Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was not the first woman writer; neither was she the only woman writer of her day. But Aphra Behn holds the singular distinction of being the first professional woman writer in the English language. That’s right, ladies — Aphra Behn was the first woman writer who did it for money. It was a natural choice for this young woman, a recent spy for the crown and a widow at the age of 26, to turn to selling herself (in a manner of speaking) in order to survive.Many other women of the period did so; but instead of novels and plays, they sold something much more fundamental and far more common. Single women, whether spinsters or widows, often allowed themselves to be kept by rich men of the commons and nobility alike. Mrs. Behn chose not to sell herself but her wits and words, and was branded a whore for her efforts.
Not much is known of her origins. Most biographers seem to agree she was born Aphra Johnson in or around 1640, and that she acquired her education and her connections at court through a noble childhood friend for whom her mother acted as a wet-nurse. She very likely traveled with her family to Surinam in her early 20s; at the age of 26, after having been briefly married to a Mr. Behn (of which nothing is known), she went to Antwerp as a spy for the crown. The mission was singularly unsuccessful, and she returned to England a debtor (very likely serving a short term in prison). When she got out, she began to write, at first “for bread,” but soon she made it clear that she was writing not only for money but for fame — and also to fulfill what she called “my masculine part, the poet in me” — clearly asserting her rights as an artist despite her gender.
She was not interested in modesty or in timidity, and during her career tackled several genres with equal ease — a feat certainly not matched by many male authors of the period. “She was a mere harlot who danced through uncleanness and dared [the male dramatists] to follow.” — John Doran (19th-century theatre historian) The “Punk and Poetesse,” as she was soon dubbed (“punk” meaning “prostitute”), was the single most prolific and successful dramatist in Restoration England with the exception of John Dryden, the country’s poet laureate. She, like Shakespeare before her, took existing bad plays with decent plots and turned them into very good plays — unlike Shakespeare, this work of hers was likened to “the birthing of bastards.” Not only content with writing for the theatre, she became one of the first novelists in the English language, writing a racy epistolary roman à clef about an affair between a nobleman and his sister-in-law.
Other prose works dealt unflinchingly with issues of class, politics, gender and race in a way that was not attempted by many of her male colleagues. She was also well known for her poetry, much of which was quite erotic (but not without humor), her political tracts and propaganda for the Stuart monarchy, and her foreign-language translations. Aphra Behn was an outsider and an observer from the beginning, and much of her work reflects that. She often played with the image of the prostitute which was from the beginning associated with her — “selling” herself as a woman writer, but all the time insisted that the pen had no gender, that there was no topic that was not appropriate for a woman. Many of her writings explore the question of desire — who wants what, and why, and what keeps them from it — and often from the female point of view. As a professional writer, she was the only woman of the time whose work was created and put out not only for her personal satisfaction but for the praise and criticism (and coin) of others.
All women together ought to let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn[…], for it is she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she — shady and amorous as she was — who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your Unfortunately for Mrs. Behn, the tendency both during her life and after it was to equate an author’s subject matter with the author’s actual life; what in male writers became worldly experience in her was named unsalvageable baseness. While she lived, men and women alike vilified her as a whore, and she was seen as a sort of prostitute even by those who were her friends. After her death, she was all but forgotten except as a bad example; even those who did present her works (often expurgated) usually did so with apologies. It was unseemly, monstrous, and undoubtedly unfeminine for a woman to write for money and repute, and Behn suffered for it for three centuries. Her work was reviled, belittled and ignored.
A memorable opinion from an anonymous writer in the Saturday Review at the end of the last century: “Mrs. Behn is still to be found here and there in the dusty, worm-eaten libraries of old country houses, but, as a rule, we imagine, she has been ejected from all decent society for more than a generation or two. If Mrs. Behn is to be read at all, it can only be from a love of impurity for its own sake[…]. It is true that [her scandalous reputation] did not prohibit her from attaining honorable burial in Westminster Abbey, but it is a pity her books did not rot with Within the last century, however, people are starting to take a new look at Aphra Behn. Although some biographers and critics have fallen prey to the (admittedly strong) temptation of merely portraying Mrs. Behn as a feminist icon, by virtue of her “shady and amorous” lifestyle.
While ignoring or slighting her vast catalogue of written work — a practice which serves her no better than the former centuries’ censure — we are now beginning to see serious, critical and biographical studies of not only Mrs. Behn’s important place in the history of women’s writing but of her work itself. Her writings (many of which have been long out of print until the 20th century) are being recognized as the groundbreaking pieces that they are, and explored for all their wit, humor, longing, sadness and anger, and how those play their roles in the conquest of satisfying one’s appetites — whether emotional, political, In an age where women were expected to use themselves as their only commodity, Aphra Behn chose to control her body and sell her thoughts instead. Because of her, writing for women became not only an expression of fancies, but, as Virginia Woolf described it, a matter of “practical importance.”
The seed was planted: women could earn their keep by their pens, could contribute to their own support, could manage and even thrive on their own. By peddling her literary wares and making a living at her craft, Aphra Behn made it possible for other “All I ask, is for the privilege for my masculine part, the poet in me (if any such you will allow me), to tread in those successful paths my predecessors have long thrived in…If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves; I lay down my quill, and you shall hear no more of me […]; for I am not content to write for a third day only. I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful world, and scorn its fickle favors.” — Aphra Behn, The Lucky Chance