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.
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.
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...
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