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Aphra Behn

one of the first women to earn a living by writing

Aphra Behn

Aphra Johnson was born in 1640, probably at Wye, Kent, England. Details of her early life are sketchy, but it is known that she and her family lived in Surinam for a short time in 1663-1664. Soon after her return to England she married Hans Behn, a Dutch-born London merchant; he died about a year after the marriage.

How Behn came to be a favorite at the court of King Charles II is unknown, nor are the details of how she came to be employed by the king as a secret agent in the Netherlands during the Dutch War. What is known, however, is that she managed to get information that the Dutch were planning to sail up the Thames River and burn English ships in their harbors. Her English spymasters ignored the information, however, and the Dutch succeeded with their plan. What's more, King Charles refused to pay Behn's expenses and left her in Holland with no money. She managed to borrow enough money to return to England, but was never able to get the king to pay for her services. Left deeply in debt by her service to the crown, she ended up in debtor's prison for a brief time in 1668.

While in prison, Behn became determined to make her own living, as a writer, despite the fact that in her day it was virtually impossible for anyone to earn a living strictly by writing, and even less possible for a woman to do so. She began her career by writing plays for a London theatre company. Her first play, The Forced Marriage; or, The Jealous Bridegroom, produced in 1670, ran for six successful nights. She went on to write about nineteen plays, the most notable of which are:

The Amorous Prince; or, The Curious Husband (1671)
The Dutch Lover (1673) -- featuring a vicious caricature of a Dutch merchant
The Rover; or, The Banished Cavalier (produced in two parts, 1677 and 1681) -- a social comedy centered around an English regiment living in exile in Italy during the Cromwell Era; one of its officers is the "rover" of the title, and was probably modeled on Charles II
Abdelazar; or, The Moor's Revenge (1677)
The Town Fop (1677)
The City Heiress (1682)
The Roundheads; or, The Good Old Cause (1682) -- which achieved notoriety for its ridicule of a faction of republican parliamentarians
The Widow Ranter (1690) -- a semi-historical play based on events in colonial Virginia

In addition to plays, Behn also wrote novels, most of which were based on actual historical events. Her first, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (3 vols, 1684-1687), was a barely fictional account of the antics of Lord Grey, who, in 1682, eloped with his wife's sister. She is best known, however, for Oroonoko, the History of the Royal Slave (1688). Based on an actual historical event she learned about while living in Surinam, the story centers on Oroonoko, an African prince who is kidnapped and taken to Surinam as a slave. There, he meets a West Indian woman who is also enslaved. The two fall in love, and she becomes pregnant. But, being slaves, the couple are deliberately kept apart by their masters. Oroonoko leads a slave rebellion, but is captured after being promised that his princess and her unborn child will be freed. That promise is rescinded, however, and Oroonoko ultimately kills his lover and child so that they will not fall into enemy hands. Oroonoko is ultimately killed by the English. The novel has been cited as one of the earliest examples of the noble savage in literature. Other notable novels include:

The Lucky Chance; or, An Alderman's Bargain (1686)
The Fair Jilt; or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688) -- about a clever and remorseless woman serving as a spy in Holland
The History of the Nun, or, The Fair Vow-Breaker (1688) -- about Isabella, who breaks her vow of chastity, marries two men, and ultimately kills both of them

Behn also made money from Latin and French translations, and by penning versions of Aesop's Fables and some rather racy poetry. Although she was able to support herself through her writing, she never actually made a living, and was frequently in debt. Nevertheless, she remains on record as one of the first (if not the first) woman to make writing her only source of income -- as opposed to having money through a husband or family, or to working full time in some other capacity and using writing strictly as supplemental income.

Aphra Behn died in London, England, on April 16, 1689, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

King Charles II

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This page was last updated on 10/25/2017.