Brief Biography of Aphra Behn
Much of Behn’s life is a mystery. There are no records of her date and place of birth, though she was certainly British, and most of the other details of her life are also unknown. Some believe Behn herself obscured or destroyed records of her life. She may have lived for a time in the European sugar colony of Suriname, South America (perhaps as a spy for King Charles II), and was reportedly married to a Mr. Johan Behn. Upon returning to England, Behn became very poor, and she wrote to earn a living and to stay out of debtor’s prison. She wrote extensively for almost two decades, and her corpus includes several plays, translations, and pieces of prose fiction. She is considered one of the first English novelists, and a notable dramatist of the 1600s. While alive, she was an active part of London’s theatre society, and was friends with other famous playwrights like John Dryden. She died in London, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. She is best known for her short novel Oroonoko.
Historical Context of Oroonoko
Oroonoko was published the same year as the Glorious Revolution, a bloodless revolution in England in which Parliament replaced King James II and installed James’s daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, as joint-monarchs. Parliament consisted of two main parties, Whig and Tory, and Whig Parliamentarians disliked the fact that James was Catholic, were suspicious of his close ties with the French government, and wanted Protestant monarchs. Behn was a Tory Royalist, a supporter of James II who did not support the Whig party’s idea of a constitutional monarchy, or one in which Parliament gained increasing power over the monarch, who previously had supreme authority over the country. Some scholars also believe Behn may have been Catholic. After the Glorious Revolution, the Tory party would later try to reclaim the throne on James II’s behalf through a number of uprisings that ultimately failed. Additionally, England was a rising empire at this point. The English colony in Suriname was founded in 1650 and soon began importing slaves, especially the Akan people from the Gold Coast of Africa (modern-day Ghana) to supplement the low number of indentured servants coming from England to work the sugar plantations. By the time Behn wrote Oroonoko, King Charles II had already given Suriname to the Dutch in 1667, which Behn considered a mistake, given its gold mines, sugar cane, and other exotic resources. Slavery wasn’t outlawed in the British Empire until 1833.
Other Books Related to Oroonoko
, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
(1719) are both travel narratives told from the subjective perspective of an English character who doesn’t always evaluate foreign cultures fairly. In A Room of One’s Own
an extended essay examining the particular obstacles that female novelists must overcome to write, Virginia Woolf celebrates Aphra Behn as the woman whose work led other women to speak their minds.
Key Facts about Oroonoko
Full Title: Oroonoko; Or, the Royal Slave
When Written: Behn wrote Oroonoko towards the end of her life. She claims to have composed it in just a few hours.
Where Written: London
When Published: 1688
Literary Period: Restoration Literature
Genre: Prose fiction, travel narrative, early English novel
Setting: Coramantien and Suriname
Climax: Ooronoko kills Imoinda and their unborn child.
Antagonist: The King of Coramantien; Governor Byam
Point of View: First-person
Extra Credit for Oroonoko