Aphra Behn (1640–89) stands simultaneously at the center and on the edge of Restoration literature. As one of its most prolific writers, her success as a playwright was rivaled only by Dryden; however, as a woman, she defied and challenged contemporary ideas about sex, gender, and authorship. Behn was remarkably aware of the ambiguity of her position; a widow, a writer, and a professional, she inhabited and personified the grey areas of seventeenth-century gender roles. For these reasons, her work provides an interesting window through which to view the relationship between gender and literature in the late seventeenth century.
The subject of several book-length studies and many more articles, Behn has experienced a renaissance in the academic community during the last ten to fifteen years and has been installed in the seventeenth-century literary canon. Two related aspects of her career however have been overlooked. The first is her interest in natural philosophy, including her criticism of philosophers for not sharing their knowledge. The second aspect is her work as a translator, especially as a translator of scientific texts. Perhaps the enduring perception of translation as an essentially derivative activity has led scholars to dismiss Behn's translations as uninteresting or unoriginal. In so far as natural philosophy was a “masculine” discipline, however, Behn's translations demonstrated her ability to participate in and translate between elite natural philosophy, often written in Latin (the most “masculine” language), and a general or female audience.