Who is Aphra Behn?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) is a noted British novelist, poet, and playwright who is believed to have been Britain's first professional female writer. She has been credited with greatly advancing the cause of female authors in the British literary tradition, with noted author as Virginia Woolf suggesting that woman authors should give due respect to Behn because she “earned them the right to speak their minds.” Although the works of Aphra Behn were briefly suppressed in the 19th century for their licentious content, they have risen in popularity again and they are read and performed all over the world.

Aphra Behn's work often depicted love affairs.
Aphra Behn's work often depicted love affairs.

Very little is actually known about Aphra Behn's life. She lived and worked during the Restoration, in which a flowering of British arts and letters occurred, but the records of the people who lived and worked during this period are scant. Behn was born Aphra Johnson in 1640, and is believed to have married a Dutch merchant by the name of Johann Behn in 1664 and widowed by him in 1665. Some records suggest that Johann Behn was invented to provide protection for Aphra Behn; single women would have been at an immense disadvantage in the Restoration Era, while a married woman or widow would have been given more leeway.

During her lifetime, Aphra Behan worked as a spy for King Charles II, traveled to Surinam, spent some time in debtor's prison, and eventually began a career as a poet, playwright, and novelist. Some of her most famous works include Oroonoko, Abdelazar, The Rover, and Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. She was notably outspoken about her views, which made her unpopular in some social circles, and some evidence seems to suggest that she was lesbian or bisexual.

Aphra Behn was one of the most figures to write so-called “amatory fiction,” the precursor to the modern romance novel. Amatory fiction is sometimes considered an early form of the British novel, marking a distinct departure from previous form of British fiction, and Behn's work contained a number of elements which were considered racy for the time, such as depictions of love affairs. Behn's work has also been criticized as rather racist, but it likely reflected the commonly accepted mores and beliefs of the time rather than any personal shortcomings on Behn's part.

Upon her death in 1689, Aphra Behn was buried in Westminster Cathedral. Her grave can be visited today by those who are curious. Her works are read and studied in some literature classes, especially those which focus on British literature and the evolution of the British novel. Many great female novelists such as the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning might not have existed or become popular without the trailblazing of Aphra Behn.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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