Aphra Behn

Painting-oil on canvas- circa 1670 by artist Peter Lely.
Painting-oil on canvas- circa 1670 by artist Peter Lely.

Aphra Behn was born in December of 1640 as Aphra Johnson (d. April 16, 1689). There are no records surviving that prove she was ever married. Some claim that she took on the title of “Mrs.” for protection. From 1666-7 she served King Charles II as a spy in Antwerp, Netherlands. She spent time after that in debtors’ prison due to the debts incurred from this. King Charles II hadn’t paid her bills.

After this stint as a spy, she went on to the world of theater starting in 1670. She wrote many successful plays over the next decade. It was in 1684 when her first book of poetry was finished, Poems Upon Several Occasions and those were followed in the same year by more published writing. Eventually she started writing plays again and her short novel, Oroonoko, which she is mostly known for today, was published in 1688. It is assumed that during this time, Behn suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis as she had written about the pain she was in. She continued to write anyway.

“Although Aphra Behn’s contemporaries, and the prudish eras after, vilified and belittled her accomplishments as a writer due to her rampant and unapologetic use of sexual subjects, current critics can judge her on her merits alone. While she was preceded by numerous female writers, notably Katharine Philips and Margaret Cavendish, Behn was the first to consider herself a writer by profession, one “forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.” Her career did break ground for the women who came after, which prompted Virginia Woolf’s now-famous lines:

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.” (Source:Luminarium)

Aphra Behn at Luminarium.

Aphra Behn at the Poetry Foundation.

Aphra Behn at Wikipedia.

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