Read MRS. APHRA BEHN of The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) Vol. III, free online book, by Theophilus Cibber, on

A celebrated poetess of the last age, was a gentlewoman by birth, being descended, as her life-writer says, from a good family in the city of Canterbury.  She was born in Charles Ist’s reign, but in what year is not known.  Her father’s name was Johnson, whose relation to the lord Willoughby engaged him for the advantageous post of lieutenant general of Surinam, and six and thirty islands, to undertake a voyage, with his whole family, to the West-Indies, at which time our poetess was very young.  Mr. Johnson died at sea, in his passage thither; but his family arrived at Surinam, a place so delightfully situated, and abounding with such a vast profusion of beauties, that, according to Mrs. Behn’s description, nature seems to have joined with art to render it perfectly elegant:  her habitation in that country, called St. John’s Hill, she has challenged all the gardens in Italy, nay, all the globe of the world, to shew so delightful a recess.  It was there our poetess became acquainted with the story and person of the American Prince Oroonoko, whose adventures she has so feelingly and elegantly described in the celebrated Novel of that name, upon which Mr. Southern has built his Tragedy of Oroonoko, part of which is so entertaining and moving, that it is almost too much for nature.  Mrs. Behn tells us, that she herself had often seen and conversed with that great man, and been a witness to many of his mighty actions, and that at one time, he, and Imoinda his wife, were scarce an hour in a day from her lodgings; that they eat with her, and that she obliged them in all things she was capable of, entertaining them with the lives of the Romans and great men, which charmed him with her company; while she engaged his wife with teaching her all the pretty works she was mistress of, relating stories of Nuns, and endeavouring to bring her to the knowledge of the true God.  This intimacy between Oroonoko and Mrs. Behn occasioned some réflexions on her conduct, from which the authoress of her life, already quoted, justified 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 affair from me, being one of her own sex, whose friendship and secrecy she had experienced, which makes me assure the world that there was no intrigue between that Prince and Astraea.  She had a general value for his uncommon virtues, and when he related the story of his woes, she might with the Desdemona of Shakespear, cry out, That it was pitiful, wondrous pitiful, which never can be construed into an amour; 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 Astrea’s relations there present kept too watchful an eye over her, to permit the frailty of her youth, if that had been powerful enough.’  After this lady’s return to London, she was married to Mr. Behn, a Merchant there, but of Dutch extraction.  This marriage strengthening her interest, and, perhaps, restoring her character, gave her an opportunity of appearing with advantage at court.  She gave King Charles ii. so accurate and agreeable an account of the colony of Surinam, that he conceived a great opinion of her abilities, and thought her a proper person to be entrusted with the management of some important affairs, during the Dutch war; which occasioned her going into Flanders, and residing at Antwerp.  Here, by her political intrigues, she discovered the design formed by the Dutch, of sailing up the river Thames, and burning the English ships in their harbours, which she communicated to the court of England; but her intelligence, though well grounded, as appeared by the event, being only laughed at and slighted, she laid aside all other thoughts of state affairs, and amused herself during her stay at Antwerp with the gallantries in that city.  But as we have mentioned that she discovered the design of the Dutch to burn our ships, it would be injustice to the lady, as well as to the reader, not to give some detail of her manner of doing it.  She made this discovery by the intervention of a Dutchman, whom her life-writer calls by the name of Vander Albert.  As an ambassador, or negociator of her sex could not take the usual means of intelligence; of mixing with the multitude, and bustling in the cabals of statesmen, she fell upon another way, perhaps more efficacious, of working by her eyes.  This Vander Albert had been in love with her before her marriage with Mr. Behn, and no sooner heard of her arrival at Antwerp, than he paid her a visit; and after a repetition of his former vows, and ardent professions for her service, pressed her to receive from him some undeniable proofs of the vehemence and sincerity of his passion, for which he would ask no reward, ’till he had by long and faithful services convinced her that he deserved it.  This proposal was so suitable to her present aim in the service of her country, that she accepted it, and employed Albert in such a manner, as made her very serviceable to the King.  The latter end of the year 1666, he 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 Wit, who, with the rest of that family, had an implacable hatred to the English nation and the house of Orange, had, with de Ruyter, proposed to the States the expedition abovementioned.  This proposal, concurring with the advice which the Dutch spies in England had given them, of the total neglect of all naval preparations, was well received, and was resolved to be put in execution, as a thing neither dangerous nor difficult.  Albert having communicated a secret of this importance, and with such marks of truth, that she had no room to doubt of it:  as soon as the interview was at an end, she dispatched an account of what she had discovered, to England.

