Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Aphra Behn

(1640-1689)

Aphra Behn, perhaps the first professional English woman author, was born Aphra Johnson near Canterbury, England in 1640. She was the daughter of an innkeeper and as a child she was taken to Surinam, West Indies. While there, she met an enslaved Negro prince, Oroonoko, who was the basis for a novel she wrote later. She returned to England between 1658 and 1663 and married a merchant named Behn but was widowed after three years of marriage.

In the meantime, she had entered court circles and was employed as a spy at Antwerp for King Charles II in the war against the Dutch (1665-1667). She provided political and naval information to the English government, but was paid very little or not at all, and on her return to England was imprisoned briefly for debt.

Aphra Behn had at some time previously acquired schooling in languages and in literature and soon turned to writing poetry, novels, and plays to earn a living. She wrote The Forced Marriage (1670), The Rover (1678), The Feigned Courtizans (1678), The City Heiress (1682). Her plays were very successful and were performed under royal patronage by the Duke's Theatre Company. In 1688, she published the novel, Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave. This novel introduces the idea of a noble savage, which was later developed further by Jean Jacques Rousseau and it may be the first English philosophical novel.

Aphra Behn's influence was later applauded by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, but during her own time she was suspected of plagiarism and accused of lewdness because of her gender.

Aphra Behn died on April 16, 1689 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1999.

Bibliography:
1. Larousse Dictionary of Women, edited by Melanie Parry, Larousse, 1996
2. Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia
3. Heroines: Remarkable and Inspiring Women/An Illustrated Anthology of Essays by Women Writers, Crescent Books, 1995. Aphra Behn profile by Catherine Mooney.

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