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Who is Aphra Behn?

Aphra Behn was a trailblazing 17th-century playwright, poet, and novelist, often hailed as the first professional female English writer. Her works challenged societal norms and explored themes of female sexuality and individual freedom. Behn's legacy paved the way for women in literature. Discover how her bold voice resonates in today's conversations about gender and authorship. What echoes do you hear?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) is a noted British novelist, poet, and playwright who is believed to have been Britain's first professional female writer. She has been credited with greatly advancing the cause of female authors in the British literary tradition, with noted author as Virginia Woolf suggesting that woman authors should give due respect to Behn because she “earned them the right to speak their minds.” Although the works of Aphra Behn were briefly suppressed in the 19th century for their licentious content, they have risen in popularity again and they are read and performed all over the world.

Very little is actually known about Aphra Behn's life. She lived and worked during the Restoration, in which a flowering of British arts and letters occurred, but the records of the people who lived and worked during this period are scant. Behn was born Aphra Johnson in 1640, and is believed to have married a Dutch merchant by the name of Johann Behn in 1664 and widowed by him in 1665. Some records suggest that Johann Behn was invented to provide protection for Aphra Behn; single women would have been at an immense disadvantage in the Restoration Era, while a married woman or widow would have been given more leeway.

Aphra Behn's work often depicted love affairs.
Aphra Behn's work often depicted love affairs.

During her lifetime, Aphra Behan worked as a spy for King Charles II, traveled to Surinam, spent some time in debtor's prison, and eventually began a career as a poet, playwright, and novelist. Some of her most famous works include Oroonoko, Abdelazar, The Rover, and Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. She was notably outspoken about her views, which made her unpopular in some social circles, and some evidence seems to suggest that she was lesbian or bisexual.

Aphra Behn was one of the most figures to write so-called “amatory fiction,” the precursor to the modern romance novel. Amatory fiction is sometimes considered an early form of the British novel, marking a distinct departure from previous form of British fiction, and Behn's work contained a number of elements which were considered racy for the time, such as depictions of love affairs. Behn's work has also been criticized as rather racist, but it likely reflected the commonly accepted mores and beliefs of the time rather than any personal shortcomings on Behn's part.

Upon her death in 1689, Aphra Behn was buried in Westminster Cathedral. Her grave can be visited today by those who are curious. Her works are read and studied in some literature classes, especially those which focus on British literature and the evolution of the British novel. Many great female novelists such as the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning might not have existed or become popular without the trailblazing of Aphra Behn.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Aphra Behn and why is she significant in literary history?

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was an English playwright, poet, translator, and fiction writer who is considered one of the first English women to earn her living by her writing. Her significance lies in her breaking cultural barriers and serving as a literary pioneer for female authors in a male-dominated field. Behn's most famous work, "Oroonoko," is a novel that deals with themes of slavery and colonialism and is often cited as an early influence on the English novel.

What are some of Aphra Behn's most notable works?

Among Aphra Behn's most notable works are the play "The Rover," which explores issues of love, trickery, and deception, and the novel "Oroonoko," which tells the story of an African prince enslaved in Surinam. Her other significant plays include "The Forced Marriage" and "The Feigned Courtesans." Her body of work includes more than 19 plays, several volumes of poetry, and a collection of short stories.

How did Aphra Behn influence future generations of writers?

Aphra Behn's success as a professional writer paved the way for future generations of women in literature. She influenced writers such as Virginia Woolf, who famously stated in "A Room of One's Own" that "all women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn." Behn's exploration of female sexuality and agency in her works also prefigured feminist themes that would emerge more prominently in literature centuries later.

What themes did Aphra Behn often explore in her writing?

Aphra Behn frequently explored themes of female autonomy, sexual desire, and the inequities of power between genders and social classes. Her works often challenged the societal norms of her time, particularly regarding the roles and expectations of women. Additionally, in "Oroonoko," she addressed the horrors of slavery and colonialism, making her one of the early English writers to comment on these issues.

How has Aphra Behn's work been received and studied in modern times?

In modern times, Aphra Behn's work has been re-evaluated and celebrated for its literary merit and its progressive views on gender and race. Scholars have examined her role in the development of the English novel and her contributions to Restoration theatre. Her works are studied for their feminist and postcolonial perspectives, and she is recognized as a trailblazer who opened doors for women in the literary world.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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    • Aphra Behn's work often depicted love affairs.
      By: donfiore
      Aphra Behn's work often depicted love affairs.