21 Mar 2016
Our curator Kristian Martin discusses the playwright, poet and novelist Aphra Behn.
Seventeenth-century Britain was largely a patriarchal society. Women had few rights, men made the decisions and wives were expected to stay in the shadow of their husbands. Despite this, there are some remarkable stories of pioneering women who didn’t conform, and instead grabbed new opportunities in the fields of natural philosophy, literature, theatre and the visual arts that accompanied the restoration of Charles II.
One of the most intriguing of these women was the playwright, poet and novelist Aphra Behn.
Aphra Behn is something of an enigma. Born some time around 1640, her early life isn’t well-recorded and facts about her are continually disputed. Indeed, she appears to have invented, re-invented and obscured parts of her pre-Restoration life as she saw fit.
Her birth name may have been Eaffrey Johnson and she could have been the daughter of a Canterbury barber, although neither fact is certain. Just after the Restoration she probably briefly lived in the English colony of Surinam in South America where she was perhaps embroiled in political espionage. Whatever the truth, Behn was in London by 1664 and six years later was writing for the stage.
Aphra Behn’s unusual career choice may have been inspired by a need for financial independence. Her husband, a German merchant, seems to have died shortly after their marriage in 1665, and a disastrous stint as a Royalist spy in Antwerp left her with substantial debts.
In 1666, having come to the attention of the King (possibly through her earlier work in espionage), Behn was sent to the Netherlands to infiltrate a plot by exiled Republicans against Charles II. However, she was double-crossed and during her time there fell into financial difficulties.
Forced to take a loan and receiving no recompense from the King, Behn was arrested on her return and may have served time in debtor’s prison. Writing could have been her means of escape.
Behn was not the first woman playwright – she had been preceded by Katherine Philips and Frances Boothby – but she was the most prolific, and certainly the first woman to make a living from writing. While she probably wrote poetry and fiction in the preceding decade, her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was performed in September 1670 (a year after Pepys ended his diary) at the Duke’s Playhouse in Lincolns Inn Fields. The play, a tragicomedy about unhappy marriage, was a success and set Behn on a career as a professional dramatist. Over the next 19 years she produced at least 19 (largely successful) plays, probably contributed to many more, and also wrote poems, short stories and novels. Today her most famous play is The Rover (1677), for which her friend Nell Gwyn came out of retirement to appear in. Yet she is perhaps better remembered for the short work of fiction Oroonoko (1688) which explores slavery, gender, race and ethnicity.
Although many of her works are fiercely royalist and deal with conventional themes in Restoration theatre, others encompass the more liberal recurring subjects of gender inequality and sexual desire, and even touch on same-sex love and male impotence.
Although she was a respected and popular dramatist, indeed quite a celebrity in her day, her work and talent divided opinion during her lifetime and after her death. Her plays have variably been judged as immoral, ‘unfeminine’ and lewd but some consider her as a gifted proto-feminist struggling to make a living in a man’s world. Today Aphra Behn is remembered principally for her importance as a major figure in Restoration theatre. She paved the way for the women writers that followed and, in the words of novelist Virginia Woolf, ‘earned them the right to speak their minds’.