Aphra Behn played many roles during her lifetime: novelist, poet, political activist, and spy. An ambitious, courageous woman, she seems to have cared little about occupying the roles traditionally assigned to her gender. Against the tumultuous political backdrop of late 17th century England, she became one of the first English women to support herself as an author. Like any proper spy, though, the true nature of Aphra’s personal life is masked by half-truths, lost documentation, and gossip.
The first thing one notices when looking into the life of Aphra Behn is the series of “may haves” that constitute her biography. Uncertain parentage, unclear marital status, and some strategic ambiguity on Aphra’s part mean the details of her early life are impossible to pin down. It’s largely agreed that she was born around 1640 to a humble family and that the loss of a man who may have been her husband (either through his death or their separation) meant she was left without an income at some point around 1664. This was only a few short years after the fall of Oliver Cromwell’s government and the restoration of the English monarchy after a period of violent civil war.
Through the vagaries of social connections and the fact that her maybe-husband was possibly-Dutch, Aphra was recruited by the recently re-throned King Charles II to become a spy in Antwerp. War had broken out between England and the Netherlands, and Aphra was deployed to do what is perhaps euphemistically referred to as “establish an intimacy” with a man that the English hoped could aid in their war efforts. While she might have been prepared for the intimacy she was expected to establish, Aphra was left reeling by the expense of living in the Dutch city. The English Crown proved an unreliable employer and payments failed to materialize. There’s some question as to who in Charles II’s court was responsible for stranding Aphra in the Netherlands, but no matter the case, her lack of funds meant she was forced to borrow enough money to return to her native country. The reality of life in the 17th century was a harsh one for people in debt, and since Aphra was without the safety net usually provided by a family, she faced imprisonment for her unpaid loans. Once again, the historical record becomes murky here — it’s possible that Aphra found herself languishing in debtor’s prison for a period of time, or perhaps she narrowly avoided this fate through some miracle of social connectedness. The one-two punch of losing her partner and being financially betrayed by her employer meant Aphra needed to find a way to support herself.
The turning point came in 1670, with the production of her first play, The Forc’d Marriage. This story of tangled romance, attempted murder, and war between the sexes was a hit. A mere ten years earlier, this path to success would have been impossible for any writer, let alone a woman. Cromwell’s Puritanical policies meant that theatrical performances were either extremely limited or outright banned. Aphra encountered a very different landscape, however, with the newly emerging Restoration culture opening the door to women in the arts and favoring the kind of bawdy entertainment that was previously forbidden. The Forc’d Marriage established Aphra as a playwright for both royally-endorsed theaters in England, the Duke’s Company and the King’s Company. Subsequent plays with titles like The Amorous Prince, The Dutch Lover, and The Feigned Courtesans enhanced her reputation as a writer of sex-oriented comedy-dramas with just the right kind of frisson of scandal to keep seats filled. A savvy self-marketer, Aphra wove references to her past as a spy into her plays: the opening scene of The Forc’d Marriage includes a character that scholars suggest is based on the nobleman who Aphra held responsible for her abandonment in Antwerp.
This tendency towards self reference means there is some debate as to how much of Aphra’s firsthand experience went into the development of her novel Oroonoko, published in 1688, shortly before her death. Some scholars contend that Aphra lived in Suriname at some point in her youth due to the author’s claims to have based her story of doomed romance and slave revolt on events she witnessed in the South American colony. Whatever the case may be surrounding the personal elements of the book, Oroonoko remains noteworthy for a number of reasons. Not only is it among the first novels written in English, but it also addresses thorny social issues including gender, race, and slavery. The titular African prince is portrayed sympathetically throughout the book and his organization of a slave revolt is seen as justified in the face of overwhelming odds. In the centuries since its publication, Oroonoko has been seen as a moving tragedy, a condemnation of slavery, and an early exploration of the impact of colonialism. Within the context of 17th century literature, it’s probable that Aphra was influenced by the work of another noted English playwright’s exploration of racial and gender themes — Shakespeare’s Othello — and that she, a devoted royalist, used the story to delve into her ideas surrounding the divine right of kings.
Aphra was also an accomplished poet, discussing similar themes of sex and politics in verse. Her poems were often risque, with descriptions of gay romance, gender fluidity, and erotic dalliances. Many of her poems are written in the pastoral tradition, a theme with its roots in Ancient Greece that uses romanticized images of country life to delight urban audiences with tales of an imaginary Golden Age. One of her best-known poems — something of a succès de scandale — is titled “The Disappointment” and addresses impotence from a distinctly female perspective. She also authored love poems addressed to women. In one such poem, “To the Fair Clarinda,” Aphra asserts that she is incapable of denying the charms of a woman’s form since women were designed to be sexually appealing, but notes that love-making between women is by its nature completely innocent since only male-female pairings can truly be defined as sex. Witness this passage with its cheekily phallic closing line:
In pity to our sex sure thou wert sent,
That we might love, and yet be innocent:
For sure no crime with thee we can commit;
Or if we should — thy form excuses it.
For who, that gathers fairest flowers believes
A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves.
While the fact that Aphra was able to earn a living as a writer in 17th century England is in itself a feminist milestone, modern audiences may be disappointed if they try to place her writing in the context of contemporary definitions of feminism. It’s true that Aphra frequently wrote about sexuality, but her words were designed to appeal to male audiences. During her lifetime, she was praised for her androgynous qualities — for having the intelligence and wit of a man improbably placed in a woman’s body. Her social circle included some of the most respected writers of her day, including poet laureate John Dryden, as well as notorious libertines like John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, whose death at 33 from venereal disease supports the notion that his scandalous poems contained more than a touch of autobiography. The provocative topics discussed in Aphra Behn’s writing meant that her works were suppressed during the conservative Victorian era. Julia Kavanagh, a writer of censor-friendly domestic novels during this era, had this to say about Aphra’s work: “instead of raising man to woman’s moral standard, [she] sank woman to the level of man’s coarseness.” Perhaps more reflective of the current view of Aphra’s life is Virginia Woolf’s assessment of the writer from her landmark 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Through a combination of good fortune, determination, and creativity, Aphra Behn opened doors for woman writers in her country and would become a symbol for literarily minded women in generations to come.