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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

V. The Restoration Drama

§ 22. Aphra Behn

It is assuredly a matter for comment that the first woman to write professionally for the English stage should have begun her career at a moment when the morality of English drama was at its lowest ebb. Aphra or Aphara Behn was born at Wye in 1640, the daughter of John Johnson, a barber. With a relative, whom she called her father, who had been nominated lieutenant-govenor of Surinam, she went to reside there; and, on his death, remained with his family, marrying a Dutch merchant named Behn about 1658. With her husband, she returned to London and, apparently, lived in some wealth and position until 1666, in which year her husband died. Having made the acquaintance of the king in the time of her prosperity, she was sent to Antwerp as a spy; but, finding her services unrecognised and unpaid, she turned, about 1670, to letters for a livelihood. Mrs. Behn’s novels, in which she is a true forerunner of Defoe, do not concern us here nor her interesting anticipation of some of the ideas of Rousseau in the most famous of her stories, Oronooko. Between 1671 and 1689, the year of her death, Mrs. Behn wrote assiduously for the stage, turning out no less than fifteen dramas. Though she observed the nice laws of mine and thine with little more punctiliousness than did her male contemporaries, it is not to be denied that Mrs. Behn is inventive in situations if not in whole plots, ingenious in keeping her figures in almost incessant action and in maintaining an interminable flow of vivacious dialogue. Her most popular play was The Rover, or The Banished Cavaliers, which took the fancy of the town in 1677, and to which she wrote a second part in 1681. In both of these plays, the central figure is a swashbuckling sea captain ashore, the victim of every pretty face and the hero of a string of questionable adventures. The scene of the first part, Naples in carnival time, must have lent itself to brilliant and varied stage setting. The Rover is taken entire from two unacted comedies of Thomas Killigrew, entitled Thomaso the Wanderer, which, it may be suspected, contain not a little matter autobiographical, though, otherwise, as frankly “borrowed” from English playwrights of the past as Mrs. Behn herself “borrowed” from Killigrew. Mrs. Behn’s next comedy, The Dutch Lover, 1673, is a favourable specimen of the conventional comedy of cloak and sword, the scene, as in the second part of The Rover, being Madrid. The Dutch Lover is said to be “founded on a Spanish romance written by the ingenious Don Francisco de las Coveras styled Don Fenise.” Another class of Mrs. Behn’s comedies are those of her own contemporary town life, most of them lifted bodily from earlier English plays and made coarse in the process. For example, The Debauchee, 1677, is based on A Madd Couple well matcht by Richard Brome; The Town Fop, of the same date, on Wilkins’s Miseries of Inforst Mariage. The most characteristic comedy of this group is The City Heiress, 1682, in which Mrs. Behn has broadened even the humour of Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters, unquestionably her source, and combined it with suggestions from The Guardian of Massinger. Nothing could be more unfortunate than the criticism that finds for Aphra Behn a model in Jonson. That lady’s art was predatory, and she took any author’s property as her own, painting with realistic, if conventional, brush the fops, the roués, the maids and misses of Etherege and Sedley in their eternal embroilment of questionable amorous intrigue. In The Roundheads, 1682, Mrs. Behn conveyed Tatham’s plot of The Rump entire to her comedy and thickened the whole with the addition of one of her favourite situations. In one of her latest plays, The Widow Ranter, not published until 1690, after her death, Mrs. Behn treated a historical event of recent occurrence in the colony of Virginia—the rebellion, as it was called, of Nathaniel Bacon—and produced a result, with all its absurdities, of no small originality. Mrs. Behn was a very gifted woman, compelled to write for bread in an age in which literature, and especially comedy, catered habitually to the lowest and most depraved of human inclinations. Her success depended on her ability to write like a man. On the score of morality, she is again and again more daring and risquée than any of her male competitors in the art of playmaking, and she is as frivolous and as abandoned in speech as the worst of them all. But, as has been well said, it remains difficult for us to believe that a woman whose literary talents commended her to the friendship and association of Dryden could have been degraded in her personal life.