Five Fascinating Facts about Aphra Behn
Interesting facts about a groundbreaking writer
1. Aphra Behn wrote one of the first novels in English. However, which of her works qualifies for the title ‘early novel’ is a tricky issue. The mantle usually goes to Oroonoko, her 1689 ‘true history’ of a ‘Royal Slave’, about a prince from Africa who is sold into slavery in South America, organises an uprising against the slave-owners, and is defeated and executed. But Oroonoko is short – only around 70 pages – so is often excluded from the ranks of the ‘novel’ proper. However…
2. Behn also wrote one of the first epistolary novels in English. Behn’s 1684 work Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister is long enough to be considered a novel. As it’s told in the form of letters (as the title reveals) it is also a precursor to celebrated eighteenth-century epistolary novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748).
3. Aphra Behn was also a government spy – and her husband may never have existed. Although she is known as ‘Aphra Behn’ (the surname has been variously pronounced as ‘ben’ and ‘bane’), she was actually born Eaffrey Johnson in 1640, the daughter of a barber. She supposedly married a Dutch (or possibly German) man named Hans Behn, who died or disappeared soon after their wedding. However, it’s possible he never existed and Behn simply wanted to create an image of herself as a young widow.
4. She was the first woman writer to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Behn died a pauper in 1689, in her late forties, and was interred in a cloister at Westminster Abbey (not far from, though not actually in, Poets’ Corner).
5. Virginia Woolf championed her in A Room of One’s Own. In her celebrated polemic of 1929 championing women’s writing, Woolf wrote: ‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’ The best place to begin exploring her work is, perhaps, her best-known play, the Restoration comedy The Rover, although Oroonoko is also a short read and nicely showcases Behn’s contribution to English prose fiction. Handily, both The Rover and Oroonoko are available in the excellent selection Oroonoko, the Rover and Other Works (Penguin Classics).
Image: Portrait of Aphra Behn by Mary Beale, seventeenth century, Wikimedia Commons.