Lost Women: Aphra Behn—Novelist, Spy and the First Woman to Earn a Living as an English Writer

Any woman who writes for a living owes a debt to Aphra Behn. As her successes grew, so did the sexual prejudice against her.

Aphra Behn (1640-1689)

Reclaiming the forgotten histories of women was the driving force behind Ms.‘ monthly column “Lost Women.” One of the column’s early writers, Gerda Lerner, declared, “Women’s history is women’s right.” The column celebrated the contributions of women across industries, many of whose stories would have been lost if not chronicled in the pages of Ms.

This Women’s History Month, we’re reviving the iconic “Lost Women” column—diving into the archives to make these histories more accessible to our new age of Ms. readers.

This story was originally published in the February 1973 issue of Ms. and has been edited for clarity.

For any writer to have produced 19 plays and 13 novels, plus 11 volumes of letters, translations and miscellaneous prose and verse, is remarkable. For a 17th-century woman to have done so is phenomenal. That was the literary output of Aphra Behn (1640-1689), the first woman to earn her living as a writer in the English language. 

Not only England’s first professional woman writer, she also became one of the most important Restoration dramatists, a companion of the leading literary figures of her day, and an early spokeswoman for women’s right to control their own lives and marry whom—and if—they chose. Furthermore, she spent part of her youth half a world away in England, had a brief career as a spy in the service of the king, and spent some time in debtors’ prison.

During her lifetime, and despite their popular success, her plays constantly had to be defended from critics on the grounds that they should be judged for themselves and not as the work of a woman. For many years after her death, because of her free use of language and emphasis on sex, her name was not mentioned in polite society. With a few exceptions, her plays, poems and novels are largely unread and unreadable today, but no woman who writes for a living can read about Behn’s life without identifying with her and acknowledging a debt to her. 

Aphra Amis was born in Kent in 1640 and taken, probably while in her early twenties, to Surinam, known then as Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America.

After her family moved back to England, Aphra married a merchant named Behn, who left her a widow with nothing at all to remember him by. With no money and determined to be independent, Aphra used some connections she had made at court to get herself a secret assignment for the British government in Antwerp. (These were the years of the Dutch Wars, as well as of the Great Plague and the Fire of London.) 

She spent the summer and fall of 1666 in Holland, where she was sent to make contact with another British subject named Scott. They then exchanged information and affection in a series of letters in which she signed herself Astrea and he responded to Celadon.

She also managed to get a good deal of information back to the Court, including the warning that the Dutch planned to launch a raid on the Thames, but her warning was disregarded. So were all her requests—and finally her pleas—that she be paid for her services.

By this time she was broke, having used all the money she came with to go about the business she had undertaken for the government. In a series of desperate letters from Antwerp, she begged to be repaid for her expenses so that she could return home.

Her letters were ignored (though history doesn’t tell us why); she had to manage for herself. She finally borrowed the money to pay her debts in Antwerp and, in 1667, she returned to an England which was recovering from plague and fire. Her own position was becoming increasingly desperate: she spent the next year vainly appealing to the Court for payment for her services to the government. Her last letter reads: 

‘Tis tomorrow that I must submit myself to a prison, the time being expired, and though I endeavored all day yesterday to get a few days more, I cannot, because they say they see I am dallied withal. … .I see everybody is [only] words. … This is my reward for all my great promises and my endeavors. Sir, if I have not the money tonight, you must send me something to keep me in prison, for I will not starve. 

There was no answer, and she was thrown into debtors’ prison.

When she came out, she seems to have determined never to go hungry again. She also decided not to be dependent on anyone but herself from then on.

At the age of 30, she discovered her true vocation as dramatist and launched her career with The Forced Marriage, a tragicomedy produced in London in December of 1670. Between that year and 1696, 17 of her plays were produced on the London stage. 

The restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660 had ended 18 years of Puritan repression, and allowed the theaters of London to be reopened. This began the lively, irreverent, badwy period of Restoration drama, for which Aphra Behn began to write. 

In prefaces and epilogues to her plays, she answered her critics with a series of statements that make up what is probably the first defense written by a woman of equal educational and professional rights for women. 

Like Shakespeare, she borrowed many of her plots. She rewrote, cut, condensed, reorganized and added inimitable speeches full of what literary critics have discreetly referred to as racy dialogue.

Her greatest success was The Rover, and its roles were played by all the leading actors and actresses of the day. The hero is a free spirit who expects his women to be as free as he is: “Marriage is as certain a bane to love as lending money is to friendship.”

He meets his match in a heroine who refuses to marry for “portion and jointure,” to perpetuate a family’s name or increase its wealth, but insist that marriage should be a contract between two free and compatible people: “I don’t intend every he that likes me shall have me, but he that I like.”

In a society in which women were objects to be bought and sold, and marriage purely an economic matter, she dared to call marriage “a worse confinement than a religious life.”

