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“ The stage how loosely does Astrea tread,
Who fairly puts her characters to bed."
Such are the lines by which Pope, in his character of women, describes the subject of this memoir—to which, however, it is to be added, that a part only of her numerous pretensions are alluded to in the couplet; and, though, in this limited application, the implied satire must be admitted correct, still something of a more favourable opinion ought to have been in fairness expressed of an authoress, who was the first of her sex amongst us, that succeeded to any extent in the graces of original composition. The period of Aphara Behn's birth is unknown; the place of it was Canterbury, where her family, which was named Jonson, had a reputable descent. This poverty of information and facts, it may be as well to observe here, pervades every account we possess of the subsequent periods of her life. While a girl, her father, through the interest of Lord Willoughby, was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Surinam, in the West Indies, during the reign of Charles I. He unfortunately died on his passage out; but his family, who embarked with him, reached the settlément in safety, and resided on it for some time with considerable satisfaction. Aphara in particular was delighted with the country: she has left a very pleasing description (of it, still in print ; and afterwards presented a very acceptable account of its statistics to the Government. The following picture of the situation of her family upon their landing, is in her own words.
“ As soon as we came into the country, the best house in it was presented to us, called St. John's Hill. It stood on a vast rock of white marble, at the foot of which the river ran a great depth down the little waves dashing, and foaming over the
foot of the rock, made the softest purlings in the world. The opposite bank was adorned with a quantity of different flowers, eternally blowing, every day and every hour anew, fenced behind with lofty trees of a thousand rare forms and colours. The prospect was the most ravishing that sands can create. On the edge of this white rock, towards the river, was a walk or grove of orange and lemon trees, about half the length of the Mall in St. James's Park, whose flowery and fruit-bearing branches met at the top, and intercepted the fierce rays of the sun. A cool air, that came from the river at the hottest hours of the day, made it not only a delightful retreat, but refreshing the blossoms, made them ever fragrant and blooming. The boasted gardens of Italy cannot excel this grove, which art and nature combined to adorn. It was wonderful to see trees, equal in size to the English oak, take root in a solid rock, with afterwards but a scanty covering of earth."
Here, too, Aphara found another memorable charm, in her acquaintance with the celebrated African Prince, Oronooko, whose interesting adventures she recited in the novel bearing his name; but whose story is now best known to the reader, by the dramatic adaptation of Southerne, who in the preface to his tragedy, takes occasion to pay many high compliments to the original writer of the tale.
To many of the incidents related in the book, she represents herself as having been a witness, and it was well known that she took an honourable delight in consoling the misfortunes of the chieftain as far as her resources permitted. That she contemplated the singular virtues of his character with admiration, and watched the tenderness of his passion for his Clemene (Southerne's Imoinda) with a warm sympathy, she herself admitted ; and the world thereupon construed her feelings into an indulgence of culpable indelicacy. It is but justice, however, to add, that the charge in all probability took its complexion from the levities of her after-life, and that no stronger grounds than surmise bave been specified for its support. The youthful zeal with which she tended upon the unfortunate couple, and her kindness in teaching the wife many of the little ingenuities of polite education, naturally excited a' reciprocity of interest. By turns she listened with avidity to their description of the romantic habits of their uninstructed countrymen; or recounted to them with ardour the
great achievements of antiquity, or the striking characteristics of modern society. To this extent the intimacy was preserved with a certain degree of esteem and enthusiasm, which it were cynical to make reprehensible, when the youth of the one party, and the simplicity of the other, are remembered. Thus Oronooko called Aphara his great mistress, and an inexperienced girl of talent exulted in the compliment. If we are at all to credit the fervour with which the prince is represented to have been devoted to his wife, it is not very likely that he could have been seduced into infidelity by the paler charms of European beauty ; and when we recollect that Aphara was still under the care of her family, it must appear far from probable, that she could have been so easily permitted to disgrace herself.
Upon our cession of Surinam to the Dutch, she returned to England, and settling in London, soon after gave her hand in marriage to Mr. Behn, a merchant of Dutch extraction, in the city. For what length of time this state lasted, or at what period she lost her husband, are points now only to be conjectured. The next event of any particular interest we know of in her life, was her appointment by the ministry of Charles II., to reside at Antwerp, in the capacity of a political spy. As amatory intrigues were the means by which she was to obtain the desired information in this trust, it cannot be denied that her character for levity must have been pretty generally published, before any office of the description could have been proposed for her acceptance. The manner in which she acquitted herself, both in politics and love, seems to have been deep and successful enough; for she discovered the memorable project for sailing up the Thames, concerted by De Ruyter, and Cornelius de Witt, in 1666, and sent timely notice of it to the Government at home. Correctly as events proved this intelligence to have been founded, yet the English ministers were weak enough to receive it with incredulity, and Aphara abandoned all connection with state views in offence, and surrendered herself up undivided to the gentler cares of gallantry.
