Aphra Behn is known for her substantial contributions to British writers, very little is known about her. She lived from 1640-1689 and she was a major contributor the Restoration movement. She wrote plays -- for which she is most known for, but she also wrote poems and stories that covered a wide range of topics. Among her plays are "The Forced Marriage," or "The Rover," "The Jealous Bridegroom," "The Town Fop, The Amorous Prince," "and The Roundheads." She possessed a great ingenuity, and showed an admirable comprehension of stage business, while her wit and vivacity were unfailing. Of her short tales, or novelettes, the best is the story of Oroonoko, which was made the basis of Thomas Southerne's popular tragedy. We do know the she lead an interesting and colorful life. When she was but a young 16 years old she traveled Surinam with her father, an appointed lieutenant governor, to Surinam. Her experiences of the New World did provide inspiration for many of her stories and plays. She learned the Surinam history and apparently obtained first-hand knowledge of the African prince Oroonoko and his wife Imoinda, whose adventures have been recorded in the story, "Oroonoko."
Rudowski does point out that an edition of her memoirs written by one of her close friends, Charles Gildon, and was published after her death. (Rudowski). We know very little about her husband, to whom she was married to for only a year before he dies of the plague. When her husband died in 1665, Behn was just a young 26 years old. After his death, she fell upon hard times and became a spy for the British monarchy. During this time, she took up residence in Antwerp in 1966 where she collected "information pertaining to the activities of dissident English exiles (supporters of Cromwell) as well as the military plans of the Dutch government" (Rudowski). Her code name was Astrea and she has remained known as "the Incomparable Astrea." (Schmidt 275). Some have speculated that her curious background was an indication that Behn was captivated by the danger and power that she might have been exposed to while she was a spy. She apparently stayed at Antwerp for approximately six months and it remains unknown if she was compensated for her work. What we do know is that Behn was imprisoned for her outstanding debt shortly after she returned from Antwerp. (Schmidt 274) As it would be for anyone, her imprisonment was a pivotal point in her life.
Determined to never see that side dark side of life again, she decided to start writing literally for food. However, it wasn't long before she made it well-known that she was writing not only for money but for fame as well. She wrote to fulfill what she called "my masculine part, the poet in me" (Rudowski). Behn wanted to be recognized not only as a writer but also as a female writer. She was not particularly modest or shy and felt comfortable writing about a variety of topics. Perhaps the most important aspect of her writing could be the fact that she was the first British woman to earn her living as a writer and in fact, the first woman to earn a living as a playwright for about twenty years. (Britannica) According to Michael Schmidt, Behn is important because she breaks many taboos and possess "substantial gifts." (Schmidt 275). According to Victor Rudowski, Behn's decision to pursue writing might have been courageous and bold, it "seems not to have been seriously disadvantaged on account of her gender in pursuing a literary career and may have actually been helped by it" (Rudowski).
In addition, Rudowski goes on to explain that the only apparent adverse effect of being female "stemmed from the generally held belief that women are innately more virtuous than men" (Rudowski). The consequence of such an attitude was a tendency for critics as well as the public, to regard her comedies as being more immoral than those of her male colleagues. (Rudowski) Samuel Rogal agrees with Schmidt asserting that Behn possessed the "natural gifts of the storyteller, and her narrative art can easily stand beside that of her male contemporaries" (Rogal). Rogal maintains that Behn was a "commercial" writer be cause she couldn't find the time to place intellectual substance in all of her narratives. Despite this fact, she could tell a story like few others, and "the force of her own personality contributed both reality and a sense of immediacy to the still inchoate form of seventeenth century British fiction" (Rogal). Her plays were "witty and vivacious" (Britannica). Her versatility as a writer was immense. She was well read and sometimes followed the works of other dramatists. For example, it is widely accepted that most of the information in "The City Heiress" was borrowed from Thomas Middleton's "A Mad World, My Masters." She can stand alone in her achievements, however, as most of her most popular works were original. (Britannica)
Being the first professional female writer of her time was not much to be admired for in her day. Criticism was certainly something that Behn must have become accustomed. It is even said that the Marquis of Halifax blamed Behn for the current state of oppression that women suffered from at the time when he said, "The unjustifiable freedom of some of your sex have involved the rest in the penalty of being reduced" (Britannica). Some have criticized Behn's stories as lacking the ability to grasp a realistic depiction of the British life. Her stories are filled with princes and princesses, kings and counts, as well as slaves, bishops, priests, and nuns. Rogal points out that Behn's "real world was itself highly artificial, even fantastic: the intrigue of the Stuart court, the ribaldry of the London stage, the gossip of the drawing room, the masquerade, and the card parlor. Behn, in her real world, took in the same scenes as did John Dryden, Samuel Pepys, and the earl of Rochester" (Rogal).
According to Rudowski, although Behn may have lived during a time of "great intellectual ferment, her ideas on politics and society are usually commonplace and traditional" (Rudowski). He is also quick to point that even though it may be tempting to find feminist colorings in her works, the assertion is difficult to prove. He points out that "except for her deep concern that marriage be entered into on the basis of mutual affection and not contracted for social or monetary reasons, there is little that Mrs. Behn wished to change in the relationship between the sexes" (Rudowski). Rudowski also points out that Behn knew better than to attribute greater virtue to women than to men. "If she did not appear to be interested in demonstrating the virtue of her sex, she at least used her plays to celebrate its power" (Rudowski).
In addition to play and stories, her poetry survives -- the best-known poem being "Love in fantastic triumph state." (Britannica) Behn also wrote poetry. Behn was more of what Michael Schmidt called a "Rochester's kind of poet" because she was feisty and self-reliant. (Schmidt 274) Her poetry, for the day, was considered quite erotic and humorous. Other issues she wrote about included class, politics, gender and race -- sometimes in a way that was not reflected by many of her male colleagues. Much of her work also reflects the life of an outsider. It was not uncommon to her to play with images of prostitutes, which was from the beginning associated with her because she was "selling" herself as a woman writer. She tried, however, to write with a pen that had no gender -- but she also wanted to communicate the idea that any topic was appropriate for a female writer. Her topics include the subject of desire, which often reflect the female point-of-view.
Rudowski mentions the extent of Behn's bravery when it came to writing about controversial topics. Perhaps one of the most notorious events occurred when Behn's placed her career as a playwright in jeopardy when she decided to "promote the fortunes of the Stuart monarchy by using the stage to attack powerful Whig opponents of Charles II" (Rudowski). She took liberty with the plays "The Roundheads" and "The City Heiress" to unleash her propaganda for the Tory cause. "What precipitated a crisis in Mrs. Behn's partisan political activity, however, was her composition of a sardonic prologue and epilogue for the production, in 1682, of Romulus and Hersilia, a play by an anonymous author," says Rudowski. These "supplementary contributions" were deemed to be "unwarranted aspersions upon the character of the Duke of Monmouth as well as other persons of quality, and a warrant for Mrs. Behn's arrest was issued by the Lord Chamberlain" (Rudowski). What exactly happened next remains a mystery to us, however we do know that Behn appeared to have escaped any confinement for the act. Although she might not have encountered any real trouble with the law, the effect of this event…