Born: Circa July 1640
Died: April 16, 1689, in London, England
Aphra Behn, a novelist and dramatist, may have been the first woman in England to support herself with her writing. Unlike most work of her day, her plays and books were considered sexually explicit, including themes of love, honor, intrigue, seduction, and betrayal. For her unconventional ways, she was criticized and thought to be unlady- like.
There have been several conflicting reports regarding the details and even the main circumstances of her life. One version, popular for a time, has posited that she was born the daughter of a barber. However this has since been effectively disproved, although details of her birth are still unclear. What is fairly consistently stated by biographers is that she traveled to Surinam, South America perhaps in her early twenties. In Surinam, she is believed to have become the mistress of William Scot. In 1658, when Surinam became part of Dutch Guiana, she returned to England and married a Dutch merchant named Behn. In approximately 1666, her husband died during a plague epidemic, leaving no money behind.
From 1665 to 1667, Behn was a spy in Antwerp, collecting information against the Dutch during the war. She was not paid for her work and when she returned to England she was briefly jailed for debt. She took up writing to make her living, eventually becoming one of the most successful dramatists of the Restoration theatre.
Behn wrote sixteen plays and three others have been attributed to her. These plays were produced in London between 1670 and 1687. Her success came with a play called Rover. The first part of the drama was first performed in 1677, followed by the second part in 1681. Today, the play is not well- known, but was wildly successful during its time. Her works were performed in such venues as the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, the Queen's Theatre, and the Duke's Theatre.
After the success of the comedy, Rover, Behn socialized with authors such as John Dryden and Edmund Waller. Behn had a love affair with John Hoyle, a lawyer, that lasted about ten years. Some believe that a political backlash from the Whigs over her satire of the party in The City Heiress is the reason that she stopped writing plays after 1682.
At this point, Behn started writing novels. In 1688, she published her most widely read work today: Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave. This novel, which tells of an African prince sold into slavery in Surinam, influenced the development of the English novel. It introduces the concept of the noble savage and tries to develop a realistic background.