Aphra Behn

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Aphra Behn (10 July 1640 – 16 April 1689) was a prolific dramatist of the Restoration and was one of the first English professional female writers. Her writing participated in the amatory fiction genre of British literature.


Early life

The personal history of Aphra Behn, one of the first English women to earn her livelihood by authorship,[1] is difficult to unravel and relate. Information regarding her, especially her early life, is scant, but she was almost certainly born in Wye, near Canterbury, on 10 July 1640 to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham. The two were married in 1638 and Aphra, or Eaffry, was baptized on 14 December 1640. Elizabeth Denham was employed as a nurse to the wealthy Colepeper family, who lived locally, which means that it is likely that Aphra grew up with and spent time with the family's children. The younger child, Thomas Colepeper, later described Aphra as his foster sister. In 1663 she visited an English sugar colony on the Suriname River, on the coast east of Venezuela (a region later known as Suriname). During this trip she is supposed to have met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, Oroonoko. The veracity of her journey to Suriname has often been called into question; however, enough evidence has been found to convince most Behn scholars today that the trip did indeed take place.

Though little is really known about Behn’s early years, evidence suggests that she may have had a Catholic upbringing. She once admitted that she was "designed for a nun" and the fact that she had so many Catholic connections, such as Henry Neville who was later arrested, would certainly have aroused suspicions during the anti-Catholic fervor of the 1680s (Goreau 243). Her sympathy to the Catholics is further demonstrated by her dedication of her play "The Rover II" to the Catholic Duke of York who had been exiled for the second time (247).

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