1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Behn, Aphra

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BEHN, APHRA (otherwise Afra, Aphara or Ayfara) (1640-1689), British dramatist and novelist, was baptized at Wye, Kent, in 1640. Her father, John Johnson, was a barber. While still a child she was taken out to Surinam, then an English possession, from which she returned to England in 1658, when it was handed over to the Dutch. In Surinam Aphra learned the history, and acquired a personal knowledge of the African prince Oroonoko and his beloved Imoinda, whose adventures she has related in her novel, Oroonoko. On her return she married Mr Behn, a London merchant of Dutch extraction. The wit and abilities of Mrs Behn brought her into high estimation at court, and—her husband having died by this time—Charles II. employed her on secret service in the Netherlands during the Dutch war. At Antwerp she successfully accomplished the objects of her mission; and in the latter end of 1666 she wormed out of one Van der Aalbert the design formed by De Ruyter, in conjunction with the DeWitts, of sailing up the Thames and burning the English ships in their harbours. This she communicated to the English court, but although the event proved her intelligence to have been well founded, it was at the time disregarded. Disgusted with political service, she returned to England, and from this period she appears to have supported herself by her writings. Among her numerous plays are The Forced Marriage, or the Jealous Bridegroom (1671); The Amorous Prince (1671); The Town Fop (1677); and The Rover, or the Banished Cavalier (in two parts, 1677 and 1681); and The Roundheads (1682). The coarseness that disfigures her plays was the fault of her time; she possessed great ingenuity, and showed an admirable comprehension of stage business, while her wit and vivacity were unfailing. Of her short tales, or novelettes, the best is the story of Oroonoko, which was made the basis of Thomas Southerne’s popular tragedy. Mrs Behn died on the 16th of April 1689, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

See Plays written by the Late Ingenious Mrs Behn (1702; reprinted, 1871); also “Aphra Behn’s Gedichte und Prosawerke,” by P. Siegel in Anglia (Halle, vol. xxv., 1902, pp. 86-128,329-385); and A. C. Swinburne’s essay on “Social Verse” in Studies in Prose and Poetry (1894).