Who Is Aphra Behn?

‘All women together ought to let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn . . . For it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’

Virginia Woolf

Aphra Behn was the first professional woman writer in English. A playwright, a poet, and occasional spy, she blazed a trail for female authors from the Brontë sisters to Margaret Atwood, exploring themes of gender, sexuality, and colonialism, with boldness.

Behn was born in the village of Harbledown, just outside Canterbury, in 1640. Her maiden name was Johnson, and her father, Bartholomew, was a barber. Behn’s mother, Elizabeth, came from a family of higher social status, and she could perhaps have made a living as a wetnurse.

Behn was tasked with convincing William Scott, her rumoured former lover, to become a double agent for the English crown. Behn returned to a London ravaged by the catastrophic fire of 1666, as well as an outbreak of plague which claimed roughly 15% of the city’s population, perhaps including her husband.

From 1670 she made her name as a playwright, poet, author and translator, all under her own name. Her great success as an author led to her being buried in Westminster Abbey . In her own day, Behn was exceptionally well-networked in the literary world. Her 1679 play The Feigned Courtesans was dedicated to Nell Gwyn, famous mistress of King Charles II, and she dedicated numerous other works to members of the royal circle throughout her career. The first Poet Laureate, John Dryden, invited her to contribute to a collection of translations from the Latin poet Ovid into English. And many of the best-known writers of the day wrote for her collections or invited her to write for them.

If you already know a bit about Behn, that might be because you’ve seen her wonderful comedy, The Rover: it’s been on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and it’s been on stage across the world over the last 30 years, with thousands of people enjoying its energy and its wit. What you probably don’t know is how colossally popular the play was during her lifetime, and in the decades that followed her death. The Rover appeared on the professional London stage every season between its premiere in 1677 and 1743. Also fantastically popular in Behn’s own day was her The Emperor of the Moon – a slapstick comedy with a serious side: the play’s all-star cast and dazzling special effects are designed to convince audiences about the importance of the arts.

So, if she was so famous in her own times, why don’t people know about her today? In part, probably, simply because she was a woman. After her death in 1689, mainstream culture became increasingly sexist, and women were meant to stay in their place. The Restoration period, when she made her name, was also characterised by sexually explicit writings, and the genteel ideas that grew up after that labelled the writings of Behn and her contemporaries shocking. Despite that, thanks to the work of a couple of generations of feminist scholars, Aphra Behn is back in the academic mainstream. Any student on an English degree, anywhere in the world, is pretty certain to study her – her comedy The Rover, and her fiction Oroonoko, which is about an uprising of enslaved people, are standard.

Canterbury’s Aphra Behn is determined to get Aphra’s name and achievements back in the public spotlight. She is an extraordinary example of an early woman professional, working in a world where women were extremely limited in their ability to forge their own careers. She wrote from a woman’s perspective about the restrictions placed on women by her society, about sexuality, colonialism, and many other matters of pressing importance today. Her characters are passionate, rebellious, and outspoken. Visit our other pages to find out more about Behn, her work, and her world, and check out events page to find out all about our programme of Aphra activities over the next year.