Biography of Aphra Behn

Woman of the Restoration Theatre

Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn. Culture Club/Getty Images

Aphra Behn is known for being the first woman to make a living through writing.  After a short time as a spy for England, Behn made a living as a dramatist, novelist, translator, and poet.  She is known as part of the "comedy of manners" or restoration comedy tradition.

Early Life

Almost nothing is known about Aphra Behn's early life. It is estimated that she was born around 1640, and perhaps on December 14.  There are a few theories about her parentage. Some think she was the daughter of a gentleman named John Johnson, a close relation of Lord Willoughby. Others think Johnson may have taken her in as a foster child and still others think she was the daughter of a simple barber, John Amis, from Kent.

What is known is that Behn spent at least some time in Surinam, which served as the inspiration for her famous novel Oroonoko. She returned to England in 1664 and soon married a Dutch merchant. Her husband died before the end of 1665, leaving Aphra without a means of income.

From Spy to Playwright

Unlike her early life, Behn's short time as a spy is well documented. She was employed by the crown and sent to Antwerp in July 1666. Throughout her life, Behn was a loyal Tory and devoted to the Stuart family. She was likely employed as a spy due to her former connection with William Scot, a double agent for the Dutch and English. While in Antwerp, Behn worked on gathering intelligence about possible Dutch military threats and English expatriates during the Second Dutch War. However, like most employees of the crown, Behn could not get paid. She returned to London penniless and promptly wound up in a debtors' prison.

It was likely this experience that led her to do what was unheard of for a woman at that time: make a living through writing. While there were women writing at that time—Katherine Philips and the Duchess of Newcastle, for example—most came from aristocratic backgrounds and none were writing as a means of income.

Though Behn is mostly remembered as a novelist, in her own time, she was more famous for her plays. Behn became a "house playwright" for the Duke's Company, which was managed by Thomas Betterton. Between 1670 and 1687, Aphra Behn mounted sixteen plays on the London stage. Few playwrights were as prolific and professional about their business as Behn was.

Behn's plays reveal her talent for clever dialogue, plotting, and characterization that rivals her male contemporaries. Comedy was her strength, but her dramas show a keen understanding of human nature and a flair for language, likely the result of her worldliness. Behn's plays frequently humanize prostitutes, older women and widows. Though she was a Tory, Behn questioned their treatment of women. This is most obvious in her portrayal of flawed heroes, whose political honor is at odds with their dishonorable conduct to women that are vulnerable to their sexual mistreatment.

Despite her success, many were outraged by her lack of femininity. She competed on equal terms with men and never concealed her authorship or the fact that she was a woman. When attacked, she defended herself with counterattacks. After one of her plays, The Dutch Lover, failed, Behn blamed the prejudice against women's work. As a woman, she had suddenly become a competitor rather than just a novelty.

This undeserving failure inspired Aphra Behn to add a feminist response to the play: "Epistle to the Reader" (1673). In it, she argued that while women should be allowed equal opportunity for learning, this was not necessary for composing entertaining comedies. These two ideas were unheard of in the Restoration Theater and therefore quite radical. Even more radical was her attack on the belief that drama was meant to have a moral teaching at its heart. Behn believed that a good play was worth more than scholarship and plays had done less harm than sermons.

Perhaps the strangest charge thrown at Behn was that her play, Sir Patient Fancy (1678), was bawdy. Behn defended herself by pointing out that such a charge would never be made against a man. She also stated that bawdy was more excusable for an author that wrote to support herself as opposed to one that writes only for fame.

Aphra Behn's outspoken tendencies and loyalty to the Stuart family was what wound up causing a hiatus in her career. In 1682, she was arrested for her attack on the illegitimate son of Charles II, the duke of Monmouth. In an epilogue to her play, Romulus and Hersilia, Behn wrote of her fear of the threat the duke posed to succession. The king punished not only Behn, but also the actress that read the epilogue. After this, Aphra Behn's productivity as a playwright declined sharply. She once again had to find a new source of income.

Poetry and the Development of the Novelist

Behn turned to other forms of writing, including poetry. Her poetry explores the theme she enjoyed: the intertwining of sexual and political power. Most of her poetry is about desire. It explores female desire for male and female lovers, male impotence from a female perspective, and imagining a time when no law curbed sexual freedom. At times, Behn's poetry seems to play with the conventions of romantic friendship and the possibility of going beyond it.