Of her adventures in this career she has left a sufficiently entertaining account in her letters. From these it may be gathered, , that her principal admirer, and the one from whom she obtained her knowledge of the plan upon the Thames, was one Vander Albert, a man respectably connected in the states of Holland. Of the amours by which she maintained her influence over him, 'the account is by no means engaging enough to require any minute detail : the progress of their intercourse may be presumed to have varied in few particulars from suits of the sort ; but the circumstances under which it terminated, have an interest which induce another feeling. After some time, spent in the undisturbed assurance of his affections, she was warned of his inconstancy, by the history of a lady whom he had married after a long and ardent courtship, but deserted almost immediately upon the consummation of their nuptials. With this injured woman Aphara became acquainted, and was so moved by a conviction of her sufferings, her virtues, and her beauty, that she had the generosity to determine upon sacrificing her lover, and restoring the wife to his armis. The scheme adopted for accomplishing this object, was soon resolved on, and easily put into practice. An interview was fixed upon between the lovers-it was to be secret, and take place in the dark; Catalina, the forsaken bride, was thus substituted for Mrs. Behn, and the meetings were several times repeated without a discovery of the deception.
Little good, however, was gained, when the truth became known; for Albert was more incensed than ever against his unfortunate lady, and though Aphara refused to see him, he still · persevered in the old course of unmanly neglect. After exhausting his resources of solicitation in order to re-ingratiate himself with his mistress, he at last followed the example she had shown him, and projected a stratagem of revenge, far less honourable than the one played upon him, and perhaps too, by the fortune of such things, on that very account more adverse in its consequence. There was a reduced old gentlewoman, whom Aphara had taken to live with her out of compassion, and with whom she not unfrequently shared her bed. Over the scruples of this accommodating companion, a handsome present sufficed to prevail, and she consented, upon an appointed night, to surrender her privilege to Albert. Now it happened on the evening settled for the execution of this enterprise, that Aphara supped from home in company with the son and daughters of her landlord. On their return, some sudden impulse of frolic seized upon the and they agreed that the young man should proceed to lay him
self in bed by the old lady's side, and be there surprised, with lights, by Mrs. Behn and his sisters. A denouement of humourous morality ensued, and the two men were found lying together, not less to their own astonishment, than that of all the rest present. What remains to be told, is neither so pleasant nor so justifiable; the matron was discarded; Albert excused himself upon the ungovernableness of his passion, and so far triumphed in his presumption, that an arrangement was entered into, by the terms of which Aphara was to return to England, and be there followed by him; after which, as a recompense
for his fidelity and his disappointment, he was promised her hand at the altar. What provision was to be made in that case for the wife, whose neglect had already been so properly commiserated, we are not informed ; and happily no cause for it was destined to occur, for the sudden death of Albert in a fever, at Amsterdam, while preparing for the voyage, saved both parties from the remorse of the difficulty.
Meanwhile, Aphara, embarking at Dunkirk, was critically preserved from a catastrophe equally tragical. The ship in which she sailed foundered on the coast of Kent, and the passengers were with difficulty saved by boats from the shore. Thus once more restored, poor and profligate, to the pleasures of London, she spent the remainder of her life in a lascivious career of intrigues, which was even conspicuous in an age so corruptly distinguished as the reign of Charles II. What she failed to acquire by the subserviency of love, she endeavoured to obtain by the resources of literature; and thus the multiplicity of her productions are to be ascribed to the necessity she laboured under of writing for her support. Courted by wits and authors for her conversational talents, and solicited by lords and gallants for her personal charms, it is not surprising that her reputation should have risen to a considerable height ; and that numerous testimonies of her excellence and popularity are to be found in the works of several of the most memorable writers of her time. The woman who boasts the addresses of such nobles as Dorset and Rochester, may surely be supposed to have possessed no ordinary beauty, while the authoress who could secure the elegant praise of Dryden and Southerne, must certainly be admitted to have been highly endowed.
This, therefore, may be the most proper place to give some ac