Behn was an erotic writer. Her theme was sex, and in writing about the relations between men and women, she used the frank language that was common to dramatists of the day. In her case, however, it was condemned—because she was a woman. A typical attack by one of her contemporaries went:

“For punk [prostitute] and poetess agree so pat / You cannot well be this and not be that.”

The Rover was a favorite of two kings, Charles II and James II, as well as the young audiences for whom its joyful sexual independence was the ideal in that age of extreme moral freedom. Initially, the play was produced anonymously so the author’s sex would not prejudice its reception. Only after its triumphant opening did Aphra Behn reveal her authorship.

And, after that opening night, the audience was always full of men who came to hoot at a play written by a woman. She received more than her share of attacks from the rival cliques that made up the London theatrical scene. As her successes grew, so did the sexual prejudice against her, and there were hostile demonstrations. In prefaces and epilogues to her plays, she answered her critics with a series of statements that make up what is probably the first defense written by a woman of equal educational and professional rights for women. 

Aphra Behn wrote and talked the language of her age. Her content was idealistic. She was against slavery of all kinds, concerned with the dignity of the individual, and she spoke for women, the young and Black people (whose situation she had witnessed in South America) in a time when hers was the only woman’s voice to do so. She pleaded in her writings for the intellectual emancipation of women as well as for an end to forced marriages, and she wrote what is probably the first abolitionist novel, anticipating Harriet Beecher Stowe by two centuries. 

She was the friend of playwrights such as John Dryden, Thomas Southerne and Thomas Otway, and held her own in a brilliant circle of Restoration wits. She knew actors, lawyers, scholars, aristocratic men and women about town, as well as young undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge who hung around her rooms and wrote songs about her in the coffeehouses. 

After her short experience of marriage, she had many love affairs—the most lasting with a young lawyer named John Hoyle, who later was known as a bisexual. Like Sappho, Behn herself wrote at least one poem to a woman lover: “To The Fair Clarinda.” Hers was a remarkably free attitude toward sex. “All the desires of mutual love,” she wrote, “are virtuous.” 

During her lifetime she was slandered, and after her death, her name became a dirty word—partly because she, a woman, had dared to put such words into the mouth of her characters, partly because she was a leader in a more important way. Her plays and novels passionately defend the right of women to take charge of their own bodies and their own lives. The heroine of The Adventure of the Black Lady is pregnant with her lover’s child, but she does not want to marry him: “Ever since, I have abhorred the sight of him”—a rare psychological insight for the 17th century. 

Fastidious critics have dismissed Behn’s work as sentimental, and much of it is. But she did have a remarkable talent, and the amazing thing is that, as a woman in her time, she was able to make use of it. She influenced many women writers who followed her. If Fanny Burney is usually referred to as the first “lady novelist,” it is all to Behn’s credit. She was no lady at all—just a writer who was a woman. 

Behn’s last years were spent fighting sickness and poverty. She stopped writing for the theater and produced numerous novels, poems, translations and letters. The novels—really extended stories—paved the way in their first-person reportorial style and irreverent content for more commonly acknowledged originators of the novel form like Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe. 

Among her best-known stories were Agnes de Castro, a tragedy about a man in love with two women, all three people trying to do right by each other and all of them ending up destroying each other; another romantic melodrama, The History of the Nun, or The Fair Vow-Breaker (Behn’s titles themselves were often like little stories); and The Wandering Beauty, in which she told the story of a servant-girl marrying above herself long before Richardson’s Pamela, and which, again, she claimed to have heard as a child from someone who was there.

As a 17th-century novelist, she anticipated a trick of the 20th-century journalist—her own personality pervades everything she writes. She herself becomes the dominant character of her novels. 

Ill and in constant need of money (in her days of success she had spent it as easily as she had earned it), Behn went on working until the last days of her fatal illness. She continued to hold open house for struggling young authors, and she would often write in a roomful of people, joining in conversation from time to time as she worked on the novels and translations she hoped would pay her debts. 

She died in March 1689, after a long illness, in the care, according to her earliest biographer, of an “injudicious physician.” A new king had come to England—a new age had begun. At the end of the Restoration period, it was not unfitting that Aphra Behn should go out with the time to which she and her work had contributed so much.

But even after her death, a legacy remained. When Aphra Behn burst onto the theatrical world of 17th-century London, women were tolerated only as amateurs, completely cut off from contemporary scholarship when they were not actually illiterate. The only emancipated women were actresses, who enjoyed professional status because they did not really compete with men in any way.

Aphra Behn became the first professional rival of men in the literary world, and she fought so well and taught herself so much that she not only established a position for herself, but for the right of other women to make a vocation of literature. She was a pioneer in ending the intellectual subjugation of women. With her, the female writer had come to stay and, as one male critic later put it, “Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, and Mrs. Gaskell were the true inheritors of the independent spirit of the admirable Mrs. Behn.” 

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Rita Kramer, author of In Defense of the Family and At a Tender Age, has written extensively for The New York Times and other publications on family and social issues.