Behn, Aphara

, a celebrated English poetess, descended from a good family in the city of Canterbury, was born in the reign of Charles I. but in what year is not certain her father’s name was Johnson who beino-related to the lord Willoughby, and by his interest having been appointed lieutenant general of Surinam, and six-andthirty islands, embarked with his family for the West Indies; at which time Aphara was very young. Mr. Johnson died in his passage, but his family arrived at Surinam, where our poetess became acquainted with the American prince Oroonoko, whose story she has given us in her celebrated novel of that name. She tells us, “she had often seen and conversed with that great man, and had been a witness to many of his mighty actions; and that at one time, he and Climene (or Imoinda his wife) were scarce an hour in a day from her lodgings.” The intimacy betwixt Oroonoko and our poetess occasioned some reflections on her conduct, from which the authoress of her life justifies her in the following manner: “Here,” says she, “I can add nothing to what she has given the world already, but a vindication of her from some unjust aspersions I find are insinuated about this town, in relation to that prince. I knew her intimately well, and I believe she would not have concealed any love affairs from me, being one of her own sex, whose friendship and secrecy she had experienced, which makes me assure the world, there was no affair betwixt that prince and Astraea, but what the whole plantation were witnesses of; a generous value for his uncommon virtues, which every one that but hears them, finds in himself, and his presence gave her no more. Besides, his heart was too violently set on the everlasting charms of his Imoinda, to be shook with those more faint (in his eye) of a white beauty; and Astrsea’s relations, there present, had too watchful an eye over her, to permit the frailty of her youth, if that had been powerful enough.

The disappointments she met with at Surinam, by losing her parents and relations, obliged her to return to England; where, soon after her arrival, she was married to Mr. Behn, an eminent merchant of London, of Dutch extraction. King Charles II. whom she highly pleased by the entertaining and accurate account she gave him of the colony of Surinam, thought her a proper person to be intrusted with the management of some affairs during the | Dutch war, in other words to act as a spy; which was the occasion of her going over to Antwerp. Here she discovered the design formed by the Dutch, of sailing up the river Thames, in order to burn the English ships; which she learnt from one Vander Albert, a Dutchman. This man, who, before the war, had been in love with her in England, no sooner heard of her arrival at Antwerp, than he paid her a visit; and, after a repetition of all his former professions of love, pressed her extremely to allow him by some signal means to give undeniable proofs of his passion. This proposal was so suitable to her present aim in the service of her country, that she accepted of it, and employed her lover in such a manner as* made her very serviceable to the king. The latter end of 1666, Albert sent her word by a special messenger, that he would be with her at a day appointed, at which time he revealed to her, that Cornelius de Witt and De Ruyter had proposed the above-mentioned expedition to the States. Albert having mentioned this affair with all the marks of sincerity, Mrs. Behn coukl not doubt the credibility thereof; and when the interview was ended, she sent express to the court of England; but her intelligence (though well grounded, as appeared by the event) being disregarded and ridiculed, she renounced all state affairs, and amused herself during her stay at Antwerp with what was more suited to her talents, the gallantries of the city. After some time she embarked at Dunkirk for England, and in her passage the ship was driven on the coast four days within sight of land; but, by the assistance of boats from that shore, the crew were all saved; and Mrs. Behn arrived safely in -London, where she dedicated the rest of her life to pleasure and poetry, neither of the most pure kind. he published three volumes of miscellany poems; the first in 1684, the second in 1685, and the third in 1688, consisting of songs and miscellanies, by the earl of Rochester, sir George Etherege, Mr. Henry Crisp, and others, with some pieces of her own. To the second collection is annexed a translation of the duke de Rochefoucauld s moral reflections, under the title of “Seneca unmasked.” She wrote also seventeen plays, some histories and novels, which are extant in two volumes, 12mo, 1735, 8th edition, published by Mr. Charles Gildon, and dedicated to Simon Scroop, esq. to which is prefixed the history of the life, and memoirs of Mrs. Behn, written by one of the fair sex. She | translated Fontenolle’s History of oracles, and Plurality of worlds, to which last she annexed an essay on translation and translated prose, not very remarkable for critical acumen. The paraphrase of CEnone’s epistle to Paris, in the English translation of Ovid’s Epistles, is Mrs. Behn’s; and Mr. Dryden, in the preface to that work, compliments her with more gallantry than justice, when he adds, “I was desired to say, that the author, who is of the fair sex, understood not Latin; but if she does not, I am afraid she has given us occasion to be ashamed who do.” She was also the authoress of the celebrated Letters between a nobleman and his sister, printed in 1684; and we have extant of hers, eight love-letters, to a gentleman whom she passionately loved, and with whom she corresponded under the name of Lycidas. They are printed in the Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn, prefixed to her histories and novels. She died between forty and fifty years of age, after a long indisposition, April 16, 1689, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster-abbey. Mrs. Behn, upon the whole, cannot be considered as an ornament either to her sex, or her nation. Her plays abound with obscenity; and her novels are little better. Mr. Pope speaks thus of her:

"The stage how loosely does Astrsæa tread,

Who fairly puts all characters to bed!"

The poet means behind the scenes, but Mr. Granger is of opinion she would have literally put them to bed before the spectators; but here she was restrained by the laws of the drama, not by her own delicacy, or the manners of the age. Her works, however, are now deservedly forgotten. 1


Biog. Brit.—Gen. Dict.—Cibber's Lives, vol. III.—Biog. Dramatica.