Aphra Behn - Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World - Ann Shen

Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World - Ann Shen (2016)

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was a British writer of mysterious origin who became the first professional female playwright, poet, and author. Little is known about her background before her 1664 marriage to Johan Behn, who either died or separated from her soon after. She rose to a prominent enough position in the courts to be recruited as a spy for King Charles II in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Her assignment was to get close to a suspected spy in the English service and turn him into a double agent with her wiles. Charles II never paid her for her services or travel expenses abroad, so she did what all freelancers worth their salt do: she found other work. She became a playwright for a few theater companies and produced several popular and profitable plays—a total of over nineteen in her lifetime. Behn also wrote prose that would become the model for the English novel. Her most famous work, Oroonoko, published in 1688, broke cultural barriers by telling the love story of an enslaved African prince and a general’s daughter. Additionally, Behn continued to write poetry that included social commentary on her political beliefs and touched on women’s sexuality—both audacious topics for a writer, much less a female writer, to cover in her era. Behn’s literary achievements created a seat for women at the writers’ table, and she’s famously remembered in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for doing so: “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn … for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

First professional female writer