Aphra Behn Behn, Aphra (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Aphra Behn 1640(?)–1689

(Pseudonym of Aphra Johnson or Aphra Amis; also Aphara, Ayfara, and Afray; also wrote under pseudonyms of Astrea and Astraea) English novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, and translator.

For further information on Behn's works and career, see Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 1.

Behn is best remembered as the first woman in England to earn her living solely by writing, and is credited with influencing the development of the English novel toward realism. Attributing her success to her "ability to write like a man," she competed professionally with the prominent "wits" of Restoration England, including George Etherege, William Wycherley, John Dryden, and William Congreve. Similar to the literary endeavors of her male contemporaries, Behn's writings catered to the libertine tastes of King Charles II and his supporters, and occasionally excelled as humorous satires recording the political and social events of the era. Behn's most enduring work is the novel Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave, which is considered to be one of the earliest novels to use realistic technique and incorporate a title character often regarded as the first "noble savage" in English literature.

Biographical Information

Behn's birthplace and date of birth, as well as the identity of her parents, have never been conclusively established. However, it is generally agreed that she and her family sailed to Surinam in South America, most likely in 1663, and that her father, who had been appointed lieutenantgeneral there, died en route. Living in Surinam for several months before the Dutch takeover and her return to England, Behn accumulated colorful impressions of the country, which she later recorded in Oroonoko. It has been speculated that after returning to England in 1664 she married a man of Dutch descent. Behn seems to have been wealthy during this time, becoming popular at the court of Charles II and well known for her charm and wit. Her husband died shortly after their marriage and, for reasons unknown, Behn was left an impoverished widow. It is only after this point in her life that substantial information about Behn has been documented. In 1666, Charles II employed Behn, a staunch royalist, to spy on a disaffected English group in Antwerp. Although the mission provided the crown with valuable information, Behn was not renumerated for her espionage efforts. She

returned to England in poverty and spent a brief time in debtors' prison before ultimately deciding, as she said, to "write for bread." Before Behn, women writers were primarily aristocrats who were regarded as dabblers, and their works were not taken seriously. Thus, Behn's decision to join London's Grub street hacks was both bold and unprecedented. Her first play, The Forced Marriage; or, The Jealous Bridegroom, demonstrates her familiarity with stage techniques, and the popularity of the work proved that a woman could successfully write the same bawdy material that the male playwrights of the era were producing. Eventually, however, Behn's work was attacked as immoral by many of her contemporaries. Undaunted by the criticism, she continued to write and spent most of her literary career defending her works against charges of indecency that were based primarily on the fact that the works were written by a woman. Behn's political commentaries were halted in 1682 when she was arrested for a written attack on the Duke of Monmouth; she produced no works for the next two years, and thereafter wrote only poetry and fiction. For the most part, Behn lived an impoverished life, and hardship contributed to a prolonged illness in her later years. After her death in 1689, she was honored with burial in Westminster Abbey.

Major Works

Behn's early dramas were written to satisfy her audience's taste, and most fall into the category of the romantic tragicomedy popularized by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher during the Jacobean period. Although her plots were hardly original—many were freely borrowed from both English and foreign authors, a common practice of the time—Behn wrote with wit, vitality, and a dramatic sense for creative staging. The Forced Marriage comically introduces Behn's candid opinion regarding arranged marriages, while her second drama, The Amorous Prince; or, The Curious Husband, portrays the difficulties of friendship between lovers. These works explicitly depict adulterous bedroom scenes, and players appear in "night attire"—bold stage situation for Restoration drama. Both of these works were popular successes and encouraged Behn to produce The Dutch Lover. This third play weaves together a comic and a serious plot, as several sets of lovers cavort through episodes of mistaken identities, masquerades, and love trysts. The Dutch Lover was not a popular success, however, and Behn was attacked by Puritan critics who found her work lewd and immoral.

Behn's most productive and financially successful literary years were between 1676 and 1682. During this middle phase her works were more carefully constructed, and while they continued to convey her unconventional morality, their scope was expanded to satirically record the political climate of the period. Behn's best-known work of this time is the drama The Rover; or, The Banished Cavaliers, Part I. Like The Dutch Lover, The Rover combines farce and intrigue in a skillfully crafted format which again revolves around mistaken identities and masquerades. Sir Patient Fancy offers an interesting commentary on seventeenth-century customs and manners, satirizing arranged marriages, Puritanism, and pedantry. The Roundheads; or, The Good Old Cause, Behn's first attempt to fuse comedy and politics, displays her Tory sympathies by portraying Whig politicians as purely comic figures. Behn's second attempt at political satire, The City Heiress; or, Sir Timothy Treat-all, was wellreceived by audiences, and critics regard it as one of her best comedies. The City Heiress utilizes several sets of lovers to convey Behn's unconventional view of marriage, love, and sexual freedom, but in this work her political satire is more artfully integrated into the framework of the drama. Written during the last phase of Behn's literary career, Oroonoko is her most acclaimed work, and in the past three centuries it has received a significant amount of commentary much of which is concerned with the work's influence on the development of the novel. According to Behn, the story of the Coramantien prince Oroonoko and his beautiful West Indian lover Imoinda is based on her own "true," "eyewitness" accounts of events in Surinam. The first-person narrative gives verisimilitude to the novel, as does the vividly described local color, with the theme of the innate goodness of the "noble savage" skillfully juxtaposed against the barbarity of "civilized" English intruders.

