Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own says that Aphra Behn earned for all women the right to speak; but scant detail about the life of Aphra herself leaves us with a tantalisingly incomplete portrait. Baptized in 1640 as ‘Eaffrey Johnson’, the daughter of a barber and a wet nurse, she grew up in the shadow cast by the Civil War. Her plays The Roundheads and The Rover are evidently topical, and although much of her work is imbued with the theme of Restoration, we cannot know quite how her experiences of the conflict affected her.
According to the earliest biography, published posthumously with her comedy The Younger Brother in 1696, she travelled to Surinam with her parents and siblings, probably in 1663. The family may have been encouraged to move there by Lord Willoughby’s Prospectus, which offered fifty acres per settler. But for Behn it was not the start of an idyllic new life. According to the biography, she suffered the ‘loss of her Relations and Friends there,’ which ‘oblig’d her to return to England.’ It is possible, though unproven, that she was in Surinam as the mistress of William Scot, the son of Cromwell’s Secretary of State for Intelligence, with whom she later undertook a spying mission in the Low Countries.
Her time in Surinam provided inspiration and material for her short novel, Oroonoko, about the eponymous noble African and his beloved, Imoinda, who are ‘betrayed to slavery’ and brought to the sugar plantation in Surinam with tragic consequences. It is a remarkably ‘modern’ work, a stark and critical depiction of the slave trade and Christian hypocrisy. Oroonoko displays an integrity that the ‘devout’ captain of the slave-ship is sadly lacking.
After her return from Suriname, she likely married a Mr Behn around 1665. Whoever he was, he slips off the record and may have died of the plague that same year. Aphra, with the code-name Astrea, then undertook some fairly well-documented work in Flanders, as a spy for the English government. Her letters to England frequently demand more money; indeed when she returned to London in 1666, she was in such debt that she risked being imprisoned. Luckily, her career as a writer took off. Thomas Killigrew, a colleague from her spying days, introduced her to Dryden and the King’s Company. Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was in fact produced in 1670 by the rival company, the Duke’s Men.
In between plays, Behn’s movements are uncertain. Around 1673, she began a relationship with the bisexual John Hoyle, and perhaps went travelling again. Her return to the stage was heralded by the production of the tragedy Abdelazer in 1676. But it was The Rover, premiered the following year, which sealed her reputation as a dramatist. Nevertheless, she mysteriously sought to conceal her authorship, perhaps to avoid a charge of plagiarism raised by her old friend Killigrew.
Aside from her dramatic output, Behn wrote both pastoral and political poetry, and translated or paraphrased works such as Aesop’s Fables and Ovid’s Oenone to Paris. Throughout her works, Behn contemplates what it means to be a woman with desires and aspirations living in a stifling patriarchy; she provides a voice for those whose individual worth has been overlooked or diminished. Influenced by imported libertine philosophy, she celebrates the authority of nature over religious superstition, praising physical pleasure enjoyed in the present time and encouraging people not to live bound by regulations which hinder their experience of the rich and enchanting world.