Aphra Behn



by Lindsay Smith

Aphra Behn (c. 1640-89) Born in Harbledown, England, the details of Behn’s early life are unclear.[1] She may have been born to a barber and his wife[2] but there are also accounts that her father was a military man who was appointed Lieutenant-general of Surinam. [3] Some scholars of her work believe she traveled to Surinam with her family[4] where she found inspiration for her novel Oroonoko (1688) but there is no solid evidence of this. In 1664 she married the Dutch merchant Johan Behn, however, there is little recorded about their marriage. It is believed that the two either separated or her husband died shortly after their wedding.[5] About 1666 she began working for King Charles II as a spy[6] in the Netherlands and then in Antwerp under the name Astrea.[7] Unfortunately, the paltry pay left her poverty-stricken and she may have had a stint in debtor’s prison.[8] In an effort to support herself she began writing plays, novels, and poetry which won her renown for her versatility and wit. Much of her writing contains political and feminist themes that caused scandal throughout her lifetime, particularly the topics of race and female sexuality.

Some of Behn’s best-known works include The Forced Marriage (1670), The Dutch Lover (1673), Abdelazer (1676), The Rover (1677), The Feigned Courtesans (1679), The Second Part of The Rover (1681), The Roundheads (1681), The City Heiress (1682), Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684), The Emperor of the Moon (1687), Lycidus (1688), Oroonoko (1688), The History of the Nun: or, the Fair Vow-Breaker (1688), The Fair Jilt (1688), and The Widow Ranter (1689).


[1]Mary Spongberg, “Aphara Behn,” Mary Hays, Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries (1803). Chawton House Library Series: Women’s Memoirs, ed. Gina Luria Walker, Memoirs of Women Writers Part II (Pickering & Chatto: London, 2013), vol. 5, 369-86, editorial notes 471-73, on 471.

[2] “Aphra Behn,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/58760/Aphra-Behn

[3] Mary Hays, Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of all Ages and Countries (6 volumes) (London: R. Phillips, 1803), 273-90, on 273.

[4] Hays, “Aphara Behn,” vol. 1, 273-90, on 276.

[5] “Aphra Behn,” Encyclopedia Britannica.

[6] Hays, “Aphara Behn,” vol. 1, 273-90, on 276.

[7] Spongberg, “Aphara Behn,” vol. 5, 369-86, editorial notes 471-73, on 471.

[8] “Aphra Behn,” Encyclopedia Britannica.



“Aphra Behn.” Encyclopedia Britannica accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/58760/Aphra-Behn

Brockhaus, Cathrin, Aphra Behn und ihre Londoner Komödien: Die Dramatikerin und ihr Werk im England des ausgehenden 17 Jahrhunderts, 1998.

Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn 1640-89 Methuen, MA: Phoenix Press, 1977.

Goreau, Angeline. “Aphra Behn: A Scandal to Modesty” Feminist theorists: Three centuries of key women thinkers Ed. Dale Spender. Pantheon, 1983.

Hays, Mary. “Mrs. Behn.” Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of all Ages and Countries (6 volumes). London: R. Phillips, 1803, vol. 1, 273-90.

Hobby, Elaine. Virtue of necessity: English women’s writing 1649-88. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.

Holmesland, Oddvar. Utopian negotiation : Aphra Behn & Margaret Cavendish Syracuse, New York : Syracuse University Press, 2013.

Hughes, Derek. The Theatre of Aphra Behn Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Hughes, Derek and Janet Todd. The Cambridge companion to Aphra Behn Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Lewcock, Dawn. Aphra Behn studies: More for seeing than hearing: Behn and the use of theatre. Ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Todd, Janet ed. Aphra Behn New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Todd, Janet. The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn Columbia: Camden House, 1998.

Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn Bloomsbury Reader, 2013.

Sackville-West, Vita. Aphra Behn – The Incomparable Astrea Gerald Howe, 1927.

Steen, Francis F. The Politics of Love: Propaganda and Structural Learning in Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister. Poetics Today 23.1 (2002) 91-122.

Summers, Montague, ed. Aphra Behn: Works. London: William Heinemann, 1913.



Brooklyn Museum
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Aphra Behn


Page citation:
Lindsay Smith. “Aphra Behn.” Project Continua (June 17, 2013): Ver. 1, [date accessed], http://www.projectcontinua.org/aphra-behn/



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