Aphra Behn: Libertine? Or marital reformer? A history, with an examination of several plays and fictions

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Aphra Behn was an important female writer in the Restoration era. She wrote twenty or more plays which were produced on the London stage, as well as a dozen or more novels, several volumes of poetry, and numerous translations. She was the first woman writer to earn her living by her pen. After she became successful, a concerted attack was made on her, alleging a libertine life and immoral behavior. Gradually, her life work was expunged from the seventeenth-century literary canon based on this alleged lifestyle. Since little factual information is available about her life, critics have been happy to invent various scenarios. The only true understanding of her attitudes is found in the reading of her plays, not to establish autobiographical facts, but to understand her attitudes. Based on the evidence in her many depictions of libertine men in her satirical comedies, she disliked male libertines and found their behavior deplorable. In plays and poetry, her longing for a new social order in which men and women might love and respect one another in freely chosen wedlock is the dominant theme. Far from being libertine, Aphra Behn is an early pioneer for companionate marriage.