…And by that I mean of course, not just the period in which she wrote but the need to restore Aphra Behn (1640-1689) to her rightful place in the hierarchy of English writers. I’m uncertain when I first learned about her, but it was well into adulthood. Behn was the second most prolific Restoration playwright after Poet Laureate John Dryden and she wrote fiction decades before Daniel Defoe, commonly regarded as the Father of the English novel. In all justice, her name ought to have been included at the very least in the old ragtag pantheon of significant women authors that used to occupy a one-shelf ghetto in every classics library, alongside Jane Austen, the Brontes, Mary Shelley, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Emily Dickinson, for there are important ways in which she can be said to eclipse them.
There are several likely reasons for why she has been ignored or overlooked. One is that the Restoration has been held in lesser esteem by scholars and publishers (like, who knows Dryden either?). Another is that she was a Tory, and probably a Catholic, and those affiliations would certainly make her unattractive to many American intellectuals at the time when canons were being established. Most importantly, the bawdy tastes of the Restoration age were regarded as wicked and unworthy by later critics, and naughty plays by a woman had to have been thought of as most scandalous of all. Behn was a woman of her age, an associate of John Wilmot, Lord Rochester, best known today as the subject of the play and film The Libertine. Alongside the domestic romanticism of the other women I mentioned, much of Behn was likely dismissed as smut. Her plays presented women as proud, scheming, witty, sexual creatures. Why make her a hero for young girls? The answer of course is that she EXISTED. There is something more sinister than sex about writing someone out of history. But now that the work of many other historic female writers is coming to the fore, and they are being integrated into literary history, Behn must be given her due — not as an oddity, not as a sideshow attraction, but as a peer of her male counterparts.
Almost nothing is known for certain about who she really was, including her given name, although there are numerous conflicting stories about her origins. She comes into the verifiable record around 1666, when she attached herself to the restored Stuart King Charles II, and began acting as his spy among the community of English exiles in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. This service is said to have given Behn debts, requiring her to become a writer in order to pay them off. How she acquired the education to do so is also unknown. Her plays were The Forc’d Marriage (1670), The Amorous Prince, or, The Curious Husband (1671), The Dutch Lover (1673), Abdelazer (1676), The Town Fop or, Sir Timothy Tawdry (1676), The Rover, Part 1 (1677) and Part 2 (1681), The Counterfeit Bridegroom (1677), Sir Patient Fancy (1678), The Feigned Courtesans (1679), The Young King (1679), The Revenge (1680), The False Count (1681), The Roundheads or, The Good Old Cause (1681), The City Heiress (1682), Like Father, Like Son (1682), the Prologue and Epilogue to Romulus and Hersilia, or The Sabine War (November 1682), The Luckey Chance, or an Alderman’s Bargain (1686) with John Blow, and The Emperor of the Moon (1687).
Towards the end of the 1680s, theatrical audiences began to fall off, and Behn began to write for publication. The works of fiction and poetry included Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, in three parts (1682–1687), Poems upon Several Occasions, with A Voyage to the Island of Love (1684), The Fair Jilt (1688), Agnes de Castro, or, the Force of Generous Love (1688), Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688), Lycidus; or, The Lover in Fashion (1688), The History of the Nun: or, the Fair Vow-Breaker (1689). Oroonko was an account of an African Prince who is trapped into slavery in the Dutch colony of Surinam (where Behn is thought to have traveled, which is how she obtained her useful connections as a spy). It was adapted into a play by Thomas Southerne and produced in 1695. (Typical of Behn’s worldview, Oroonko is less anti-slavery than pro-monarchist. Her outrage is reserved for the fact that a PRINCE is enslaved. But it has still come to be regarded as an important cultural document). In Behn’s very last days she translated some scientific works from French. Two of her unproduced plays were published posthumously The Widow Ranter, or, the History of Bacon in Virginia (1689) and The Younger Brother, or, The Amorous Jilt (1696).
The cause of Behn’s death at age 48 in 1689 is not known, but her health is said to have begun to fail around 1685, which just happens to be the year of Charles II’s death. Her last couple of years of life proved inhospitable to someone with her worldview. 1688 saw the Glorious Revolution that deposed James II. William and Mary assumed power in 1689. The Protestant and Dutch William of Orange was not likely to shower patronage on the financially struggling Behn.
The re-evaluation and rediscovery of Aphra Behn began in the late 1920s in writings by Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, but mostly began to heat up since the feminist tide of the 1970s. For an entertaining modern take on her, check out Liz Duffy Adams’ 2009 play Or.