Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Aphra Behn: She Made Her Living by Writing

Aphra Behn (died 16 April 1689)


Aphra Behn's life is every bit as filled with adventure as the plot of her most popular play, The Rover--at least in Behn's own telling or, rather, tellings, of her life story. What was her "real" name? Was her father a barber or a gentleman? Did she really travel to Surinam--the setting of much of her most famous novella, Oronooko--and meet an African prince? Did she marry the man whose name she would use, Behn, throughout her literary career? 

Aphra Behn in a 1670 portrait
by Peter Lely
So many details about Behn's life are unknown or unclear or obscure. Indeed, in a roundtable discussion on Aphra Behn at the Sorbonne in 1999, Germaine Greer referred to the early-modern writer as a "palimpsest," that is, a writing surface with its text erased and reused, then erased and written on again, each rewriting leaving traces of what had been written before. Only, Greer noted, Behn was the one who had "scratched herself out." 

While Behn may (or may not) have been born in 1640, thrown into debtor's prison, or born a Catholic, what is known is that she was an English spy in Antwerp, began working for two theatrical companies, the King's Company and the Duke's Company, as a copyist, and then, in 1670, began to write. Not only did she write, but she wrote a play, The Forc'd Marriage, a play that was produced. Unlike many early-modern women writers whom we will meet later this year--writers like Margaret Cavendish, for example--Behn wrote plays that would be staged, that attracted audiences, that would earn her money--and that, most importantly,  would earn her a place in literary history.


From 1670 until her death, Behn made a living with her pen. She wrote and published volumes of poetry, nineteen plays, and several works of fiction, shorter and longer. Her novella Oroonoko: Or, the Royal Slave, A True History, with its transnational appeal and its exploration of race and the horrors of slavery, is now the most widely read of her prose works, but the three-volume epistolary novel Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister is her most extensive prose work--the first volume a scandalous (and thus hugely popular) roman à clef.

Behn's output also includes translation, for example her 1688 A Discovery of New Worlds, an English version of the French writer Bernard le Bovier de Fonatenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondese, a popular work of science, in the form of a literary dialogue, explaining Copernican theory and speculating about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. At the time of her death, she was working on an English translation of poet Abraham Cowley's Latin Plantarum libri sex, six books on plants.

Although she died in poverty, Behn left women a rich inheritance. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf notes that the notoriety of Aphra Behn was used to warn women away from attempting to live the life of a writer. "Death would be better!" these imagined scolders claimed. But Woolf does not condemn Behn for the life she led. Behn had, by "some unfortunate adventures of her own to make her living by her wits. She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote." And, finally, Woolf offers a memorable tribute to Behn: 
All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, . . . 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 to-night: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.
There are many affordable and accessible editions of Behn's two most popular works, Oroonoko and the wonderful comedy with three adventurous women looking for love, or at least marriage, The Rover. Aside from these two works, it's easy enough to read further--free Kindle versions are available of most of Behn's work, and you can find her plays and fiction online at sites like Project Gutenberg.

I also recommend Janet Todd's excellent biography, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. Todd is particularly good on Behn's politics--like many of the earliest women writers in England, Margaret Cavendish, Delarivier Manly, and Mary Astell,* for example--Behn was politically conservative.

For a great introduction to Behn's life and work, if you're not ready for Todd's full-length biography, there is an excellent treatment of Behn at The Poetry Foundation--biographical information, critical assessment of her work, a complete bibliography, and suggestions for further reading; to access, click here.

Should you be of a mind to "let flowers fall upon [her] tomb," Behn is buried in Wesminster Abbey.




*For Margaret Cavendish, click here; for Delarivier Manly, click here; and for Mary Astell, click here