Visible Women

Forgotten Women: The proto-feminist playwright and wartime spy

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a new series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at the life of groundbreaking 17th century writer Aphra Behn.

Hidden in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey is a gravestone every woman should read. It carries the inscription: “Mrs Aphra Behn. Dyed April 16 AD 1689.” The first British woman known to work as a writer, Behn was a trailblazer. Her tombstone has one more line, possibly penned by Behn: “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.’’ Total legend.

Aphra Behn followed Shakespeare and Milton yet, almost 400 years on, we know her male counterparts well enough not to need their first names, while Behn’s life is barely recorded.

She was born near Canterbury around 1640 before spending time in the West Indies, picking up her surname through a brief marriage. In 1666, by then single, Behn worked as a spy in Antwerp during the Anglo-Dutch war, but was underpaid, returning home to a debtor’s prison and a life of poverty. As a late-17th-century woman, options seemed limited. But Behn decided to write.

Britain was in the throes of an exciting cultural liberation: the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 had ended the Puritan era and ushered in a new age of artistic expression. The King reopened the playhouses Oliver Cromwell had closed and passed a law giving women permission to act onstage for the first time. Crowds flocked to plays reflecting this freedom and Behn’s works were among the most popular.

At a time when women in theatre were assumed to be little more than prostitutes, Behn promoted her modern views through her work, touching on the then-outrageous themes of sex, female pleasure and homosexuality. One critic said of Behn’s work, “The ideas are constantly indelicate and the language frequently gross.”

A painting of Benn by Sir Peter Lely, 1670. 

She launched her career with The Forc’d Marriage, a tragicomedy about gender inequality, while 1677’s The Rover, starring Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn as a whore called Angelica Bianca, became her most famous play. Following a group of young men’s experiences with flirtation, death and venereal disease, it depicted a woman, Hellena, speaking out against rape and the patriarchal institution of marriage. 

Proto-feminist ideas were Behn’s trademark and her sexy romps were perfect for Restoration audiences thirsty for titillation. Unlike her male counterparts, she also offered complex roles for emerging actresses.

Behn found further success with poetry and novels. The Fair Jilt is often regarded as the first fiction novel by a woman, while her most famous work, 1688’s Oroonoko, the story of a doomed romance, was the first sympathetic view of African slaves in British literature and an instant hit.

Behn died in 1689, after suffering with what is believed to have been rheumatoid arthritis. It was considered a huge honour when she, as a female playwright, was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. At a time when women had little power, money or rights of their own, Behn spread liberal ideas and opened doors for all the female writers to come. As Virginia Woolf put it in 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.”

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about Visible Women here

Main illustration: Josie Jammet