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Aphra Behn ( 12/14/1640 - 4/16/1689 )  Category ( Authors ) [suggest a correction]
 

Aphra BehnAphra Behn is best known for being one of the first English women to make her living from her pen. She wrote a number of plays as well as fiction and poetry. Her work is placed in Restoration literature, under the genre of amatory fiction. Behn’s life story is every bit as adventurous as much of her literature. She was born in 1640 in Wye, England, which is near to Canterbury. Her father, Bartholomew Johnson, was a barber and her mother served as a nurse in the aristocratic Colepeper household. Behn was a frequent visitor to the Colepeper home, and thus spent time in the company of the children in the family. Indeed, as an adult,Thomas Colepeper, one of the younger children, referred to Behn as a “foster sister." Her early and lengthy personal connection to the wealthy and well-connected family would later play another role in Behn’s life.

In 1663, Behn journeyed to the English sugar colony of Suriname, located on what is now the East coast of Venezuela. For many decades scholars debated as to whether the trip actually took place, but recent research provides strong evidence in favor of her visit to the New World. The reason the visit is significant to literature has to do with Behn’s novella, Oroonoko. Behn claimed to have met an African slave leader, whose story Oroonoko is based upon.

Not long after she returned to England, Aphra married Johan Behn, a merchant from either Germany or Holland. The marriage lasted only a few years, and some scholars believe she fabricated the marriage in order to gain widow status (widows had more rights than single or married women in seventeenth century England). In 1666 Behn became known at the Court of Charles II, possibly through the influence of the Colepeper family. She served as a political spy to Antwerp, where she became lover to a politically powerful member of the royal family. It was from him that she obtained information useful to the English government. While such activities likely filled Behn’s need for adventure, they were hardly profitable. Charles II was notorious in paying for services and expenses. Even after Behn returned to England he still neglected to pay her and she eventually wound up in debtor’s prison. An anonymous source paid her debts and she was released. It was at this point that she began her literary career. Among her more popular works are The Rover and Oroonoko. She was famously quoted as stating the had led a “life dedicated to pleasure and poetry." Aphra Behn died in 1689 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Centuries later, author Virginia Woolf hailed Behn’s memory and contributions in A Room of One’s Own: "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she - shady and amorous as she was - who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits."

Image: Portrait of Aphra Behn, aged approximately 30, by Mary Beale.


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