But we cannot conclude Mrs. Behn’s gallantries at Antwerp, without being a little more particular, as we find her attacked by other lovers, and thought she found means to preserve her innocence, yet the account that she herself gives of her affairs there, is both humorous and entertaining.

In a letter to a friend she proceeds thus, ’My other lover is about twice Albert’s age, nay and bulk too, tho’ Albert “be not the most Barbary shape you have seen, you must know him by the name of Van Bruin, and he was introduced to me by Albert his kinsman, and was obliged by him to furnish me in his absence, with what money and other things I should please to command, or have occasion for.  This old fellow had not visited me often, before I began to be sensible of the influence of my eyes upon this old piece of touchwood; but he had not the confidence to tell me he loved me, and modesty you know is no common fault of his countrymen.  He often insinuated that he knew a man of wealth and substance, though striken indeed in years, and on that account not so agreeable as a younger man, was passionately in love with me, and desired to know whether my heart was so far engaged, that his friend should not entertain, any hopes.  I replied that I was surprized to hear a friend of Albert’s making an interest in me for another, and that if love were a passion, I was any way sensible of, it could never be for an old man, and much to that purpose.  But all this would not do, in a day or two I received this eloquent epistle from him.”  Here Mrs. Behn inserts a translation of Van Bruin’s letter, which was wrote in French, and in a most ridiculous stile, telling her, he had often strove to reveal to her the tempests of his heart, and with his own mouth scale the walls of her affections; but terrified with the strength of her fortifications, he concluded to make more regular approaches, to attack her at a farther distance, and try first what a bombardment of letters would do; whether these carcasses of love thrown into the sconces of her eyes, would break into the midst of her breast, beat down the out-guard of her aversion, and blow up the magazine of her cruelty, that she might be brought to a capitulation, and yield upon, reasonable terms.  He then considers her as a goodly ship under sail for the Indies; her hair is the pennants, her fore-head the prow, her eyes the guns, her nose the rudder.  He wishes he could once see her keel above water, and desires to be her pilot, to steer thro’ the Cape of Good-Hope, to the Indies of love.

Our ingenious poetess sent him a suitable answer to this truly ridiculous and Dutchman like epistle.  She rallies him for setting out in so unprofitable a voyage as love, and humorously reckons up the expences of the voyage; as ribbons, and hoods for her pennants, diamond rings, lockets, and pearl-necklaces for her guns of offence and defence, silks, holland, lawn, cambric, &c. for her rigging.

Mrs. Behn tells us she diverted herself with Van Bruin in Albert’s absence, till he began to assume and grow troublesome to her by his addresses, so that to rid himself of him, she was forced to disclose the whole affair to Albert, who was so enraged that he threatened the death of his rival, but he was pacified by his mistress, and content to upbraid the other for his treachery, and forbid him the house, but this says Mrs. Behn, ’produced a very ridiculous scene, for ’my Nestorian lover would not give ground to Albert, but was as high as he, challenged him to sniker-snee for me, and a thousand things as comical; in short nothing but my positive command could satisfy him, and on that he promised no more to trouble me.  Sure as he thought himself of me, he was thunder-struck, when he heard me not only forbid him the house, but ridicule all his addresses to his rival Albert; with a countenance full of despair, he went away not only from my lodgings, but the next day from Antwerp, unable to stay in a place where he had met so dreadful a defeat.’

