Aphra Behn

Detail of Aphra Behn by Peter LelyBefore getting to the birthday post proper, I just want to say that it is the painter Roger Fry‘s birthday, and I love his work. I just don’t know that much about him. And for some reason, there isn’t all that much of his work online. Nor is a book about or by him in the library. But maybe by next year, I will have something to write about. He’s very deserving. Of course, so is the subject of today’s birthday post.

On this day in 1640, the great English writer Aphra Behn was baptized. Like most people from that time, we don’t know when she was born. The standard thing is to assume that people were baptized when they were three days old. That’s what the birthdays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Cervantes are: their baptismal dates minus three days. So with Behn, we are just going with the baptism. And it hardly matters. Why not that day?

Well, why not any day? The truth is that we don’t even know Behn’s real name. The date of her baptism is apocryphal. We don’t really know anything about her. And that is very probably by intention. The literary theorist Germaine Greer said of her, “She is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks.” Even the one place where seemingly every adult is documented finds her missing: tax records.

To give you some idea of just how vexing her life story is, check out this passage from Wikipedia:

Shortly after her supposed return to England from Surinam in 1664, Behn may have married Johan Behn (also written as Johann and John Behn). He may have been a merchant of German or Dutch extraction, possibly from Hamburg.

Shortly after returning from a place she may have never been, she may have married a man who might have been of a particular profession and maybe from a particular place. It is exasperating! But we do seem to know that she worked as a British spy in the Netherlands. She was supposed to get in good (Seduce?!) the son of the exiled son of the recently executed Thomas Scot. For this dangerous service, the King of England (Charles II at that time) repaid her the way they normally did: by abandoning her and not even paying her expenses.

Because she was in debt, she started writing for a couple of theater companies. Her early works were rather bawdy, like, The Amorous Prince. But she found more success later with comedies. She wrote a total of 19 plays and was the first notable female playwright in England (other than Queen Elizabeth who wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays). But she did far more than this. She also did a great deal of translation, and most important, she was key in the development not just of the English novel, but of the novel generally.

Sadly, she spent pretty much all of her adult life in debt. She may have been working at a furious pace (only John Dryden wrote more plays during that period), but it didn’t pay off very well. Perhaps the British were as bad about paying women then as we are today. On the other hand, there are two portraits of her by noted artists (and perhaps a third). So maybe she just lived beyond her means, as seems to have been typical of writers then — and now. She died in poverty at the age of 48.

Happy birthday Aphra Behn!

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