While Aphra Behn’s life is shrouded in mystery, some extraordinary facts are known: she was the first female playwright to earn a living through her creative work. And not merely earn a living, but Behn was one of the most successful playwrights of her time. She worked as a spy for the King, she was arrested for the politics in her plays, and she boldly defended herself and her work against sexist attacks throughout her life. Behn was a radical. Yet she was in danger, for a moment in history, of being lost to the ages.
For centuries after her death, Behn was largely forgotten. She was little heard of and almost never read. In this sense, she shared the fate of many of the dramatists who wrote during the Restoration, a group who scandalised its own times and haunted the next two centuries with their works of excess. But there is no doubt that Behn’s reputation suffered additionally because she was a woman. She competed on equal terms with men and never concealed her authorship or gender. Her writing was bold, frank and witty, and frequently explored the entanglement of sex and power. As a result, Behn endured vicious attacks on her personal morals, which continued in the centuries after she died. The English writer John Doran gave a sample of the hostility Behn attracted when he wrote in 1864 that she was “the most shameless woman who ever took pen in hand, to corrupt the public.” Female critics were just as severe. “The disgrace of Aphra Behn,” declared the 19th century critic Julia Kavanagh, “is that, instead of raising man to woman’s moral standard [she] sank woman to the level of man’s coarseness.”
Perspectives started to shift in the early 20th century, when sexual standards relaxed and an interest in women writers developed. Virginia Woolf understood Behn’s significance in paving the way for female writers when she paid tribute to her in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf, however, lost sight of any literary merit when it came to Behn’s work. She and Behn were writers of different times: Woolf wrote when art was romantically seen as a means of self-expression, while Behn wrote openly for money and political purpose, as did her contemporaries. It was not until the emergence of the modern feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s that Behn was written about seriously as a major female writer.
So, who was Aphra Behn? While very little is known about Behn’s early life, it is estimated that she was born in Kent in 1640. It’s believed that her father, Bartholomew Johnson, was a barber and her mother, Elizabeth Denham, cared for the children of the wealthy Culpepper family. Sir Thomas Culpepper later described Behn as his “foster sister” and it was thought that he perhaps introduced her to the royal circles in which she later moved. Behn was born into a world rife with religious and political tension as the Civil War racked England. By 1642, the puritans had closed the theatres, radical political and religious groups had emerged, and the King was publically executed in 1649.
In 1663, Behn’s life took an unusual turn when her father was appointed to a military outpost in South Africa and she sailed with her family to Surinam. The time Behn spent at the English settlement provided inspiration for her famous novel Oroonoko, which chronicles the story of a black African prince betrayed into slavery in a New World English colony. It’s a remarkable work for many reasons, not least because it’s often touted to be the first novel penned in English, and contains the earliest stirrings of protest against slavery.
After England surrendered Surinam to Holland, Behn returned home in 1664. It’s believed she married a Dutch merchant named Hans Behn, though very little is known about the union, which did not last more than a few years.
By 1666 Behn had come to the notice of the King, possibly through Thomas Culpepper. The King admired Behn for her vivacious personality and great wit, and recruited her as a spy (code-named “Astrea”) in Antwerp during the war from 1665 to 1667. Behn’s chief mission was to establish an intimacy with William Scot, an English expatriate who was supposedly intent on overthrowing the monarchy. Behn was to lure Scot back to the English side with promises of a pardon and a considerable reward, and to gather information on the Dutch fleets and merchant ships. Although she was helpful in exposing the secret plans to exterminate the English fleet in the River Thames in 1667, Behn was virtually abandoned by the King and landed in debtor’s prison when she returned to London in 1668. Her debt was reportedly paid by an unknown person and she was permitted to leave by 1669.
At this point, Behn made a decision to pursue something that was unheard of for a woman at that time: to support herself financially through writing. It was a hugely momentous moment; a woman was daring to enter the strictly male-dominated arena of 17th century professional theatre. There were, however, a few factors which helped make this possible. Charles II’s return to the throne in 1660 signalled a reversal of the Puritan ethic, the new King was desperate to distinguish himself in every way from his predecessors. When the theatres reopened, they set out very deliberately to subvert traditional values and attitudes. Additionally actresses were permitted to appear on the public stage for the first time and a number of female authors had their works performed. Behn, however, was the first British woman to make a living as a creative writer. She subsequently became one of the most famous and prolific playwrights on the London theatre scene, staging 18 plays from 1670 to 1689.
Behn’s first couple of plays were romantic tragicomedies including The Forc’d Marriage, which was her first big hit when it premiered in 1670. As its title suggests, it dealt with a subject that Behn would continually return to throughout her career: the damaging effects of arranged marriages. The later part of this decade saw the emergence of sex comedies, which were more daring than anything in the 1660s. They proved a short-lived phenomenon and the early 1680s saw a swing against such candid works – but during this window Behn penned some of her most popular works including 1677’s The Rover, a particular favourite of the King. Like many of her plays, The Rover was a comedy but also a highly sophisticated debate about sexual politics during the Restoration period.
While Behn had established herself as one of London’s leading playwrights at the close of the 1670s, she was still subject to frequent attacks on her work. Most often the charge was immorality, whether in her personal life or in her plays. When criticised, Behn’s strategy was to counter-attack. When her 1678
play Sir Patient Fancy was criticised as “bawdy” Behn complained that she was being singled out for criticism on this score simply because she was a woman. In a preface to the play, she complained that male playwrights were permitted to live the most scandalous lives and write the most bawdy plays, “but for a woman it was unnatural”.
Behn was also not afraid to assert herself when it came to her deeply conservative political views, which are often difficult to reconcile with her status as a boundary-pushing female writer. Her expression of these views ended up causing a hiatus in her playwriting career. In 1682, the King ordered Behn’s arrest for her attack on the illegitimate son of Charles II, the duke of Monmouth. In an epilogue to her 1682 play, Romulus and Hersilia, Behn wrote of the threat the duke posed to succession. While it seems unlikely that she was imprisoned, Behn’s productivity as a playwright declined sharply thereafter.
The final years of Behn’s life do not seem to have been happy or easy. She became ill, and when she stopped writing plays, found herself in debt again. In a final surge of creative energy Behn turned to fiction, and one of her most famous works, the aforementioned Oroonoko, was published a year before she died in 1689. At the end of her life, Behn still craved literary fame – a shocking stance for a female writer. Behn deserves this fame for her creative work, cultural importance and revolutionary legacy: she gave women a public voice.
W.R. Owens & Lizbeth Goodman, Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon, Routeledge, 1996.
Janet M. Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Belinda Webb, ‘Aphra Behn: Still a radical example’, The Guardian, 2007.
The Rover is playing at Belvoir 1 July – 6 August. For more information or to book tickets, head here.