translating plays and novels of foreign authors, perhaps deeming this a superior means of earning a livelihood by the pen.
Because Behn was both beautiful and witty, she was highly successful in forming close associations with a great number of prominent persons from literary and social circles in London. The literary figures among her acquaintance included John Dryden, Edmund Waller, and Thomas Otway. The full extent of her friendship with the rakish earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, is still a matter of conjecture. It was common knowledge, however, that Behn had a variety of lovers during the 1670’s and 1680’s. Her most abiding romantic favor appears to have been bestowed on John Hoyle, a lawyer noted for his witty repartee and ready swordsmanship. Behn’s relationship with Hoyle was greatly complicated by his unrepressed bisexual proclivities, and they parted ways several years before her death. She died after a long physical illness, the exact nature of which has still not been fully established. Behn was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. On her tombstone is a wry couplet alleged to have been written by Hoyle himself: “Here lies a proof that wit can never be/ Defence enough against mortality.” These lines proved to be even more apposite in regard to Hoyle’s personal fate, for his own life came to an abrupt end as the result of a tavern brawl in 1692.