Everything we don’t know about Aphra Behn

The first English woman to make her living entirely as a writer was Aphra Behn. She’s known to have been born, to have been a spy, to have been a writer, and to have died. After that, information about her ranges from the sketchy to the questionable. 

What could be more fun than writing about someone nobody knows much about?

She was born in 1640. Her father might have been a barber and her mother might have been a wet nurse. They might also not have been. 

Her last name might have been Johnson. She might have been adopted. 

Since we can’t sketch in her family, let’s sketch in the times she lived in: The English Civil Wars ran from 1642 to 1651. In 1660, the Stuart kings settled their hind ends back on the throne they’d been lusting after. So she grew up in turbulent times and was twenty at the start of the Restoration, which is a fancy name for the aforesaid Stuart hind end settling back on that throne.

Irrelevant photo: This is one of about a dozen big, flat wildflowers that don’t look alike but are similar enough that I doubt I’ll ever learn their names.

She may or may not have spent some time in Surinam.

Suri-what? A small country in South America. It was an English colony until 1667, when it became Dutch. Under the English, it evolved into a place of sugar plantations and slave labor, which gets an early mention because it feeds into one of Behn’s books. 

(It’s irrelevant but interesting to note that the Parliamentarians–the folks who threw out the Stuart kings–were no more opposed to slavery than the Royalists were. That won’t be on the test. In fact, there won’t be a test. This is a blog. You can stop reading right here if the mood takes you.) 

If Behn had been a man, an aristocrat, or a religious nonconformist, she’d have left more information behind, or so say Abigail Williams and Kate O’Connor in an essay. The surprise in that, for me, is the nonconformists. They were prone, both the men and the women, to keeping spiritual journals. 

In 1664, Behn married a merchant named Johan Behn, although the marriage might not have lasted long. He might have died the next year. He might not have. Either way, that’s the last we’ll hear of him. 

She was a royalist spy in Antwerp during the Anglo-Dutch War. If she was in Surinam, she might have been there as a spy. 

Of course, she also might not have been in Surinam as a spy. 

She might not have been in Surinam at all. 

Don’t you love history?

Spying wasn’t a good way to get rich. According to one source, she wasn’t paid at all and had to borrow money to get home from Antwerp.

That leads to our next questionable statement: She ended up in debtors prison, according to one source (a different one this time) for “debts she incurred in service to the crown.” None of the other sources I’ve found mention the reason for her debts. In fact, the British Library entry on her says there’s no documentation that she was ever in debtors prison.

If she was, though, either somebody ponied up the money needed to break her loose or she started writing as a way to get herself out. Either way, write she did, and back then it was a better way to make money than it is today. Writing was still the hot new medium. You know how parents yell at their kids to get off their phones and turn off their computers? “Go read a book and learn something,” they say. Well, back then parents yelled at their kids to put down their books, get out in the fresh air, and be ignorant.

Yes, every last parent. Every last kid. That’s how you can tell what the hot new medium is: Parents are appalled by it.

Now we’ll take a quick step back. Bear with me. Before the Restoration, the theaters were closed. They were frivolous and led to perdition and fun. Then the king sashayed back to London, the party began, and theater companies were licensed. It wasn’t exactly a new medium, but it was hot all the same.

Behn started working for two of the theater companies that had started up, first as a scribe, then as a playwright. Fittingly, the timelines I’ve seen are contradictory, but her first plays either were or weren’t commercial successes, but either a later or the first one was. But forget which play it was, one of them ran for six nights, and that counted as a smash hit. The income from the third day (and the sixth if there was one, and the ninth if miracles should occur) of a run went to the author, so she got the income from two nights. 

She went on to write and publish an assortment of other plays, some successful, some not, and one–now lost–a complete disaster, involving an arrest for an abusive prologue (or epilogue–take your pick) attacking the Duke of Monmouth. She was (probably) let off with a warning. 

Nope, I have no idea what it said. It’s lost. Sorry. 

Some of her plays were definitely her plays. Others might have been her plays but might have been someone else’s. During her lifetime, a lot of her work was published anonymously, which helps explain the murkiness over what was her work and what wasn’t.

She also published novels and poetry. 

She had a couple of lovers. One of them, John Hoyle, is believed to have written the epitaph (not to be confused with that troublesome epilogue) that’s on her tombstone: “Here lies a proof that wit can never be Defence enough against mortality.”

She died in 1689, at forty-nine. 

So what did she have to say? Well, in her novel Oroonoko, the narrator swears the story’s true, that she either saw everything in it  or was told it by its hero, thus muddying the autobiographical waters by pouring fiction into alleged fact. The book’s unusual in English literature in its choice of hero, an African prince sold into slavery in Surinam. Behn wasn’t not free from the prejudices of her time and place–who is?–but she allowed him his humanity, something it took European writers and their descendants centuries to find their way back to.

She also wrote about sex–about women enjoying sex and about men sometimes failing to enjoy it, much as they would have liked to. “The Disappointment” is full of seventeenth century roundaboutness, but it’s also frank: The man couldn’t get it up. 

 

      . . . In vain th’ enraged Youth assaid

      To call his fleeting Vigour back. . . .

      In vain he Toils, in vain Commands,

      Th’ Insensible fell weeping in his Hands.

 

After Behn died, Memoirs on the Life of Mrs Behn. By a Gentlewoman of her Acquaintance was published, further blurring the line between fact and fiction. The gentlewoman was probably a man named Charles Gildon, who drew heavily on her fiction, along with her letters, to piece together a life, leaning heavily on sex to sell the story.

Behn went out of fashion in more prudish centuries and–well, Restoration literature doesn’t draw a mass audience anymore, but feminists since Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf have been rediscovering her, reinterpreting her, re-appreciating her, and in Sackville-West’s case reimagining her from the ground up. 

Which given the gaps in her story is easy to do. You have no facts to lean on but you also have none to contradict you.