Critical Reception

Critics continue to be intrigued by Behn's dramas and poetry, but Oroonoko has emerged as the chief focus of attention. Many commentators regard the work as an early attempt at realism in literature, and the novel is often discussed as a precursor to the works of Daniel Defoe, who thirty years later refined technical aspects of the firstperson narrative and demonstrated that fiction could be made more life-like or realistic through careful selection of vivid detail. Oroonoko also holds an important place in English literature as one of the first social statements against slavery. Today Behn is acknowledged for her revolutionary influence on the novel form and serves as a pioneering example to female professional writers. A controversial and vital figure during her lifetime, she contributed to Restoration literature while boldly attempting to overcome the barriers of seventeenth-century prejudices and rigid gender roles.

Virginia Woolf (essay date 1929)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: A chapter in A Room of One's Own, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, pp. 100-36.

[Woolf is one of the most prominent literary figures of twentieth-century English literature. Like her contemporary James Joyce, with whom she is often compared, Woolf is remembered as one of the most innovative of the streamof-consciousness novelists. Concerned primarily with depicting the life of the mind, she revolted against traditional narrative techniques and developed her own highly individualized style. Her criticial essays, which cover almost the entire range of English literature, contain some of her finest prose and are praised for their insight. Here, Woolf comments on Behn's importance to...

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Martine Watson Brownley (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Narrator in Oroonoko," in Essays in Literature, Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 174-81.

[In the following essay, Brownley discusses Behn 's handling of the narrator in Oroonoko, asserting that the narrative persona is used "to unify and to add realism to disparate elements" in the novel.]

In the past the narrator of Oroonoko has, with very few exceptions, been studied mainly in terms of the life and ideas of Aphra Behn. Since what little we know of Behn's life is just as exciting and romantic as any material in her writings, it is easy to see why the narrative persona of Oroonoko has taken second place to the woman who...

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Judith Kegan Gardiner (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Aphra Behn: Sexuality and Self-Respect," in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1-2, 1980, pp. 67-78.

[In the essay below, Kegan Gardiner maintains that Behn's work is imbued with eroticism, reflecting the author's belief that "sexual passion … [is] the root of all social impulse. "]

The ideal seventeenth-century cavalier could not love his "Deare so much," loved he "not Honour more"; in his code of war, art, and love, independent action posed as effortless and loyal service. Yet this elegant code rested on a sexual double standard. According to the notorious Restoration rake, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, "real honor" is "noble...

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Angeline Goreau (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Success and Attack," in Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn, The Dial Press, 1980, pp. 207-35.

[Here, Goreau traces the critical and popular reaction to some of Behn's works, focusing especially on the writer's criticism of the "property-marriage system" in her plays.]

The staging of Aphra's tragedy Abdelazer in July 1676 marked the end of a three-year literary silence. No play had appeared under her name since the foundering of The Dutch Lover in 1673. Perhaps she was still smarting from the attacks launched against her on that occasion; or perhaps she was writing plays that were only to be staged later. A third possibility is...

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Nancy Cotton (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Aphra Behn," in Women Playwrights in England c. 1363-1750, Bucknell University Press, 1980, pp. 55-80.

[Below, Cotton studies the development of Behn's career and the course of critical reaction to her work.]

Aphra Behn (c. 1640-89) was a hard-driving professional playwright, independent, bawdy, witty, and tough. She differed from all her feminine predecessors because she was "forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it" (To the Reader, Sir Patient Fancy). Nothing is known of her background or education but myths and guesses. She was born in Wye; she was born in Canterbury. Her maiden name was Amis; or Johnson. She was the daughter of a barber;...

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Jane Spencer (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Three Self-Portraits: Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley, Jane Barker," in The Rise of the Woman Novelist from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp. 41-74.

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Catherine Gallagher (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Who Was that Masked Woman? The Prostitute and the Playwright in the Comedies of Aphra Behn," in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol 15, No. 1-3, 1988, pp. 23-42.

[Here, Gallagher focuses on The Lucky Chance, exploring how Behn "created a persona that skillfully intertwined the age's available discourses concerning women, property, selfhood and authorship."]

Everyone knows that Aphra Behn, England's first professional female author, was a colosal and enduring embarrassment to the generations of women who followed her into the literary marketplace. An ancestress whose name had to be lived down rather than lived up to, Aphra Behn seemed, in...

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Ellen Pollak (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Beyond Incest: Gender and the Politics of Transgression in Aphra Behn's Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister," in Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism, edited by Heidi Hutner, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 151-86.

[Below, Pollak presents a detailed study of Behn's Love-Letters, contending that "Behn's narrative effectively displaces the conceptual grounds of a heterosexual matrix of assumptions that encodes incestuous desire as a form of freedom from patriarchal law."]

Expressly incestuous and deeply embedded in the politics of regicide and political rebellion, Aphra Behn's Love-Letters between a Nobleman...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Cameron, W. J. New Light on Aphra Behn. Auckland, New Zealand: University of Auckland, 1961, 106 p.

Cameron summarizes this study as "an investigation into the facts and fictions surrounding [Behn's] journey to Surinam in 1663 and her activities as a spy in Flanders in 1666."

Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640-89. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977, 324 p.

Account of Behn's life based on her works and the scant extant documents relating to or by her. Duffy examines Behn's works for insight into her life.


(The entire section is 827 words.)