(1640-1689) UK playwright, spy (under the name Astrea), poet and author now recognized as probably the first Englishwoman to earn her living entirely by writing. Though she obscured her childhood thoroughly, it is now thought that she was probably born Eaffrey Johnson; in 1663 she was almost certainly in the British colony of Surinam with members of her family, where she first became involved in political intrigues. She married on her return to England in 1664. Little is known of her husband, who was a merchant, probably of Dutch origin, possibly named Johann Behn, and who died within two years of their marriage. In 1666 Behn was employed by Charles II as a spy in Antwerp during the Dutch War. Her first play, The Forc'd Marriage, was produced in 1670 and was followed by at least eighteen others, which typically satirized the excesses of Restoration society though she remained a passionate advocate of the Stuart cause.
Her play The Emperor of the Moon: A Farce (1687) is a Commedia Dell'Arte farce inspired by Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone (1638) [for Commedia Dell'Arte see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]: a scholar is deceived by his daughter and her lover into believing they are in touch with the Emperor of the Moon. Her novella, Oroonoko, Or The Royal Slave: A True History (1688 chap), directly inspired by her visit to Surinam, tells of an African king and his lover who are enslaved, lead a revolt and are cruelly killed. It has clear links with much of the Utopian writing of the time, notably in its depiction of African society before enslavement and in the aspirations of Oroonoko, and is remarkable as one of the earliest works to protest against the slave trade. The novel was adapted for the stage by Thomas Southerne in 1695 (published 1696) in a version that became for a while better known that the original, but which underplayed the anti-Slavery element in favour of increased melodrama. She is also of indirect sf interest for her translation of Bernard Le Bovyer de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes habités (1686; exp 1687; trans as A Discovery of New Worlds 1688).
Though not immune from patriarchal derision occasioned by her sex, Behn personally suffered relatively little from the fact she was a woman; but the literary establishment in later centuries – particularly the nineteenth – found her candour and her professional career intolerable to contemplate, and she was effectively excised from the record. Over the past century, however, she has been increasingly recognized as a central Restoration figure. [PKi]
born Harbledown, near Canterbury, Kent: 14 December 1640
died London: 16 April 1689
works as translator (selected)
about the author
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