On April 16, 1689, English novelist and playwright Aphra Behn died in London, England. She was a prolific dramatist of the English Restoration period, and is considered the first English professional female literary writer. Her writing contributed to the amatory fiction genre of British literature and was preoccupied with sexual love and romance. It was an early predecessor of the romance and was written by woman for woman. Information regarding her life is scant, especially regarding her early years. This may be due to intentional obscuring on Behn's part. Apocryphally, she was born in December 1640 in Harbledown near Canterbury. In The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn (1696) it states that Behn was born to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham. There is little verifiable evidence to confirm any one story. Johnson was related to Francis, Lord Willoughby who commissioned him as lieutenant general of Surinam. In 1663, Aphra may have traveled with her father to Surinam. He died on the journey; however the rest of the family spent some months in the country. During this trip Aphra is reputed to have met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, Oroonoko (1688). The story may be apocryphal; the veracity of her journey to Suriname has been called into question. Shortly after her return to England from Surinam in 1664, Aphra may have married Johan Behn, a merchant of German or Dutch extraction. As with much of her life, there is little evidence for the facts of her marriage. He died or the couple separated soon after 1664.
She was a monarchist, and was dedicated to the restored King Charles II. As political parties emerged during this time, Behn became a Tory supporter. By 1666 Behn had become attached to the Court, possibly through the influence of Thomas Culpepper and other associates. The Second Anglo-Dutch War had broken out between England and the Netherlands in 1665 and she was recruited as a political spy to Antwerp on behalf of King Charles II. Her code name is said to have been Astrea, a name under which she later published many of her writings. Her chief role was to establish an intimacy with William Scot, son of Thomas Scot, a regicide who had been executed in 1660. William was believed to be ready to become a spy in the English service and to report on the doings of the English exiles that were plotting against the King. Behn's exploits were not profitable, however. Charles was slow in paying (if he paid at all), either for her services or for her expenses while abroad. Money had to be borrowed so that Behn could return to London, where a year's petitioning of Charles for payment went unheard and she ended up in a debtor’s prison. By 1669 an undisclosed source had paid her debts and she was released from custody.
She soon began to work for the King’s Company as a scribe. She had, however, only written poetry up until this point. She cultivated the friendship of various playwrights and poets, including John Dryden, and from 1670 until her death in 1689 she produced many plays and novels, poems and pamphlets. Her first play The Forc’d Marriage was staged in 1670, followed by The Amorous Prince (1671). She gradually moved towards comic works, which proved commercially successful. Her most popular works included The Rover and Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684–87). Behn's novel Oroonoko (1688) is critically acknowledged as one of the most important works in the development of the English novel. The book is the tale of an enslaved African prince. It is notable for its exploration of slavery, race, and gender. In the coming years, Behn was immensely prolific, adapting plays, writing fiction and poetry, translating works from French and Latin. She caused scandal in some of her chosen subject matter, often alluding to sexual desire. She stated that the works would not have caused problems if they had been written by a man. Behn's work frequently takes homoerotic themes, featuring male to male love and her own sexual interest in women. As an example of her work, her best known poem, "The Disappointment,” is a story of a sexual encounter told from a woman's point of view that may be interpreted as a work about male impotence.
Aphra Behn died on April 16, 1689, and was buried in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on her tombstone reads: Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality. She was quoted as stating that she had led a "life dedicated to pleasure and poetry." In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she wrote – “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds... Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.”
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Great Britain’s Literary Legends. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following links:
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