About Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn was (and is) a phenomenon.

She was born in 1640 in relative obscurity to a barber and a wet nurse in Canterbury yet became the first ever woman to earn her living by writing in the English language.

She was the most prolific playwright in England during the last eighteen years of her life.

She was a poet.

She was one of the first ever novelists, writing Oroonoko, which exposed slavery in all its horrors. 

She was a spy for Charles II

During her lifetime, she counted Nell Gwynne, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, Thomas Killigrew and other ‘greats’ of the era as personal friends.

She was revered enough in her lifetime to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Productions of her plays and adaptations of her prose, continued to be put onstage for decades after her death.

Visit our Aphra Timeline

But sometimes, time is not kind to reputation… especially for women.

Her work, full of sex and the gritty realities of human nature, was considered shocking by those who lived in the centuries that followed.

In 1821, it was said of Aphra Behn that, ‘Talents which might have adorned her sex and country, have become a scandal to the one and a disgrace to the other.’

And so, the trashing of Aphra Behn’s reputation continued.

Until Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf stepped in. Sackville-West wrote in 1927 that, ‘She [Behn] was an inhabitant of Grub Street with the best of them; she claimed equal rights with men; she was a phenomenon never before seen, and, when seen, furiously resented.’

Although even in 1927, Aphra Behn’s work was too scandalous to be revived. Sackville-West also noted that, The City Heiress, The Rover, The Feigned Courtezans, and The Dutch Lover are good comedy, and would be quite sufficiently amusing to put on the stage today, but that their indelicacy forbids.’

Virginia Woolf famously wrote in A Room of One’s Own (1929) that, ‘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. 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 wits.’

In the later twentieth century, scholarly interest in Aphra Behn grew again.

Productions were staged of a few of her better-known works. Interest continues to grow in new revivals.

She is now taught on degree courses around the world and in secondary school classrooms in the UK.

Interest in, and study of, Aphra Behn will only continue to grow. She is deserving of the celebration that has been denied to her for centuries.

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