Aphra Behn (1640?-1689) was a 17th-century writer who challenged expectations of women at the time by writing plays, poetry and novels for profit. Her most famous texts include The Rover, Oroonoko, and The Fair Jilt. Some of her writing was notorious for its sexual themes, but she also got into trouble for writing about politics, a risk for any writer during this period but particularly for a woman. Behn’s prose writing is seen as playing an important part in the development of the novel.
Behn was likely born around 1640 in Kent, but she deliberately kept a lot of her early life a mystery. We know she was born Aphra Johnson and that she probably changed her name to Behn after marrying a Londoner of German or Dutch ancestry in 1664. However, he was gone from her life soon after (the reasons for this are unclear), leaving her free to begin her writing career as a respectable widow. She was forced to start writing for money when she was not paid for her work as a spy for Charles II in Antwerp in the 1660s. Financial difficulties were to be a problem for Behn throughout her life.
Writing for money was seen as unsuitable employment for women, but Behn continued to write prolifically and was friends with many of the major literary figures of the day, including the infamous Earl of Rochester. Behn claimed that her work was much more harshly criticised than it would have been if she were a man. For instance, in the epilogue to Sir Patient Fancy, she wrote:
“Why in this age has Heaven allowed you more, / And women less of wit than heretofore? / We once were famed in story, and could write / Equal to men; could govern, nay could fight.”
Women were actually becoming more restricted in literature and society as time went on, and criticism of Behn increased after her death in 1689. Despite being buried in the famous Westminster Abbey under her pen-name Astrea, her reputation suffered over the following centuries as the female writer was expected to be a figure of restraint and modesty. Behn’s outspoken and often sexual works left her seen as a bad role model for writing women. In the 20th century, writer Virginia Woolf brought positive attention back to Aphra Behn and her important role in the story of female writing:
“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
Now, Aphra Behn’s work is regularly studied as part of literature courses, and her position as one of the first commercial female writers is more widely appreciated.
Written for Sheroes of History by Emma Millward. Emma has a BA and MA in English Literature and currently works in a public library.
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You can find free audio versions of some of Aphra Behn’s works here.