The authoress of her life has given us a farther account of her affairs with Vander Albert, in which she contrived to preserve her honour, without injuring her gratitude.  There was a woman at Antwerp, who had often given Astraea warning of Albert’s fickleness and inconstancy, assuring her he never loved after enjoyment, and sometimes changed even before he had that pretence; of which she herself was an instance; Albert having married her, and deserted her on the wedding-night.  Our poetess took the opportunity of her acquaintance with this lady to put an honest trick upon her lover, and at the same time do justice to an injured woman.  Accordingly she made an appointment with Albert, and contrived that the lady whose name was Catalina, should meet him in her stead.  The plot succeeded and Catalina infinitely pleased with the adventure, appointed the next night, and the following, till at last he discovered the cheat, and resolved to gratify both his love and resentment, by enjoying Astaea even against her will.  To this purpose he bribed an elderly gentlewoman, whom Mrs. Behn kept out of charity, to put him to bed drest in her night-cloaths in her place, when Astraea was passing the evening in a merchant’s house in the town.  The merchant’s son and his two daughters waited on Astraea home; and to conclude the evening’s mirth with a frolick, the young gentleman proposed going to bed to the old woman, and that they should all come in with candles and surprize them together.  As it was agreed so they did, but no sooner was the young spark put to bed, but he found himself accosted with ardour, and a man’s voice, saying, ’have I now caught thee, thou malicious charmer! now I’ll not let thee go till thou hast done me justice for all the wrongs thou hast offered my dealing love.’  The rest of the company were extremely surprized to find Albert in Astraea’s bed instead of the old woman, and Albert no less surprized to find the young spark instead of Astraea.  In the conclusion, the old woman was discarded, and Albert’s fury at his disappointment appeased by a promise from Mrs. Behn, of marrying him at his arrival in England; but Albert returning to Holland to make preparations for his voyage to England, died of a Fever at Amsterdam.  From this adventure it plainly appears, that the observation of a Dutchman’s not being capable to love is false; for both Albert, and the Nestorian wooer, seem to have been warm enough in their addresses.

After passing some time in this manner at Antwerp, she embarked at Dunkirk for England; and in her passage, was near being lost, for the ship being driven on the coast, foundered within sight of land, but by the assistance of boats from the shore, they were all saved; and Mrs. Behn arriving in London, dedicated the rest of her life to pleasure and poetry.  Besides publishing three volumes of miscellany poems, she wrote seventeen plays, and some histories and novels.  She translated Fontenelle’s History of Oracles, and plurality of worlds, to which last she annexed an Essay on Translation, and translated Prose.  The Paraphrase of Oenone’s, Epistle to Paris, in the English Translation of Ovid’s Epistles is Mrs. Behn’s; as are the celebrated Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister.  Her wit gained her the esteem of Mr. Dryden, Mr. Southern, &c. and at the same time the love and addresses of several gentlemen, in particular one, with whom she corresponded under the name of Lycida, who it seems did not return her passion with equal warmth, and with the earnestness and rapture, she imagined her beauty had a right to command.

Mrs. Behn died after a long indisposition, April 16, 1689, and was buried in the cloister of Westminster Abbey.  We shall beg leave to exhibit her character, as we find it drawn by some of her cotemporaries, and add a remark of our own.  ’Mr. Langbain ’thinks her Memory will be long fresh among all lovers of dramatic poetry, as having been sufficiently eminent, not only for her theatrical performances; but several other pieces both in prose and verse, which gained her an esteem among the wits almost equal to that of the incomparable Orinda, Mrs. Katherine Phillips.’

There are several encomiums on Mrs. Behn prefixed to her lover’s watch; among the rest, Mr. Charles Cotton, author of Virgil Travesty, throws in his mite in her praise; though the lines are but poorly writ.  But of all her admirers, Mr. Charles Gildon, who was intimately acquainted with our poetess, speaks of her with the highest encomiums.

In his epistle dedicatory to her histories and novels, he thus expresses himself.  ’Poetry, the supreme pleasure of the mind, is begot, and born in pleasure, but oppressed and killed with pain.  This reflexion ought to raise our admiration of Mrs. Behn, whose genius was of that force, to maintain its gaiety in the midst of disappointments, which a woman of her sense and merit ought never to have met with.  But she had a great strength of mind, and command of thought, being able to write in the midst of company, and yet have the share of the conversation:  which I saw her do in writing Oroonoko, and other parts of her works, in every part of which you’ll find an easy stile and a peculiar happiness of thinking.  The passions, that of love especially, she was mistress of, and gave us such nice and tender touches of them, that without her name we might discover the author.’  To this character of Mrs. Behn may be very properly added, that given of her by the authoress of her life and memoirs, in these words.

’She was of a generous humane disposition, something passionate, very serviceable to her friends in all that was in her power, and could sooner forgive an injury than do one.  She had wit, humour, good-nature and judgment.  She was mistress of all the pleasing arts of conversation:  She was a woman of sense, and consequently a lover of pleasure.  For my part I knew her intimately, and never saw ought unbecoming the just modesty of our sex; though more gay and free, than the folly of the precise will allow.’

