Aphra Behn may not fit as easily into my idea of writing about lesser-known classic authors, but I haven’t featured a Restoration writer yet and she is the first woman in England to be known as a professional writer. She also seems to be a really interesting woman. In fact, I’m surprised that no one has written a novel about her life. If anyone knows of one, I hope they’ll tell us in the comments.
She came from an obscure background, possibly the daughter of a barber, and most of her life history is supposition. What is known about her is that she was a spy for Charles II in Antwerp and that she based her best-known work, Oroonoko, considered one of the first abolitionist works, on a supposed trip to Suriname. One biographical source repeatedly says, “She likely” did this or that.
When she returned from Suriname, where she may or may not have married a merchant named Johan Behn, she was broke, so she began working as a scribe for the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company. This eventually led to her writing plays, and focusing on Restoration comedies. She wrote and staged 19 plays and was one of the most productive playwrights in Britain during the 1670’s and 80’s. She wrote other works of fiction as well and adapted plays from other writers. Even though she was out of favor with the monarchs William and Mary at the time of her death, she had a strong literary reputation and was buried at Westminster Abbey. In her poetry, she wrote about female sexuality and pleasure, which was radical for her time.
Virginia Woolf wrote of her, “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.”
Most popular works: Oroonoko; The Forc’d Marriage; The Rover; The Lucky Chance; Lycidus, or the Lover in Fashion
Other works: The Fair Jilt, The Roundheads, Sir Patient Fancy, Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister, Poems upon Several Occasions