Perdita woman: Aphra Behn


Aphra Behn (1640?-1689), royalist, playwright and woman of letters, was probably born 'Eaffrey Johnson' in Kent in December 1640. The Johnsons lived in comparatively humble circumstances: Aphra's father, Bartholomew, was a barber and later an overseer of the poor, while her mother, Elizabeth, was from a trading family. Much about Aphra's early life is still unclear, but by the late 1650s she was probably working as a spy or agent in the service of the exiled royalist court. In 1663, she travelled to Surinam in South America: a journey later reworked in fictional form in her prose narrative Oroonoko, where she falsely claimed to have been the daughter of the lieutenant-governor of Surinam. In Surinam she became acquainted with the political dissident William Scot, and it has been suggested that her visit to South America may in fact have been a spying mission, instigated by the restored royalist government which wanted to monitor Scot's potentially subversive activities. Aphra's marriage to the unknown Mr Behn, if it took place at all, must have occurred shortly after her return from Surinam in 1664. Her one clearly documented spying mission took place in 1666, when she was sent to Antwerp, under the code name 'Astrea', with instructions to persuade Scot - now collaborating with the Dutch - to turn double-agent and betray Dutch secrets to the English. However, the English government failed to pay her expenses in the Low Countries, and she may have been briefly imprisoned for debt before returning to England.

In September 1670 Behn's play The Forc'd Marriage was performed by the Duke's company in London. Between 1670 and her death in 1689 she was responsible for at least 19 plays, of which the most famous is The Rover (1677). Although Behn was not the first woman to write for the English stage - The Forc'd Marriage was preceded by plays by Katherine Philips, Frances Boothby and Elizabeth Polwhele - no woman before her had had such success as a professional playwright. Several of her plays were comedies, written in the bawdy style current after the Restoration, and were regarded by many contemporaries as unsuitable for a woman's hand. In the late 1670s and early 1680s , she responded to political events such as the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis by producing pro-Tory plays such as The False Count and The Roundheads.

As well as plays, Behn also wrote poetry and prose fiction, and composed various translations, mostly from French. She was associated with the circle of the Earl of Rochester, and wrote an elegy for him after his death in 1680; later she exchanged verse letters with Rochester's niece, Anne Wharton. She contributed a version of 'Oenone to Paris' to a collection of translations from Ovid's Heroides published by John Dryden and Jacob Tonson in 1680, and wrote a commendatory poem for Thomas Creech's translation of Lucretius's controversial poem De Rerum Natura in 1683. Her non-dramatic output increased considerably after November 1682 when the two London theatrical companies, the King's and the Duke's, merged, thus drastically reducing the demand for new plays. In 1684 she published part 1 of Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister, an epistolary novel based on a contemporary politico-sexual scandal: the Whig Lord Grey's elopement with his sister-in-law Lady Henrietta Berkeley. Parts 2 and 3 of Love-Letters, pursuing the story of the lovers through the disintegration of their relationship and the events of the Monmouth Rebellion, followed in 1685 and 1687. In 1688 she published a collection of short fiction, including The Fair Jilt, History of a Nun, and Oroonoko.

In her last years, Behn continued her support for the Stuarts with such publications as 'A Pindarick on the Death of our late Sovereign' [i.e.Charles II] (1685) and 'A Pindarick Poem on the Happy Coronation of His Most Sacred Majesty James II and Queen Mary' (1685), as well as poems addressed to Catherine of Braganza and Mary of Modena. In 1688 she greeted news of Queen Mary's pregnancy with 'A Congratulatory Poem to her most Sacred Majesty on the Universal Hopes of All Loyal Persons for a Prince of Wales', and responded to the prince's controversial delivery with the uncompromisingly royalist 'A Congratulatory Poem to the King's Sacred Majesty, on the Happy Birth of the Prince of Wales'. After the forced abdication of James II, her reputation as a brilliant controversialist appears to have induced the Whig bishop Gilbert Burnet to attempt to recruit her to the service of the new monarchs, William and Mary. In her published reply, 'A Pindaric Poem to the Reverend Doctor Burnet', Behn firmly rejects all entreaties to write in support of the usurping William of Orange. Elsewhere, however, her 'Congratulatory Poem to Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary [i.e. William's wife], Upon Her Arrival in England' implies some willingness to reach an accommodation with the more acceptable face of the new regime.

By 1689, Behn had been ill for some years. She may have suffered from arthritis, and had long had difficulty in walking and writing. She died on 16 April 1689 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Biography by Gillian Wright.

See also new ODNB entry for 'Behn, Aphra (1640-1689).'

Bodleian Library: MS Firth c.16
Verse Miscellany (Begun in the mid-1680s)
(Compiler, Scribe) Aphra Behn