In This Article Aphra Behn

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Editions
  • Biographies
  • Translations

British and Irish Literature Aphra Behn
by
Margarete Rubik
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0120

Introduction

The reputation of Aphra Behn (b. 1640–d. 1689) has undergone radical revisions in the course of time. She was renowned as a poet and dramatist (rather than as a prose writer) in her lifetime, though, like other Restoration authors, she came in for her fair share of satirical abuse. Her fame declined in the 18th and 19th centuries due to changing tastes and moral norms castigating the supposed lewdness and immorality of her lifestyle and writing. She was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century, when studies were primarily concerned with (auto)biographical accounts of her life, the veracity of her claim in Oroonoko to have visited Surinam, and her sources. Since the mid-1970s, however, we have seen an unprecedented hype in the reevaluation of her oeuvre, following in the wake of the women’s movement of the 1970s. Within a short time, Behn has moved from comparative obscurity to a secure place in the English canon. Her works have been analyzed from a great variety of angles. Scholars in the 1970s and 1980s often approached her from a feminist perspective, investigating her self-understanding as a professional writer, her depiction of female and male characters, and her attacks on double standards in sexual morality. Postcolonial critics focused on her depiction of slavery and the intersection among gender, race, and identity politics. More recently, her political convictions have moved into the foreground: her Tory stance is often seen as conflicting with her feminist agenda. While she was initially often viewed in the context of a tradition of women’s writing, more-recent studies have placed her within Restoration theater and the philosophical, scientific, and political debates of her time. Notwithstanding this wide array of perspectives, criticism tends, and has always tended, to focus on a few selected texts.

Overviews

Although studies of Behn are legion, scholars rarely address her whole oeuvre but, rather, concentrate on one genre or one text. Good general overviews of Behn’s oeuvre are provided in Link 1968, Wiseman 1996, and, briefly, Williamson 1990. Spencer 2000 and Todd 1998 (both cited under Studies across Genres) trace the rise and fall of Behn’s reputation and critical responses after her death. In an often-quoted brief note, Woolf 2000 celebrates Behn as the first professional woman writer.

  • Link, Frederick M. Aphra Behn. Twayne’s English Authors 63. New York: Twayne, 1968.

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    Early study of her plays and their sources, as well as her prose, poetry, and translations. The biographical information is dated today. Sees Behn as a popular writer who skillfully catered to audience tastes and created interesting characters.

  • Williamson, Marilyn L. Raising Their Voices: British Women Writers, 1650–1750. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

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    Surveys Behn’s ouevre and her opinions on writing, giving brief comments on a variety of texts and illustrating her influence on later female writers. Behn advocates gender equality and attacks patriarchal oppression, but she always acknowledges social reality.

  • Wiseman, S. J. Aphra Behn. Writers and Their Work. Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1996.

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    Provides an introduction to the sociocultural and political backgrounds and surveys Behn’s works. Gives good interpretations of the amorous lyrics, views the rake less critically than is the wont, and centers on female desire and narrative voice in her fiction.

  • Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2000.

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    Famously claimed in this essay from 1929 that all women must “let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn . . . for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” (p. 60), but had a low opinion of Behn’s artistic merits, arguing that earning her livelihood was more important than literary quality.

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