Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (ăf´rə bān, bēn), 1640–89, first professional female English author. Little is known of her early life, but there is evidence that c.1658 she married a London merchant of Dutch descent named Behn. After the death of her husband, Aphra Behn became an English spy in the Dutch Wars (1665–67), adopting the pseudonym Astrea, under which she later published much of her verse. Her career as a secret agent was unsuccessful, and she returned to England exhausted and penniless, forced even to serve time in debtors' prison. By 1670 her first play had been performed, and by 1677 she gained her much desired fame with the eminently successful production of The Rover. All her plays are noted for their broad, bawdy humor. Despite her success as a playwright, however, her best literary achievement can be found in her novels. The most notable of these is Oroonoko (1688), a heroical love story, the first philosophical novel in English. Aphra Behn was famous for her lifestyle as well as her works; her denial of woman's subservience to man and her high-living, bohemian existence has led critics to describe her as the George Sand of the Restoration and a forerunner of the feminist movement. Her literary reputation declined rapidly in the 18th cent., but Montague Summers's collected edition of her work (6 vol., 1915) revived an interest in her.

See biography by F. M. Link (1968); A. Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra: A Social History of Aphra Behn (1980).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea
V. Sackville-West.
Viking Press, 1928
Oroonoko and Other Writings
Aphra Behn; Paul Salzman.
Oxford University Press, 1994
The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies
Sara Heller Mendelson.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1987
Librarian’s tip: Chap. III "Aphra Behn"
Aphra Behn's English Feminism: Wit and Satire
Dolors Altaba-Artal.
Susquehanna University Press, 1999
Privileging Gender in Early Modern England
Jean R. Brink.
Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Twelve "Marrying That Hated Object: The Carnival of Desire in Behn's The Rover"
Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820
Catherine Gallagher.
Clarendon Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Who Was That Masked Woman? The Prostitute and the Playwright in the Works of Aphra Behn"
Admired and Understood: The Poetry of Aphra Behn
M. L. Stapleton.
University of Delaware Press, 2004
Women, Accounting, and Narrative: Keeping Books in Eighteenth-Century England
Rebecca Elisabeth Connor.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Jack and The Fair Jilt: The Value of Aphra Behn"
Reading Early Modern Women's Writing
Paul Salzman.
Oxford University Press, 2006
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Saint and Sinner: Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn"
Woman as Artist: Papers in Honour of Marsha Hanen
Christine Mason Sutherland; Beverly Jean Rasporich.
University of Calgary Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Aphra Behn and Contemporary Canadian Women Playwrights"
Stillness in Motion in the Seventeenth Century Theatre
P. A. Skantze.
Routledge, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Decidedly Moving: Aphra Behn and the Staging of Paradoxical Pleasures"
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