Women You Missed in History Class: Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640-1689)

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote that “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”  So who was this woman that we all have to thank?  Well, she was many things: She was a playwright, poet, novelist, and possibly the first woman to earn a living by writing.  She was also a spy for King Charles II.  Very little is known about Aphra Behn’s early life, and it seems she wanted it that way.  She is believed to have been born in 1640, but nobody knows her exact birth date, who her parents were, or even if her name really was Aphra Behn.  Some versions of her childhood have her growing up in Suriname for a few years, possibly as the daughter of Bartholomew Johnson, who was appointed lieutenant general of Suriname.  She returned to England in 1664 and married a Dutch merchant, but their marriage was short lived.  It’s unclear whether he died or the couple separated, but either way, Behn was left destitute, and she began writing to support herself.

Behn wrote many poems, plays, and novels, but her most well-known work is Oroonoko, which she published in 1688.  It’s a short novel which follows the journey of its eponymous protagonist, an African prince who is captured and sold into slavery in the British colony of Suriname.  Behn said the story was inspired by a slave she met while living in Suriname, and its nuanced treatment of slavery, race, and gender have secured it a place in the British literary canon.  She wrote a total of 19 plays and was one of the most prominent dramatists of the English Restoration era.  Her early plays were mostly tragicomedies, but over the years, she shifted more towards comedy and farce.  Her witty, lighthearted comedies enjoyed great commercial success, and the theater provided her with the bulk of her income until her death.  Her most successful play was The Rover, a comedy in two parts which was first performed in 1677.  As a poet, she earned a reputation as a successor to Sappho, and published two collections of her poetry.

During her life, Behn was the subject of some scandal and curiosity, both because of the novelty of being a woman writer, and because of the themes and content of her work.  She wrote about contemporary events, often thinly veiled as allegory or satire, but still recognizable to her audience.  She wasn’t afraid to voice her opinions on contemporary social issues, and was often mocked for writing in a “masculine” style.  She shocked readers and audiences by writing about female sexuality and sexual pleasure, and arguing that women had a right to sexual pleasure.  Her poem “The Disappointment” is the story of a sexual encounter told from the woman’s point of view.  Readers decried it as “vulgar” and “improper,” but Behn maintained that her poetry would not have caused any such problems if it had been written by a man.  Homoeroticism was a common theme in Behn’s work, and she wrote openly about her love for both men and women.

In addition to being a trailblazing writer, Behn was also a spy.  She was recruited by King Charles II in 1665 to be a spy in Antwerp.  Her work as a spy is the first clear, well-documented record of Behn’s life and activities.  She was sent to Antwerp to establish a relationship with William Scot, the son of a conspirator of the murder of King Charles I, who was living in exile.  It was believed that Scot could be recruited as an English spy and report on the activities of English exiles plotting against the king.  Although it appears she succeeded in the mission, she was unprepared for the cost of living, and received little support from the king.  He was supposed to pay for her travel to and from Antwerp, and pay her for her services while there, but it appears that Behn was never compensated for her labor.  After one month of living abroad, she had to pawn her jewelry, and had to borrow money for her trip back to England.  Some records have a warrant being issued for her arrest as a result of her indebtedness.  Although she definitely wrote her way out of debt, there is no evidence that she was ever arrested or put in debtor’s prison.

In her later years, her health began to decline, and she reached a point where she struggled to hold a pen.  Still, she continued to write until her death on April 16, 1689.  She is buried in Westminster Abbey.  Aphra Behn’s life may have been a mystery, but her legacy is clear.  She was one of the most important English dramatists of the 17th century, and her prose work played a key role in the development of the English novel.  She broke barriers, challenged gender roles, and paved the way for future generations of female writers.  It’s easy to see why Virginia Woolf believed women, especially women writers, owed a debt of gratitude to Aphra Behn.  If I’m ever in Westminster Abbey, you can be sure I’ll follow Virginia Woolf’s direction.


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