Aphra Behn: Portraiture and the Biographical Account

Claudine Van Hensbergen*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Scant biographical detail is known about the life of England’s first professional woman writer, Aphra Behn (d.1689), which makes it strange that scholars have shown little interest in surviving portraits of her. This article provides the first comprehensive survey of contemporaneous portraiture of Behn, outlining the provenance of these works and summarizing their various claims to authenticity. In doing so, it highlights how these visual documents of Behn’s life contradict the dominant scholarly view of Behn as a struggling writer who lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Behn herself endorsed one of her portraits, using it to promote her most significant publication up to that point, Poems upon Several Occasions (1684). This portrait neatly reflects the vision of Behn projected through the first biographies of her life which were circulated in the wake of her death. By drawing on Behn’s own ideas about the function of portraits, we can begin to account for the contradictions between two very different visions of Behn: the professional author who stressed that her skills as a writer overcame the restrictions of her gender; and the romantic heroine who promoted an image of her own feminine beauty and gentility.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberhgaa098
Pages (from-to)481–501
Number of pages21
JournalThe Review of English Studies
Issue number305
Early online date3 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021


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