Aphra Behn

Behn, Aphra (ăfˈrə bān, bēn) [key], 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 Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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