APHRA BEHN was an English dramatist, poetess, and novel writer, highly popular in the reign of Charles II, when nothing could exceed the licentiousness of the public stage, but the licentiousness of private manners.
She was born in the reign of Charles I., but the year is not known, and, as is stated, of a good family in Canterbury, of the name Johnson. While she was yet very young, her father was appointed governor of Surinam, but he died on the voyage out, leaving behind him a large family who were with him on the way to the West Indies. They proceeded on their expedition, and resided at Surinam for some years, where Aphra Johnson became intimately acquainted with prince Oroonoko, whose history she afterwards molded into the novel that Southern used in writing his tragedy of that name. In Surinam she lost several other relations, and returned to London, where her beauty and abilities procured her a husband in Mr. Behn, an English merchant of a Dutch family. Not long afterwards (her husband, probably, having died in the interval) it is asserted that she was employed by the court of England, at the instance, it would seem, of Charles II himself, to proceed to the Low Countries, in order to procure and transmit information as to the designs of the Dutch. She went to Antwerp, and there formed, or renewed, an acquaintance with a person of influence and information, named Vander Albert, who let her into the secret of the intention of the Dutch, under de Witt and de Ruyter, to sail up the Thames and burn the English ships at Chatham. This is broadly stated in the Memoirs of Mrs. Behn, but it seems very doubtful, as unquestionably the intelligence that she is reported to have sent over was not credited in London. It looks like an endeavour to give importance to Mrs. Behn's character after the attempt had been made by the Dutch, and to cast an imputation upon the English government for not availing itself of her information.
She continued to reside for some time in Antwerp, and is said to have entered all the gaieties and gallantries of the city. Why she returned to England does not appear; but sailing from Dunkirk she was wrecked on our coast, and was only saved by boats from the shore. At this period she could not have been much more than twenty-three or twenty-four years old, and it seems probable that during the rest of her life she was mainly indebted to her pen for support. That she was a woman of beauty and gallantry cannot be doubted; and it is asserted, with some appearance of truth, that she devoted herself much to the pleasures of the town. Two of her plays were printed in 1671, The Amorous Prince and The Forced Marriage; and between that year and 1687, she produced no fewer than thirteen other comedies or tragi-comedies, and one tragedy, entitled Abdelazar, which made its appearance in 1677. It is founded upon the old play, long falsely attributed to Marlowe, called Lust's Dominion. Two of her dramas, The Widow Ranter, and The Younger Brother, were posthumous; the first having been brought out at the Theatre Royal in 1690, and the second at Drury-lane Theatre in 1696. There is no one of her plays totally devoid of merit, although it is evident that she sometimes wrote under the pressure of necessity. Their indecency she seeks to excuse in the preface to her Lucky Chance, 1687, which says that she offended in this respect no more than her neighbors, and that her productions ought not to be examined with greater severity. She had, however, probably better talents than many of these worthless neighbours, and was, besides, a woman.
Of the latter portion of her career little has been ascertained, and perhaps the result of an investigation might be anything but satisfactory. In 1684, 1685, and 1688, she published three volumes of miscellanies in verse, including pieces by the earl of Rochester and Sir George Etherege, (a companionship not of the most unexceptionable kind,) together with a translation of Rochefoucault's Maxims. One of her most remarkable pieces is a version of Ovid's Epistle, Oenone to Paris, which, with others, was printed under the sanction of a preface by Dryden, in which he avows that she did not understand Latin. She had not attained her fiftieth year at the time of her death, on the 16th of April, 1689, after a tedious illness; she was buried in the eastern ambulatory of the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. During her life she was very commonly known by the poetical appellation of "the Divine Astræa," a circumstance which misled Langbaine, when, in his account of Dramatic Authors, he called her Mrs. Astræa Behn. Gildon published a collected edition of her separately printed plays, and such was their discreditable popularity, that they reached the eighth edition in 1735.
This biography was originally published in A New General Biographical Dictionary. Ed. Rev. Hugh James Rose. London, 1857. pp. 9-10.
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