November's Woman of the Month - Aphra Behn
Updated: Feb 26
"Kings that made laws, first broke 'em" - Aphra Behn 1640-1689
Aphra Behn was an English playwright, translator, poet and fiction writer. She was one of the first women in Britain to earn her living by writing and by breaking cultural barriers of her time, and served as a literary role model for generations of female authors. Born in 1640, Aphra was notably not from a privileged background, and very little is known of her private life at all but this may have been intentional. Through her skill at writing, she came to the attention of Charles II who employed her as a political spy in Antwerp during the Anglo-Dutch war. No church or tax records record her name and during her life she went by several different aliases such as Agent 160 and Mrs Behn (she was essentially the Restoration's answer to Miss Moneypenny). In fact, Aphra carved her career out of secrecy and privacy; she never took off the mask. Many of her plays were published under the pseudonym Astrea, which had been her codename in Antwerp. Aphra was determined that she alone would write her narrative; therefore she masked her background in obscurity.
Behn was tasked by Charles II to become intimate with William Scott, the son of a celebrated regicide, and turn him into a double agent but is probable he betrayed her to the Dutch. The mission was ultimately unsuccessful, and worse, Aphra never received payment from Charles II and was plunged into considerable debt. Back home in London, she began to work as a scribe for the King's players to prevent going to debtor's prison. Emerging from a Puritan regime, Restoration theatres were opening and the theatre had never been so popular. Aphra was part of the literary circle of the most notable writers of her day and over her lifetime she published nineteen plays; making her one of the most high-profile female dramatists in Britain. Her prose has been recognised as instrumental to the development of the English novel and in the years following her death, many female dramatists praised Aphra's role in opening up the public space to her female successors. Her work Oroonoko, telling the tale of the enslaved Oroonoko and his white European lover, was later praised as the first abolitionist novel in Britain, nearly one hundred years prior to the abolitionist movement.
The Restoration era rejected the Puritan ideals of the Republic in favour of sexual freedom; and this was embraced by Aphra, who wrote about femininity, sexuality, female pleasure and love. Female pleasure, especially, was a radical concept to seventeenth century audiences (and still is today!). Aphra was not afraid to use her privileged position to debate key political issues such as the injustice of women's exclusion from education and the potentially harmful effects of arranged marriages. She questioned seventeenth century gender roles and highlighted the structural inequalities they perpetuated. Considering that playwriting was her refuge from poverty and debtors prison, Aphra's writings were extremely risky to her position and on one occasion she was briefly imprisoned by Charles II for offending his illegitimate son. Despite this, the king was a regular attender of her plays and Aphra became heavily embroiled in the Stuarts succession debate.
A string of box office successes led to attacks on Aphra's private life and accusations of immorality and plagiarism. In a maddening contrast, the libertine lives of Aphra's male contemporaries were widely celebrated and considered distinctly separate from their work. Beset by poverty, and on her death bed, Aphra continued to write when she could barely hold a pen. Aphra's work was marginalised after her death, and if it wasn't for the printing in 1700 of her oeuvre she would not have been re-discovered in the 1900s. Until this point, Aphra's works were regarded as morally corrupt and she was ignored by literary history. During first- wave feminism, women such as Virginia Woolf celebrated Aphra's achievements and brought her subject matter back into popular discourse.
Testimony to Aphra's influence can be found In A Room of One's Own, in which Woolf wrote "All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds"
Aphra remains a forgotten figure in literary history, undeserving of the criticism that has been heaped on her since the 1600s due to her sex. Aphra dived into the heart of gender politics and female sexuality at a time that it was considered lewd and taboo but her views are no less valid today. This brave, hard-working and exceptionally bright woman has recently entered the field of feminist criticism - and long may she remain there!
- Ellie x