“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”-Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Aphra Behn was a playwright, poet, and holds the great honor as the first woman who made a living for herself as a writer. And with that, it is only apt that we honor her trailblazing with this inaugural post. Though her death is well known and honored with a entombment in Westminster Abbey, little is known, truly known with concrete facts and backup evidence, about Aphra Behn’s life. She was a woman who lived by her own terms and wrote her own story. The facts aren’t as important as her deeds, and they were extraordinary.
Aphra Behn’s story is a nebulous state of unknown myths and anecdotes. Behn was born about 1640 in the County of Kent in England. Her parentage is unknown, but historical evidence, and lack there of, points to her parents as commoners with a level of education. Beyond her birth, not much if any is known about her life until a purported trip to Surinam, a Dutch Colony in the early 1660s.
The trip to Surinam, though not confirmed with contemporaneous records, is widely accepted life event in the Behn mythos. The trip provided a sharp backdrop to one of Behn’s most famous and influential publications, Oronooko. The novel addressed issues of race, gender and slavery. It tells the tale of a slave revolt in Surinam and is widely considered a precursor to the modern novel. As such, Behn owns the honor as the mother of the novel. Behn acts as writer and narrator of the novel, further blending and blurring the lines between the fiction of the novel and the mystery behind her life. The narrator is a woman of aristocratic means, who tells of the tragic tale of an African Prince, Oronooko, the slave revolt he led, and the love story with his Imoinda. Though little evidence remains of the roots of the novel, her time in Surinam, or why she ventured there and what her purpose was, the short story was a contemporaneous success and fed into her tale as a spy.
A royalist, a staunch supporter of the Stuart royal line, she spied for Charles II, specifically in Antwerp, where her first recorded activities are definitively known. She visited the Royal court and attempted to turn double agents toward the British cause. The Crown was slow in providing adequate funding, and the success at her departure in 1666 was dubious at best, with a consensus that the lack of funding proved too high a hurdle, leaving Behn in debt. Though reports that she was in debtor’s prison once King Charles II refused to pay Behn are another unsubstantiated anecdote, the fact remains that after her foray into the spy game, and the death of her husband, Behn was left in want of funds, and began a prolific career as a playwright alongside the Earl of Rochester and Poet Laureate John Dryden.
At a time when a woman’s worth was determined by her relationship to men, another great mystery of Aphra Behn’s life is her ambiguous marriage. After her return from Surinam, she married a man named Johann Behn. Little is known of Behn, and shortly after the marriage, she entered society as a widow or separated wife, living under the name Mrs. Behn. Questions remain if she was a widow, a separated wife, or if she even married at all. Many of her plays and writings deal with sexuality, sensuality, and at ties, same sex relationships amongst women has led to further confusion on her sexuality and marriage. The layers of complexity is uniquely Behn. She’s a woman who lived life on her terms, and the guise of a widow allowed her the freedoms to continue to write on her own and still maintain a level of propriety.
Her prolific and successful career as a writer with The King’s Company and the Duke’s Company led to her production of some of the most successful plays of the time period. Her comedies, the play The Rover and the novel Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister proved exceptionally success, securing her legacy as a preeminent voice of her generation. By the time of her death in 1689, she’d published 19 plays, 4 novels, 5 short stories, and a multitude of poetry.
Further, her legacy that would be discovered and rediscovered over the next 328 years. A legacy that encompasses, surpasses, and challenges the notions of what a woman is and could be. Her trailblazing, spying, pioneering, writing rebellion was best summed up by the quote that decorates her tomb, “Her lies Proof that wit can never be a defence enough against mortality.”