The authors of the Biographia Brittanica say, that her poetry is none of the best; and that her comedies, tho’ not without humour, are full of the most indecent scenes and expressions.  As to the first, with submission to the authority of these writers, the charge is ill-founded, which will appear from the specimen upon which Dryden himself makes her a compliment; as to the latter, I’m afraid it cannot be so well defended; but let those who are ready to blame her, consider, that her’s was the sad alternative to write or starve; the taste of the times was corrupt; and it is a true observation, that they who live to please, must please to live.

Mrs. Behn perhaps, as much as any one, condemned loose scenes, and too warm descriptions; but something must be allowed to human frailty.  She herself was of an amorous complexion, she felt the passions intimately which she describes, and this circumstance added to necessity, might be the occasion of her plays being of that cast.

  The stage how loosely does Astrea tread,
  Who fairly puts, all characters to bed.

Are lines of Mr. Pope: 

And another modern speaking of, the vicissitudes to which the stage is subjected, has the following,

  Perhaps if skill could distant times explore,
  New Behn’s, new Durfey’s, yet remain in store,
  Perhaps, for who can guess th’ effects of chance,
  Here Hunt may box, and Mahomet may dance.

This author cannot be well acquainted with Mrs. Behn’s works, who makes a comparison between them and the productions of Durfey.  There are marks of a fine understanding in the most unfinished piece of Mrs. Behn, and the very worst of this lady’s compositions are preferable to Durfey’s bell.  It is unpleasing to have the merit of any of the Fair Sex lessened.  Mrs. Behn suffered enough at the hands of supercilious prudes, who had the barbarity to construe her sprightliness into lewdness; and because she had wit and beauty, she must likewise be charged with prostitution and irreligion.

Her dramatic works are,

1, 2.  The Rover:  Or, the banished Cavalier.  In two parts, both comedies; acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4t and 1681.  Those plays are taken in a great measure from Killegrew’s Don Thomaso, or the wanderer.

3.  The Dutch Lover, a Comedy, acted at the Duke’s theatre, and printed in 4to, 1673.  The plot of this play is founded upon a Spanish Comedy entitled, Don Fenise, written by Don Francisco de las Coveras.

4.  Abdelazer; or the Moor’s Revenge, a Tragedy, acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4t.  It is taken from an old play of Marlow’s, intitled, Lust’s Dominion; or the Lascivious Queen, a Tragedy.

5.  The Young King; or the Mistake, a Tragi-Comedy, acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4to. in 1683.  The design of this play is taken from the story of Alcamenes and Menalippa, in Calprenede’s Cleopatra.

6.  The Round-Heads; or the Good Old Cause, a Comedy; acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4t.  It is dedicated to Henry Fitzroy duke of Grafton.

7.  The City Heiress; or Sir Timothy Treatwell, a Comedy; acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4to. in 1682, dedicated to Henry Earl of Arundel, and Lord Mowbray.  Most of the characters in this play are borrowed, according to Langbaine, from Massinger’s Guardian, and Middleton’s Mad World my Masters.

8.  The Town Fop, or Sir Timothy Tawdry, a Comedy, acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4t.  This play is founded on a comedy written by one George Wilkins, entitled, the Miseries of inforced Marriage.

9.  The False Count, or a New Way to play an old Game, a Comedy; acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4t Isabella’s being deceived by the Chimney Sweeper is borrowed from Mollier’s précieuse Ridicules.

10.  The Lucky Chances; or an Alderman’s Bargain, a Comedy, acted by the King’s company, and printed in 4to. in 1687.  It is dedicated to Hyde Earl of Rochester.  This play was greatly condemned by the critics; some incidents in it are borrowed from Shirley’s Lady of Pleasure.

11.  The forced Marriage; or the jealous Bridegroom, a Tragi-Comedy, acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4to, 1671.

12.  Sir Patient Fancy; a Comedy, acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4t.  The plot of this play, and some of the characters, particularly Sir Patient, is borrowed from Moliere’s Malades Imaginaires.

13.  The Widow Ranter; or the History of Bacon in Virginia, a Tragi-Comedy, acted by the King’s company, and printed 1690.  It is uncertain where she had the history of Bacon; but the catastrophe seems founded on the story of Cassius, who died by the hand of his freed man.  This play was published after Mrs. Behn’s death by one G.I., her friend.

