Oroonoko | Study Guide

Aphra Behn

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Aphra Behn | Biography


Early Travels to Suriname and the Netherlands

The first Englishwoman to make a living from her writing, Aphra Behn worked in multiple genres as a celebrated playwright, novelist, and poet. Little is known about her early life and origins. Thought to be born in 1640, she may have been the daughter of a man named Johnson, who was related to English nobleman Francis Willoughby, 5th Baron Willoughby (c.1613–66).

Scholars do know Behn joined Johnson and his family on a voyage to Suriname, an English colony in South America, in 1663. Willoughby was in charge of Suriname before the Dutch seized the colony from the English. Behn spent several months in Suriname before returning to England. The voyage influenced her greatly, forming the setting of her groundbreaking 1688 novella, Oroonoko.

Behn married a Dutch merchant in 1664, taking his last name, Behn. It's unclear whether the couple separated or her husband died the following year. To earn a living, Behn became a British spy for King Charles II and traveled to the Netherlands in the secret service. Charles II didn't send her the promised funds for her journey home, so she borrowed to pay her way.

Back in England, she was imprisoned for debt. When she was released from prison, Behn was determined to support herself and began writing for a living.

Plays and Poems

Though Behn worked in many genres, she was best known in the 17th century for her plays. Her work became popular during England's Restoration, from 1660 to 1688, when Charles II's monarchy returned to the throne after years of strict Catholic rule by Oliver Cromwell. Restrictions on art, drama, and literature were lifted. Theaters reopened, and playwrights had more opportunities than ever.

Behn's first play, The Forc'd Marriage, was produced in 1670. She drew comic inspiration from sources such as Italian improvised comedy using stock characters, called commedia dell'arte. She also mined current events for comedy, thinly disguising characters, situations, and references based on real life in England. Her plays addressed topics such as marriage and sex, considered scandalous for a female writer. Despite the controversy around Behn's work, theatergoers flocked to her plays. Her most famous play, The Rover, was produced in 1677 and published later the same year. The sequel to the play, known as The Rover part 2, was produced in 1681. As a writer, Behn achieved a level of celebrity almost unheard of for a woman.

Behn's poetry and novels are characterized by a strong personal voice. She often wrote as "Astrea," a character who was a stand-in for Behn herself. Her ambitious projects included the multipart epistolary novel, or novel in letters, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684–87). She adopted sophisticated techniques her contemporaries thought only male writers were capable of, and readers praised her craft.


Later in her life Behn branched out into novel writing. Her novella Oroonoko (1688), which is based on her visit to Suriname, tells the story of an African prince forced into slavery. Though Oroonoko is fictional, Behn includes several real English colonists as characters, and the narrator is based on Behn. The novel is also known as Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave, a True History or Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave.

Oroonoko was revolutionary in both form and subject. It serves as a foundational text in the development of the English novel as modern readers know it. Oroonoko engaged topics such as racial inequality, gender inequality, and slavery more candidly than most writing of its time. Some readers considered it the first novel to argue for abolition.

Paving the Way for Female Writers

Behn died on April 16, 1689, a year after writing Oroonoko. She's buried in England's Westminster Abbey.

Her work's quality stands strong on its own, but Behn's most enduring legacy is as a trailblazer for women writers. Critics in the 17th and 18th centuries initially dismissed her work, accusing Behn of disgracing womanhood by writing about lewd topics. However, other female playwrights began to make a living from their work after Behn. English writer Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), a well-known 20th-century modernist, honors Behn in her nonfiction work A Room of One's Own (1929). Woolf feels Behn was the first woman to take writing seriously as a career, giving future women permission to do the same. "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn," Woolf says. Behn's own revolutionary attitudes toward gender in her work make her a foundational feminist figure.

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