Aphra Behn



W. J. Cameron, New Light on Aphra Behn (Auckland, 1961).


Maureen Duffy, The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn 1640-89 (London, 1977).


The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Montague Summers, 6 vols (London, 1915).


The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Janet Todd, 7 vols (London, 1993-6)


Only one undoubtedly authentic literary autograph manuscript by Aphra Behn would appear to survive. It is the presentation fair copy, written near the end of her life (and ‘with a Lame hand scarce able to hold a pen’), of her elegy on the death of Edmund Waller, sent to Waller's daughter-in-law Abigail. This manuscript, which was first recorded by Edmund Gosse in his article on Aphra Behn in the Dictionary of National Biography (1885), remained with Waller's family descendants until it appeared at auction in 1981, after which it passed to the Pierpont Morgan Library (*BeA 10).

Letters and Documents

Other extant autograph manuscripts by Aphra Behn take the form of letters, the majority written by her early in her career and partly in cipher, while acting as a government spy in Flanders. They have all been given entries below (BeA 37-54).

These letters are supplemented by extant transcripts among the State Papers, two in her own hand, of certain letters originally sent to her in 1666 by the agent William Scott, transcripts which she sent on to London or which were copied or summarised from the originals by officials there (BeA 56-62).

Published Letters

Other letters purporting to be written by Mrs Behn were published posthumously through the somewhat less than reliable agencies of Charles Gildon and Tom Brown. Eight ‘Love-Letters by Mrs. A. Behn’, signed ‘Astrea’ and addressed to ‘Lycidas’, (i.e. ? John Hoyle), were included by Gildon in The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs Behn … together with the Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn, Written by One of the Fair Sex (London, 1696), pp. 401-16; reprinted in The Plays, Histories, and Novels of the Ingenious Mrs Aphra Behn, 6 vols (London, 1871), I, 54-72. These are discussed in Cameron (p. 90 et seq.), who roundly dismisses Gildon's account of Mrs Behn as a fiction masquerading as biography. Duffy also discusses them (pp. 135-7) but comments: ‘To me they have the ring of authenticity especially since they often repeat, or reflect, happenings in the poems’. Further ‘Love-Letters, By Mrs. A. Behn, never Printed’ appear in Familiar Letters of Love, Gallantry, and several Occasions, by the Wits of the last and present Age … together with Mr. T. Brown's Remains, 2 vols (London, 1718), I, 29 et seq. Two addressed to the actress Emily Price (pp. 29-32), and including two sets of verses, are reprinted in Duffy (pp. 127-8), who observes that they do not ring ‘completely true’ but that, rather than being ‘complete fakes’, they may have been based on authentic letters subject to Brown's tampering. Even more suspect is the letter by ‘A. Behn’ on pp. 38-9, ‘To Mr. Hoyle, occasion'd by the report of his too close Familiarity with young F—ws, &c’ and relating to the subject of homosexuality. This is regarded by Duffy (pp. 184-6) as more likely to be a ‘fabrication’, although she thinks it just conceivable that it was broadly based on an authentic letter. These letters are also accompanied in Familiar Letters by four letters to ‘Philander’ by ‘A. Behn’, the fourth signed ‘Silvia’ (pp. 32-5); by an unsigned verse epistle ‘to the Earl of Kildare, disswading him from marrying Moll Howard’ (pp. 36-7); reprinted in Summers, VI, 395-6; and by the poem ‘An Imperfect Enjoyment’ (pp. 39-45: see BeA 4-7 below). If at all genuine, these printed letters — together with the eighteen recorded in entries below and her printed dedicatory epistles (addressed to such persons as James, Duke of York; Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton; Henry Howard, Earl of Arundel; Nell Gwynne; the Marquess of Worcester; the Earl of Salisbury; Sir William Clifton; Peter Weston; and Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester) — are all that are known to remain of what Duffy considers (p. 11) must have been ‘an enormous correspondence’, the loss of which ‘is made even more bitter’ by the way the undisputably authentic ones speak out ‘so distinctively’.

The Firth Manuscript

One other manuscript associated with Aphra Behn is known at present. It is a large folio miscellany preserved in the Bodleian (MS Firth c. 16). On the first leaf are inscribed the words ‘Astrea's Booke For Songs & Satyr's’ followed by the date ‘1686’ changed to ‘1688’. Among other, subsequent, scribbling on the page is the word ‘Bhen’ written by someone who evidently made the connection between Mrs Behn and her nom-de-plume Astrea. Several, evidently professional, hands are responsible for the contents of this manuscript, although its occasional untidiness, as well as the list of names and addresses scribbled at the front and back, suggest that it was a retained, ‘in-house’ product of a scriptorium rather than a formal compilation actually prepared on commission for delivery to someone. One of the most predominant hands has been identified by Mary Ann O'Donnell as that of Aphra Behn. Although in her last years Behn is known to have suffered intermittently from palsy, the similarity of hands is sufficiently strong for this identification to be taken seriously. The possibility that, on occasions, Behn may have turned her hand to professional copying is slightly reinforced by the evidence of one of her formal petitions (*BeA 48), which shows at least her abilty to adopt or imitate the formulae and layout of professional scriveners. As for her involvement in the compilation of printed miscellanies (possibly the earliest woman in England to compile and publish such things), there are plenty of examples of these: see Anne Russell, ‘Aphra Behn's Miscellanies: The Politics and Poetics of Editing’, Philological Quarterly, 77/3 (Summer 1998), 307-28, and ‘“Public” and “Private” in Aphra Behn's Miscellanies: Women Writers, Print, and Manuscript’, in Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints, ed. Barbara Smith and Ursula Appelt (Aldershot, 2001), pp. 29-48.

Books Owned by Aphra Behn

Only a single printed book can currently be identified as probably once belonging to Aphra Behn. It is an edition of Thomas Killigrew's plays (1664) which seems to be signed by her on most of the title-pages (*BeA 64). Given her connection with Killigrew, whose play Thomaso, The Wanderer was the basis for her play The Rover, this is a particularly interesting association volume.

Literary Manuscripts

Apart from an eighteenth-century prompt-book of The Rover (BeA 23.5), Aphra Behn's literary works are represented in manuscripts only by a copy of her posthumously published play The Younger Brother (BeA 24) and by copies of a few of her poems which, for the most part, found their way into the printed miscellanies and collections of poems on affairs of state.

The Canon

The canon of Aphra Behn's works is taken to be that established in Summers, with the addition of a few separately published poems that appear in Todd's edition and one, generally attributed to the Earl of Dorset (DoC 309), plausibly introduced into the Behn canon by John Burrows and Harold Love. A few other poems of uncertain authorshp found in manuscript sources are given entries below under the category of ‘Poems Doubtfully Ascribed to Aphra Behn’ (BeA 26-35).

Manuscript copies, not recorded here, also exist of the anonymous song ‘Lucinda is bewitching fair’, in Henry Purcell's musical setting, written for a later revival of Aphra Behn's play Abdelazer in 1695. For these see Franklin B. Zimmerman, Henry Purcell 1659-1695: An Analytical Catalogue of his Music (London & New York, 1963), p. 241 (the Stoneleigh MS mentioned here now being British Library, Add. MS 63626, ff. 34v-5r).

Unspecified ‘pieces’ by Aphra Behn and others are also reported to have been in a small octavo ‘commonplace book’ of the late-seventeenth century, once owned by the Hertfordshire solicitor and historian Reginald L. Hine (1883-1949). It was sold at Sotheby's, 12 December 1977, lot 110, to Quaritch.

Peter Beal