Aphra Behn, the 17th-century poet, playwright and fiction writer, was hailed by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929) for having ‘earned [women] the right to speak their minds’.
Very little is known of Behn’s early life. She was born in 1640 during the lead-up to the English Civil Wars, possibly in Canterbury to a barber father (perhaps named Eaffrey or Bartholomew Johnson) and wet-nurse mother, though in adulthood she moved in aristocratic, courtly circles. Following the narrator’s account of her own life in Oroonoko (1688), some biographers think Behn travelled with her family to the English (later Dutch) colony of Surinam (in the Guianas of South America). There, she may have met an African slave leader who inspired her to write Oroonoko, which is regarded as one of the earliest English novels. Most biographers think Behn had returned to England by 1664, when she married a merchant named Johan Behn, though they separated soon after and by 1666 Johan had died. In any case, from 1664 she went by the name of ‘Mrs Behn’ professionally.
Behn’s politics were conservative and her sympathies were Royalist. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which broke out in 1665, she is said to have acted as a spy in Bruges (her code name was Astrea) on behalf of the court of Charles II. Espionage was not a lucrative career, though, and Behn seems to have returned to London within the year. Some accounts have her serving time in debtors’ prison, although that (like much else about her life) is not officially documented.
Writing for the stage
Back in England, Behn turned her attention to writing. We know that she began working for the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company, two theatre companies authorised by Charles II after the Restoration, first as a scribe and then as a playwright. Her first few works in the early 1670s (The Force’d Marriage, The Amorous Prince, The Dutch Lover) were not commercial successes. 1677’s The Rover, however, was a critical and commercial victory, and from then on Behn had a steady career as a playwright (writing 19 plays in total and probably assisting in the composition of several more).
She also wrote novels, poems and literary translations up until her death in 1689 at the age of 49. She is buried in Westminster Abbey, though not in Poets’ Corner.
Much of Behn’s work was published anonymously during her own lifetime. Now, Behn is best known for her novels The Fair Jilt and Oroonoko – the latter of which, though not expressly anti-slavery, was unusual in its time for the respectful attention it pays to a non-white, non-English protagonist – and for her poetry. Her poetry is frequently frank about female sexual pleasure and humorous about male sexual dysfunction (as in ‘The Disappointment’), and some of it was originally attributed to her male contemporary, the famously bawdy Earl of Rochester.
Further information about the life of Aphra Behn can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.