Aphra Behn, the First Englishwoman to Earn a Living With Her Writing, Is Finally Getting Her Due

A year-long event series aims to champion the pioneering 17th-century writer’s legacy

Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn's The Amorous Prince, or, The Curious Husband was staged this month for the first time in 350 years. Sepia Times / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Aphra Behn, the 17th-century author, is best known as the first Englishwoman to make a living from her writing—but despite her barrier-breaking accomplishments, she is not a household name.

In recent years, Behn has finally started getting the recognition she deserves. The latest effort to champion her legacy is a year-long series of events organized by Canterbury Christ Church University and Loughborough University, which kicked off in September.

So far, programming has included lectures, public readings, a poetry workshop and wine tastings. This week, the Canterbury Players performed one of Behn’s most controversial plays, The Amorous Prince, or, The Curious Husband, which had not been staged since 1671. A two-month-long exhibition on her story is also on view at the Beaney, a Canterbury museum, through August.

Behn’s legacy has endured thanks in part to Virginia Woolf, who lauded the 17th-century writer in her seminal 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own.” Woolf presented Behn as a rare model for young women who dream of one day becoming professional writers.

“For now that Aphra Behn had done it, girls could go to their parents and say, ‘You need not give me an allowance; I can make money by my pen,’” writes Woolf. “Of course the answer for many years to come was, ‘Yes, by living the life of Aphra Behn! Death would be better!’ And the door was slammed faster than ever.” One particularly quotable line comes a few paragraphs later: “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.”

Behn was a prolific writer and experimented with various forms. Her body of work includes the well-known comedy The Rover, which is still staged today, and novels like Oroonoko, the “true history” of an African prince’s enslavement at the hands of white Christians.

The Rover
The Royal Shakespeare Company staged Aphra Behn's The Rover in 2016. Robbie Jack / Corbis via Getty Images

The details of her early life are hazy. According to some accounts, she was born near Canterbury in 1640. At some point in her young adulthood, she appears to have resided in Suriname in South America, then a British colony. This period was formative for Behn, and the experience seems to have influenced her later works.

But by 1664, she was back in England, where she married a merchant. Soon after, her husband’s death—or their separation—left Behn in an uncertain financial state. She was hired by Charles II to serve as a spy in the Netherlands, a role that was far from lucrative. When the money ran out, she was briefly placed in debtor’s prison.

This unlikely chain of events solidified Behn’s determination to earn a living with her writing, “having vowed never to depend on anyone else for money again,” per the Poetry Foundation. She worked as a professional writer for the rest of her life.

Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, debuted in 1670. The work was a success: As the Independent’s Athena Stavrou writes, it “sparked popular demand for her follow-up, The Amorous Prince,” which was staged less than a year later.

The new play, however, was considered “too radical, too shocking” for its era, as Natalie Cox, director of the recent Canterbury Players production, tells BBC News’ Zac Sherratt.

“Some of the things it made fun of, such as masculinity, was not au fait with what should have been on stage at that point,” she adds. “It just fell into obscurity.”

The original play is set in Florence and centers on two characters: “Frederik, who believes he can have sex with any woman he wants, and Antonio, who asks a friend to test the fidelity of his wife,” as BBC News writes. Cox decided to stage the story in the present day to make the play feel current.

“We took a few risks in how we modernized it,” she tells the Independent. “We brought it forward to highlight the relevance of the themes, and we did that in the spirit of Aphra Behn.”

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