Aphra Behn 1640?–1689
(Pseudonym of Aphra Johnson or Aphra Amis; also Aphara, Ayfara, and Afray; also wrote under the pseudonyms Astrea and Astraea) English dramatist, novelist, poet, essayist, and translator. See also Oroonoko Criticism.
Willing to endure seventeenth-century society's disapproval of women writing for pay, Behn became the first female to earn her living solely as an author, openly competing for recognition with the male writers who comprised the English literary establishment. Her works, like the literary endeavors of her male contemporaries, catered to the libertine tastes of King Charles II and his supporters through social and political satire as well as plots involving amorous intrigues and sexual promiscuity. Behn's verse, which tends to be less coarse than her dramas, often focuses either on lovers or the historical events of the era. Her most studied poems challenge social mores by freely discussing female sexual desire and questioning gender roles.
Most critical studies of Behn speculate about her early life, but 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 lieutenant-governor there, died en route. Behn lived in Surinam for several months before the Dutch takeover, and her impressions of the country were later recorded in her novel Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave. It is speculated that after returning to England in 1664 she married a man of Dutch descent. At this time Behn seems to have been wealthy, popular at the court of Charles II, and well known for her charm and wit. However, her husband died shortly after their marriage and, for reasons unknown, she 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. Though the mission provided the crown with valuable information, Behn was not remunerated for her espionage efforts. She returned to England in poverty and spent a brief time in debtor's prison before ultimately deciding to, as she said, "write for bread." Until this time only a few women had been writers, but they were aristocrats who merely dabbled in the arts, and their works were not taken seriously. Thus, Behn's decision to join London's Grub Street hacks was both bold and unprecedented. The popularity of her first play, The Forced Marriage; or, The Jealous Bridegroom, 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; Behn claimed that critics unfairly singled her out because of her gender. Behn lived an impoverished life, and her material hardships contributed to a prolonged illness in her later years. After her death, she was honored with a burial in Westminster Abbey.
Much of Behn's verse appears in her plays. These poems are generally valued for their musicality and their contribution to the dramas in which they are contained, but have attracted little attention as independent literary pieces. Samuel J. Rogal has stated that they "reflect [Behn's] ability to manipulate verse as a reinforcement for dramatic theme and setting," and Vita Sackville-West downplayed the consideration due these lyrics by characterizing them as songs rather than poetry. Other poems by Behn were written in honor of noted figures or for occasions such as coronations, the birth of a child in the royal family, the death of famous individuals, and other events that she deemed worth celebrating in verse. Her most discussed poems, however, depart from literary tradition by treating the subject of romantic love graphically and from a female perspective. "The Willing Mistress" serves as a counterpoint to the view of women as coquettes or passive objects of passion, depicting them instead as willful beings driven by passion in the same manner as men. "The Disappointment" presents a woman who becomes sexually aroused by her lover but is then frustrated by his impotence. "To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More than Woman" has been interpreted by commentators as a celebration of lesbian love. In these poems and others, Behn challenged the orthodoxies of her day in print, just as her "writing for bread" challenged them in practice.
Though Behn enjoyed some popular success during her lifetime and had early supporters, she was dogged throughout her career with charges of lewdness. Her reputation was revived in the twentieth century by Virginia Woolf, who wrote in A Room of One's Own (1930), "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn … for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds"; since then Behn has received much attention from feminist critics, who note her subversion of the patriarchal code in her life and her writing and praise her advocation of freedom for women in matters of love, marriage, and sexual and artistic expression.