14.  The Feigned Courtezan; or a Night’s Intrigue, a Comedy, acted at the duke’s theatre, and printed in 4t.  It is dedicated to the famous Ellen Gwyn, King Charles IId’s mistress, and is esteemed one of Mrs. Behn’s best plays.

15.  Emperor of the Moon, a Farce, acted at the Queen’s theatre, and printed 4t.  It is dedicated to the Marquis of Worcester.  The Plot is taken from an Italian piece translated into French, under the title of Harlequin Empereur, Dans Monde de la Lune, and acted at Paris above eighty nights without intermission.

16.  The Amorous Prince; or the Curious Husband, a Comedy, acted at the duke of York’s theatre, and printed in 4t.  The plot is borrowed from the novel of the Curious Impertinent in Don Quixote.

17.  The younger Brother; or the Amorous Jilt; a Comedy, published after her death by Mr. Gildon.  It was taken from a true story of colonel Henry Martin, and a certain lady.

Mrs. Behn’s plays, all but the last, were published together in two volumes 8vo.  But the edition of 1724 is in four volumes 12mo. including the Younger Brother.

The following is an account of her novels, and histories,

They are extant in two volumes 12mo.  Lon, 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 our authoress, written by one of the fair sex.

1.  The History of Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave:  This was founded on a true story, the incidents of which happened during her residence at Surinam.  It gave birth to Mr. Southern’s celebrated play of that name; who in his dedication of it, speaking of his obligation to Mrs. Behn for the subject, says,

’She had a great command of the stage, and I have often wondered that she would bury her favorite hero in a novel, when she might have revived him in the scene.  She thought either, that no actor could represent him, or she could not bear him represented; and I believe the last, when I remember what I have heard from a friend of her’s, that she always told a story more feelingly than she writ.’

2.  The Fair Jilt; or the Amours of Prince Tarquin and Miranda.  This is likewise said to be derived from a true story, to a great part of which she tells she was an eye witness; and what she did not see, she learned from some of the actors concerned in it, the Franciscans of Antwerp, where the scene is laid.

3.  The Nun, or the perjured Beauty, a true novel.

4.  The History of Agnes de Castro.

5.  The Lover’s Watch; or the Art of making love.  It is taken from M. Bonnecourte’s Montre, or the Watch.  It is not properly a novel.  A lady, under the name of Iris, being absent from her lover Damon, is supposed to send him a Watch, on the dial plate of which the whole business of a lover, during the twenty-four hours, is marked out, and pointed to by the dart of a Cupid in the middle.

“Thus eight o’clock is marked agreeable to reverie; nine o’Clock, design to please no body; ten o’clock, reading of letters, &c.”

To which is added, as from Damon to Iris, a description of the case of the watch.

6.  The Lady’s Looking-Glass, to dress themselves by.  Damon is supposed to send Iris a looking-glass, which represents to her all her charms, viz. her shape, complexion, hair, &c.  This likewise, which is not properly a novel, is taken from the French.

7.  The Lucky Mistake, a new novel.

8.  The Court of the King of Bantam.

9.  The Adventures of the Black Lady.  The reader will distinguish the originals from translations, by consulting the 2d and 3d tomes of Recueil des pieces gallantet, en prose et en verse.  Paris 1684.

We have observed, that in the English translation of Ovid’s Epistles, the paraphrase of Oenone’s Epistle to Paris is her’s.  In the preface to that work Mr. Dryden pays her this handsome compliment.

“I was desired to say, that the author, who is of the fair sex, understood not Latin; but if she does not, I’m afraid she has given us occasion to be ashamed who do.”

Part of this epistle transcribed will afford a specimen of her verification.

  Say lovely youth, why wouldst thou, thus betray,
  My easy faith, and lead my heart away. 
  I might some humble shepherd’s choice have been,
  Had I not heard that tongue, those eyes not seen;
  And in some homely cot, in low repose,
  Liv’d undisturb’d, with broken vows and oaths;
  All day by shaded springs my flocks have kept,
  And in some honest arms, at night have slept. 
  Then, un-upbraided with my wrongs thou’dit been,
  Safe in the joys of the fair Grecian queen. 
  What stars do rule the great? no sooner you
  Became a prince, but you were perjured too. 
  Are crowns and falsehoods then consistent things? 
  And must they all be faithless who are Kings? 
  The gods be prais’d that I was humble born,
  Ev’n tho’ it renders me my Paris’ scorn. 
  And I had rather this way wretched prove,
  Than be a queen, dishonest in my love.