Aphra Behn



  • (1640 - 89) British playwright and novelist, probably thefirst Englishwoman to earn her living as a writer. She spent partof her youth in Guiana (now Suriname), where her father may have beena colonial official. After returning to England she married (1666)a wealthy Dutch merchant, who nevertheless left her in poverty onhis death.

    To support herself, she worked briefly as a British spy inthe Netherlands - a position she acquired through the playwrightand impresario Sir Thomas Killigrew. Thereafter she turnedto writing, producing some 15 plays in the remaining two decades ofher life. The first of these was the tragicomedy The Forced Marriage;or, the Jealous Bridegroom presented at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatrein 1670 with Thomas Betterton in the lead role.

    She made her name, however, with her comedies of intrigue,the first of these being The Rover; or, the Banished Cavalier(1677), about exiled English cavaliers rampaging through Europe. Thecentral character was modelled upon the Earl of Rochester. Other successfulcomedies included The Roundheads; or, the Good Old Cause (1681),The City-Heiress; or, Sir Timothy Treat-All (1682), and TheLucky Chance (1686).

    In 1687 Mrs Behn used the characters and conventions of thecommedia dell'arte as the basis for a farce featuring AnthonyLeigh as Scaramouche and Thomas Jevon as Harlequin. It was the firstof England's many harlequinades, the genre that evolved intopantomime.

    Mrs Behn also wrote a well-received novel Oroonoko, orthe History of the Royal Slave based on her early years in theWest Indies; it was adapted for the stage (by Thomas Southerne) in1695. Amongst her other achievements, she introduced milk punch intoEngland.