Many fact about Aphra Behn including her maiden name and place of birth are unknown. The year of her birth, 1640, is also approximate. In 1663 she probably. went to Surinam and stayed there for an uncertain period, was married to a Mr. Behn, went to spy for Charles II in Antwerp, Holland in 1666, was imprisoned at least twice for debt, loved John Hoyle who was a homosexual, and became a leading propagandist for the Tories.
She was in love with a John Hoyle, a lawyer and wit, and wrote many poems to him. But though he forced her to write to him, he did not return her passion. Her Love Letters to a Gentleman, though not directly written to him, are believed by her biographers to have been autobiographical. As a critic puts it, her love letters show “a woman trying to write herself into a love story that resists her inclusion.”
Aphra Behn achieved popular success with her plays, which preoccupied her almost throughout her career. She began with The Forced marriage (1670) and by the time she came to The Rover (1677), she had written five or six reasonably successful plays. Aphra Behn wrote for money and wanted to win fame “as much as if I had been a Hero,” as she put it. Most of her plays were produced in her lifetime and at Dorset Garden Theatre.
Behn wrote almost all of her fiction in the last few years of her life. Three of these, Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt and Agnes de Castro were published only a year before her death, i.e. in 1688. Her Oroonoko has been regarded as the first abolitionist novel and has been treated with seriousness by scholars. It has also helped to rehabilitate the writer.
According to one critic, Aphra Behn was praised primarily as a poet in her own days. As part of her revival in recent times, several poems of hers have been included in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985) edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar and other anthologies. Her poems are centrally concerned with reciprocity of desire and love in a world where men and women hold asymmetrical power. A favourite anthology piece is “The Disappointment” which slows a woman suffering from a powerlessness peculiar to men, sexual impotence.
An important biographical fact about Aphra Behn was that socially she stood alone without any of the usual familial props when she became a professional writer.