Behn eventually moved on to fiction. Her first effort was Love-Letters between a Noble-Man and His Sister, based loosely on the a real scandal involving Lord Grey, a member of Whig nobility, who had married the daughter of the Lord of Berkeley, but later eloped with another. Behn was able to pass off this work as true, which is a testament to her skills as a writer. The novel shows Behn's developing ambivalence towards authority and it's conflict with individual freedom. Love Letters was influential on the genre of erotic fiction, but it also contributed to the severer moral climate of the eighteenth century.

The most famous, and most important, work of Aphra Behn was Oroonoko. Written in 1688, at the end of her life, it is believed to refer to events from her youth. Oroonoko is a vivid portrait of colonial life in South America and the brutal treatment of the native population. In the novel, Behn continues her experimentation with first-person narrative and circumstantial realism. The complexity of the novel makes her an important forerunner not just to later women storytellers but also to the first writers of English novelistic fiction.

At one time thought to be a sharp condemnation of the slave-trade, Oroonoko is now more accurately read as an elemental conflict between goodness and the evil brought by greed and the corruption of power. While the central character is not a "noble savage", he is often cited as the prototype for that figure. The central character actually embodies the highest values of Western society and the people in charge, who should embody these values, are vicious hypocritical murderers.

Perhaps most interestingly, the novel shows Behn's continuing ambivalence toward her loyalty to Charles II and then James II.


Aphra Behn died in pain and poverty on April 16, 1689. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, not in the Poet's Corner, but outside, in the corridor. Time and wear have almost erased the two lines of verse carved in her stone: "Here lies a proof that wit can never be/Defence against mortality."

The location of her burial speaks to the response of her age to her achievements and character. Her body rests in the most hallowed place in England, but outside the company of the most admired geniuses. Lesser writers than she, some contemporaries and all of them male, are buried in the famous corner next to such greats as Chaucer and Milton.


"All women ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it is she who earned them the right to speak their minds" ~ Virginia Woolf, "A Room of One's Own"

For many years, it appeared that Aphra Behn would be lost to the ages. Several of her novels were appreciated throughout the eighteenth century, but in the early nineteenth century, she was little heard of and almost never read. The Victorians who did know of her condemned her frivolousness and obscenity. Many accused her of impurity. When a collection of her works was published in 1871, the publisher was attacked by the reviewing press who found Behn to be too corrupt, vile, and polluting to be enduring.

Aphra Behn found reprieve in the twentieth century, when sexual standards relaxed and an interest in women writers developed. A new interest has developed around this elusive lady of the Restoration Theater and a number of biographies on her have been published, including a fanciful novel about her early years: Purple Passage by Emily Hahn.

Aphra Behn is finally being recognized as an important early writer in both women's history and the history of literature. She is being appreciated as a noteworthy contributor to the beginnings of the novel as a new literary form.

In her time, Behn was celebrated for her wit and warm temperament. Her status as a professional author was scandalized. By making a living through writing, she challenged what was considered proper for her gender and was criticized for being "unladylike". Aphra Behn showed great resilience and resourcefulness, relying on her wits and energy when defending herself against such criticism. Today she is recognized as an important literary figure and recognized for her considerable talent.

Selected Aphra Behn Quotes

  • A poet is a painter in his way, he draws to the life, but in another kind; we draw the nobler part, the soul and the mind; the pictures of the pen shall outlast those of the pencil, and even worlds themselves.
  • That perfect tranquility of life, which is nowhere to be found but in retreat, a faithful friend and a good library.
  • Love, like reputation, once fled, never returns more.
  • Money speaks sense in a language all nations understand.

Sources Consulted

  • Beasley, Jerry C.. "Aphra Behn." Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 39. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1985. 48-58. Print.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. "Aphra Behn." The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English.. 3. ed. New York: Norton, 2007. 178-179. Print.
  • Rogers, Katharine M.. "Aphra Behn." Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 80. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1989. 14-28. Print.
  • Spencer, Jane. "Aphra Behn." The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Oxford:
  • Oxford University Press, 2006. 160-163. Print.
  • Recommended Reading

  • Hughes, Derek and Janet Todd. The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. 2004. 0521527201.
  • Lewcock, Dawn. Aphra Behn Stages the Social Scene in the Restoration Theater. 2008. 9781604975499.
  • Link, Frederick M.. Aphra Behn,. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968.
  • Smith, Hilda L. Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition. 1998. 0521585090.
  • Todd, Janet. Aphra Behn Studies. 1996. 0521471699.
  • Summers, Montague. Memoir of Mrs. Behn.

    Aphra Behn Facts

    Dates: December 14, 1640 (?) - April 16, 1689

    Also Known As: Behn occasionally used the pseudonym Astrea