Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea

Aphra Behn: Spy, Prisoner, Writer . . . Pioneer of Feminism.

c. 1640 – 1689

“… faith, Sir, we are here to Day, and gone to Morrow.”
— Aphra Behn, The Lucky Chance

Behn’s Literary Impact

In her time, Aphra Behn was mysterious and unique. Imprisoned for debt, arrested for subversive writings, accused of espionage during the Dutch War, criticized as immoral and improper, Behn was a feminist before the concept of feminism was articulated.  Yet, despite her prolific writings, Aphra Behn remained largely excluded from English Literature anthologies until the 1990’s.

Today, that has changed. From obscurity she has risen to celebrity, and her image has become an icon for the feminist cause.  Her writings are included in most English literary anthologies, yet much remains unknown about her origins, her early life, and her marriage. What we do know is woven through the thread of her vast repertoire of writings: letters, poetry, plays, a variety of prose, and the story of Oroonoko. Under appreciated in her time, scholars now study her writings as the genesis of a female voice in literature.  For instance, in discussing the impact of Behn’s writings on the canon of English literature, Ruth Nestvold, a well-known Behn scholar, writes:

  • Aphra Behn is a forerunner in English literary history in more ways than one; she is not only the first professional woman writer, she is also an important   innovator in the form of the novel. Using the epistolary form of Lettres   portugaises as a model and combining it with elements of the drama, with Love   Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister she created the first true   epistolary novel. In Oroonoko she used a narrative voice that combined   proximity to her readers with an unusual wealth of detail, while the plot   itself involves one of the first examples of the concept of the “noble savage”  in literature.  

(Source: Nestvold, Ruth. “Aphra Behn and the Beginnings of a Female Narrative Voice”. 1995)


Oroonoko – Thomas Southerne  play. Behn’s novel was dramatized and performed  throughout the Restoration and Neoclassical period.

Now considered a major contributer to Restoration literature; Behn was a playright, novelist, and a poet. Her career began with the publishing of her first play, “The Forced Marriage”, making her the first woman in England to earn her living as a writer. However, Aphra Behn’s place in history extends far beyond her title as the first professional woman writer; her fame was marked by her libertine and revealing writing style during a time period when women had neither a place, nor a voice in the patriarchal society of seventeenth century England.

  • In her search for a prose form appropriate to stories with contemporary rather than purely heroic settings and themes, Behn wrote her novels in a   conversational tone strewn with personal references such as, “I have already   said…”, or “I forgot to ask how…,”, making the narrative resemble an  ongoing conversation with her readers and lending her tales a more everyday  tone than was usually the case in earlier prose forms.

The ease of her style, her straightforward observations, and detailed descriptions foreshadow a modern style much different from the heroic poetry and dense prose of Dryden.

(Source: Nestvold, Ruth. “Aphra Behn and the Beginnings of a Female Narrative Voice”. 1995)

Click on the timeline below  to view major events in Aphra Behn’s life.

Timeline of important events in Aphra Behn's life and career.

Timeline of important events in Aphra Behn’s life and career.

Additional Resources on Behn’s life and works:

Posted by: Jo Anne Harris

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This entry was posted on September 16, 2013 by in Aphra Behn, Restoration.
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