Bitesize Biographies. Aphra Behn. Playwright, Novelist and Much More Besides!
You may never have heard of Aphra Behn but she was an extremely popular and highly regarded English playwright and novelist in the mid 17th century. In fact, she is regarded to be the first “professional” woman writer of English literature. But Aphra was more than just a writer – she had an incredibly interesting and fascinating life.
Early records of Aphra’s life are hard to come by and there are several opinions that have been put forward as to her birth and her parentage but it seems, in all probability, that Aphra Johnson was born the second daughter of Bartholomew Johnson and Elizabeth Johnson (nee Denham) in the village of Wye near Canterbury in Kent in 1640 and was baptised on 14 December of that year. Her father, it’s believed, was a barber by trade and her mother was a nurse in the wealthy Colepeper family’s household.
Some time around 1663 she is stated to have visited Suriname in the northern part of South America which is bordered by French Guiana, Guyana, Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean but during the time of Aphra’s visit, Suriname was known as Dutch Guiana. It’s during this time that she visited a sugar plantation and witnessed first hand the treatment of slaves and, in fact, became friendly with one of the slaves and upon which friendship she’s said to have based one of her most famous novels.
It’s not entirely clear why she initially visited Suriname nor precisely when she returned, but at some stage, possibly around 1664, she met Johan Behn, a Dutch/German merchant and the couple subsequently married but unfortunately this marriage came to an abrupt end as Johan sadly died.
King Charles II
Aphra lived through extremely politically turbulent times in England and had quite strong beliefs but she certainly didn’t seem to shy away from voicing her opinions, particularly through her literary repertoire! Based on her writing, she seemed to have followed the Catholic faith and, as a royalist, supported King Charles II. Indeed by 1666 she had found herself to be a member of the King’s court. She was so incredibly loyal to the throne that she subsequently acted as a spy, travelling to Antwerp (Belgium).
Unfortunately, Aphra fell on hard times and ended up in the debtor’s prison which led her to take up writing to earn a crust! In essence, she became a Restoration period JK Rowling, although of course the latter thankfully didn’t find herself in the debtor’s prison.
Aphra’s first successful play was “The Forc’d Marriage” which was first performed around 1670 at The Duke’s Theatre in Lincolns Inn Fields in London but her most successful play, “The Rover” (published in two parts) was produced around 1677 and is thought to be not only a tribute to the Duke of York (a devout Catholic) but also King Charles II. This latter theory is probably borne out by the fact that, amongst the cast for the play, she chose Charles II’s famous orange selling mistress, Nell Gwyn!!
Aphra wrote a comedic farce “The Emperor of the Moon” around 1667 and, for this work, has been awarded the accolade as possibly being the instigator of our modern day pantomimes, so popular here in the UK during the Christmas period – for those of you who are not aware, basically a pantomime is a farce in which the male hero is acted out by a woman and many of the women are acted out by men. It’s loved by kids around the country and is known for it’s witty catchphrase “he’s behind you” which kids love to scream out at the poor unwitting hero or heroine when the arch villain suddenly appears behind them. It normally also contains an “animal” which comprises two men/women in costume, one standing upright as the front half and the other bent over and holding onto the person in front as the back half!! Having just typed out my description of a panto it sounds utterly perverse, but rest assured, it’s completely innocent and perfect for a family day out!!
Aphra’s best selling novel was “Oroonoko” (around 1688) which took her back to her time in Suriname and her encounter with the slave trade as the main character is an African prince who has been enslaved.
Aphra was undoubtedly a very gifted woman as, not only did she write successful plays and novels but also wrote poetry and translated French and Latin into English.
Although it was practically unheard of for a woman at the time, Aphra became somewhat of a celebrity. This was probably not just based on her incredible talent for writing but also for her obvious human rights and sex equality beliefs!
Westminster Abbey, London
Aphra died on 16 April 1689 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in London. The epitaph on her tombstone reads
“Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be; Defence enough against Mortality”.
I wonder if any of our wannabe writing friends out there will come to lead such a fascinating life?!