Meet Aphra Behn, The First Professional English Woman Writer

Isabella Bunnell / © Culture Trip
Isabella Bunnell / © Culture Trip
Photo of Harriet Clugston
6 March 2018

‘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’. These words from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own immortalise the first female to write literature in the English language. We take a look at Aphra Behn’s life and work.

She may be buried in London’s Westminster Abbey, but Aphra Behn, whose entire oeuvre has been published in single edition by Penguin Classics, (Oroonoko, The Rover, and Other Works), is just one more among so many women— remarkable, talented and ahead of their time— whose stories have been largely consigned to the sidelines in our male-dominated history. Why isn’t she more widely known today?

For starters, one thing you have to know about Aphra Behn is that we know almost nothing about her. She was born in around 1640 to a family a long way off from aristocratic circles— aristocratic births often being more reliably recorded. As a woman, she was later excluded from institutions from which we can often discern information— universities and professional societies, for instance. There are several versions of Behn’s early life, collected piecemeal by different biographers and historians, many of which have her born to a wet nurse and a barber. Several believe she traveled as a child with her family to Suriname in South America, then a British colony.

A sketch of Aphra Behn by George Scharf | Wikicommons

Behn may have married in around 1664, and began using the name Mrs Behn (her birth name is unknown), though many argue that she may have invented her husband and subsequent widowing in order to secure an air of respectability. Possibly the first piece of solid information about her early life comes in 1666, when she served as a spy in Antwerp for King Charles II during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, who was said to greatly admire her. Though hailing from, by all accounts, an austere and obscure background, she had somehow become attached to King Charles’ court. Though she was a firm Royalist and dedicated to Charles and the Stuart family, he did not serve her well; he was notorious when it came to providing timely payment for services, and Behn returned to England only to spend time in a debtors’ prison, thanks to debts she had incurred during her work. However, the upshot was that Behn was now compelled to begin writing for a living.

Behn’s career began in the theatre, writing a series of tragi-comedies. In 1642, the Puritans had forced an act of parliament banning public theatre, under the guise that it was impure and encouraged debauchery. This ban persisted until 1660, when the restoration of Charles II (who was a passionate patron of theatre) brought about an end of Puritan influence and the theatres reopened. Starved of public entertainment for 18 long years, the theatres’ new lease of life sparked a period of renaissance in English drama, spawning the genre known as Restoration Comedy. As a Royalist and favourite of the King, there could not have been a better time for Behn to strike. In 1670, her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was performed, and she became the first professional woman playwright.

Over the next two decades, Behn wrote and had staged 16 plays, gradually moving away from tragi-comedies and towards vivacious farce. Her most well known work, The Rover, came in 1677, its hugely positive reaction leading Behn to stage a sequel in 1981. King Charles II’s very own mistress, the famous actress Nell Gwyn, came out of retirement in order to play the role of the ‘whore’. As Behn’s success grew, so too did her pool of critics. Women in male professions were always ready targets for attack, but women in theatre were particularly prone, often accused of being prostitutes or simply women with loose morals. The increasingly sexual nature of Behn’s plays led many, no doubt envious, men to declare that her risque work must reflect her own character, deriding her as a libertine. However, licentiousness in Restoration drama had become a method for distinguishing between the Puritan parliamentarians of Cromwell, and King Charles; the sexual nature of Behn’s work may have been nothing more than a savvy literary and political trope. In any case, despite the relaxed attitude to sex in her work, in many ways Behn was very conservative. The open sexual attitudes of her female characters may display a libertine attitude towards sex and gender relations, but it has also been argued that her inability to ever envisage in her work a scenario where women are successfully able to embrace their sexuality without fear of ostracisation or assault, represents her political conservatism. Unsurprisingly, Behn has been described as a ‘mass of contradictions’, later academics unable to successfully negotiate the dual themes of liberalism and conservatism in order to discern a complete picture of the author— to this day, personally, politically and professionally, Behn remains an enigma. ‘She has a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess which makes her an uneasy fit for any narrative, speculative or factual. She is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks’, according to modern day biographer, Janet Todd.


Aphra Behn by Mary Beale | Wikicommons

As well as her work in theatre, Behn also published poetry, short stories and novellas, the most famous of all being Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave. Published in 1688, there are many who hail it as the first English novel despite its relatively short length and mishmash of styles (biography, theatrical drama and reportage), predating Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe by over 20 years. The text is greatly influenced by Behn’s work as a dramatist, with a supremely fast pace, and is tentatively considered to be biographical in nature. Oroonoko tells the story of an eponymous African prince who is betrayed by an evil English slave captain and sold in bondage to a plantation of British colonists in Surinam, where he meets the first person narrator and later leads an unsuccessful slave rebellion. Many of Behn’s biographers have assumed that Prince Oroonoko was inspired by a slave leader Behn met while in Suriname in her youth, but there is no evidence to suggest such a man existed, or that a rebellion occurred. This confusion between fact and fiction is synonymous with the history of the novel form, with contemporary audiences, unused to fictional prose, also convinced the tale of Robinson Crusoe was biographical.

Oroonoko has been the subject of much debate and study in the centuries since its publication, particularly surrounding Behn’s attitude towards slavery. There are many that have interpreted the text as being anti-slavery in nature, being the first ‘novel’ to portray a black man in a sympathetic, even noble manner. However, Janet Todd has pointed out the influence of Othello on Behn, arguing that Oroonoko is less concerned with the question of slavery and more with the theme of kingship. Having been written in the years following King Charles II’s death, when grumblings about revolution were once again heard, Oroonoko is a testament to the inherently noble nature of royalty. As a rightful king, Oroonoko is a standout figure, a natural leader of great strength and bravery, perhaps in spite of his race. He is meant, Todd argues, more to designate the universal power of kings than call for the emancipation of all slaves.

Whatever the political content of her writing, there’s no denying the enormous significance of Aphra Behn in literary history, and as a trailblazer for future women, particularly those from a poorer background such as herself. She suffered in death, as have many like her, confined to oblivion by critics both male and female who dismissed her work as lewd and distasteful— several attempted to paint her as a shameless harlot in a politically motivated attack on the excesses of the Restoration years, in an attempt to usher in a new period of moral puritanism. The attacks worked, and by the end of the 17th century, she had been forced from the literary canon. It was not until the early 19th century that feminists such as Virginia Woolf reached into the recesses of history and plucked her out. Even then, it was the symbol of Behn as an early female professional, and not her work itself, that was put atop a pedestal, though in more recent decades her texts have begun to find themselves the subject of serious academic study. Even still, today Behn remains largely a woman first, author second, a symbolic heroine praised for her efforts less so than her literary accomplishments— a pawn in a bigger game.

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