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Behn, Aphra (ca 1640-1689)  
 
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Aphra Behn, known to her contemporaries as a "scandal" for both her writings and her flamboyant personal life, was one of the most influential dramatists of the late seventeenth century. Today, she is better known as a poet and novelist than playwright, and her extraordinary biography remains intriguing. Her birth name and parentage is a mystery. She was probably born in Wye, in 1640. Speculations about her early life include the possibility of several sets of parents.

A biographical essay by "One of the Fair Sex," affixed to the collection of The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn (1696), maintains that Aphra was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Johnson of Canterbury, whom Aphra accompanied, along with a young boy supposed to be her brother, on a voyage to the West Indies in 1663. Johnson, who was to have had an official appointment, died on the way. The mother and two children lived for a while in Surinam, then a Dutch possession, and Behn's most famous novel, Oronooko or The Royal Slave (1688), is based on her experiences there.

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Upon Behn's return to England in 1664, she met and might have married a Dutch merchant whose name she took. Soon after, in 1665, he died, leaving Aphra without financial support. Perhaps because of her association, through him, with the Dutch and her knowledge of the language from her trip to Surinam, she was appointed an intelligence gatherer for King Charles II, who was to pay her expenses for a trip to Antwerp as his spy.

The King, however, did not pay, and Behn's requests for money for her trip home were not answered. In December 1666, she was forced to borrow from a friend for passage back to England. Charles refused to reimburse her, and in 1668, Behn was put in debtor's prison.

After her release, Behn determined never to depend on anyone else for money again, and she earned her living first in the theater and then as a novelist until her death on April 16, 1689. Behn was one of the period's foremost writers, with over twenty published plays produced on the London stage.

Claimed by Vita Sackville-West to be the first woman in England to earn her living by writing, Behn was a dramatist when women were just being permitted to act on the English stage, and when no other woman was known as a playwright. She is also now acknowledged to be the first English novelist, as her two-volume book, Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1682-1685), appeared in serial form years before the book traditionally cited as the first English novel, Pamela or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, was published in 1740.

Behn's close association with royalty, especially her friendship with the King's mistress, Nell Gwyn, and her long-standing liaison with John Hoyle, whose affairs with other men were notorious, made Behn a prime subject for court and theater gossip. Widowed early, she refused to remarry and declared that she would not have been criticized so strongly if she had been a man.

In a century when female behavior was socially circumscribed, the scandal of Behn's activities was not so much what she did, but the public way in which she did it, and the very public way she wrote about herself and her friends. Many of her poems document her relationships with other women, some are standard heterosexual romances, and others are clever and unusual treatments of taboo subjects such as rape, impotence, and male homosexuality.

The majority of Behn's poetry was published in two collections that also include longer narrative works combining prose and poems. Most of her poems, however, are short lyric verses that reflect the customary English use of classical, pastoral, courtly, and musical modes, as well as the more recent satirical wit of her contemporaries. They also express her own unconventional attitudes.

Just as Behn was notorious for presenting sensational subjects on stage despite societal taboos, she achieved a reputation for unusually explicit accounts of erotic and sexual episodes in her poems. Many of these celebrated gay male and lesbian relationships.

In recognition of her predilection as well as her poetic achievement, Behn was heralded as a successor of Sappho of Lesbos by her admirers in a series of introductory poems that preface the collections of her works. She was also compared to her predecessor, the poet Katherine Philips, who wrote poems about her own romantic liaisons with other women. Known as "The Incomparable Astrea," a complimentary title based on the code name she had used when she was Charles II's spy, Behn only subtly masked the true identities of her associates in her poetry, frequently employing some classical or pastoral disguise; and sometimes she outspokenly used their true names.

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