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    Amazing Aphra: a thoroughly modern feminist icon

    Journalist Rob Ryan delves into the fascinating yet little-known life of playwright Aphra Behn, the first English woman to make a living through writing, ahead of an intriguing exhibition at The Royal Exchange this month

    Sometime in the early 1980s I joined a queue outside a sci-fi bookshop in London to have my copy of The Magic Labyrinth signed by its author, the celebrated sci-fi writer Philip José Farmer. When I reached the head of the line, I asked him which of the many characters (the book features the entire human population being resurrected) was his favourite, expecting him to nominate Richard Burton, Alice Liddell (of Wonderland fame) or Mark Twain. But he hesitated, thought for a moment, and said: ‘It changes, but at the moment, I find myself fascinated by Aphra Behn.’ I wasn’t sure how to answer that. I had never even heard of this person (was this a man? A woman?). I mutely collected my inscribed copy and went home to read it. Eventually I came across the character and when she is introduced, Farmer gives a pithy and accurate summary of her importance:

    So, this was Aphra Amis Behn, the novelist, poet, and dramatist whom London called the Incomparable Astrea, after the divine star maiden of classical Greek religion. Before she died in 1689, at the age of forty-nine, she had written a novel, Oroonoko, [which was] very influential in the development of the [form], and Aphra’s contemporaries rated her with Defoe when she was at her best. Her plays were bawdy and coarse but witty and had delighted the theatregoers. She was the first English woman to support herself entirely by writing, and she had also been a spy for Charles II during the war against the Dutch. Her behaviour was scandalous, even for the Restoration period, but she was buried in Westminster Abbey, an honour denied the equally scandalous and far more famous Lord Byron.


    Portrait of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely


    No wonder he was fascinated by her, there was enough material for several novels about her protean life. Her biographer Janet Todd called her a “shapeshifter” and described her as ‘playwright, poet, fictionist, propagandist and spy’ who hid her true self behind a series of masks. Of course, Behn might have been unknown to a callow teenager like me, but she had already been re-discovered and hailed a proto-feminist role model who lived life on her own terms at a time when for most women those terms were laid down by men. Virginia Woolf famously wrote 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.’

    Over the past few decades, her public profile has increased to the point where she is to be honoured with a statue in Canterbury, close to the place of her birth in 1640. Interestingly, there will be a chance to see and to vote for the candidates for this sculpture at The Royal Exchange, of which more later.

    Behn was born into one of the more turbulent eras of British history, the bloody English Civil War and, ultimately, the Restoration of the monarchy. Her father was likely a barber, her mother a wet nurse, although details are sketchy. Germaine Greer wrote: ‘We must be prepared to live with what we do not know about her.’ What we certainly don’t know is how she came by the education that gave birth to her literary talent. Her biographer Janet Todd suggests she was ‘a very clever, witty and pretty girl’, an autodidact, hoovering up influences and information from all she met, although Todd admits we have no idea how she gained the confidence and social skills to move among the literati of the day.


    Title page of play by Aphra Behn


    If John Le Carré had written Restoration spy novels, he might have featured the young Aphra Behn. In 1666 she was sent to Antwerp and given the codename “160” and the alias Astrea, a name she used throughout her life. Her mission, authorised by Charles II’s government, was to turn the dissident and very republican William Scot(t), a one-time friend and perhaps lover of Behn’s, into a double agent. Most of her letters at the time to her handlers are pleas for more money – a constant theme of her life – and she seems to have decided that espionage was not going to be a lucrative career. Nor was she very good at it – Scot decided to stay unturned, and she is believed to have ended up in (or to at least have been threatened with) debtor’s prison upon her return from Antwerp, a grim fate Smiley or Bond never faced.

    She had, though, also got to know Thomas Killigrew, a foppish favourite of the King, who was rewarded for his loyalty with a Royal Warrant to set up a theatre group – The King’s Company – helping to re-new and re-invent drama after its demise under the Puritans. It seems to have been Killigrew who encouraged her to write – a process later helped by Charles’s edict that all parts written for women for the stage must be played by females. Behn started her career writing tragi-comedies with powerful parts for strong, witty women of the kind not previously seen by theatre-goers and performed by the likes of Nell Gwynne. In her comedic plays from The Rover (1677) onwards, she also addresses and challenges the accepted roles of women in society, their perceived sexuality and battles against the patriarchy and the religious order of the day.

    She was a very successful playwright by any measure – her two known female contemporaries managed to get but one play each staged, whereas she had 18 new productions between 1670 and 1688, against male rivals such as John Dryden’s 14. Behn might, as is claimed, have been the first female to earn her living as a professional writer, but it was still a precarious one, which is why Behn sought other incomes at various times, such as poetry, translations and fiction. It was the plays that made her famous but her novels and short stories, which were a new form at the time, and her often erotic poetry have been re-evaluated of late, especially Oroonoko, published in 1688, which is a powerful anti-slavery and anti-colonialism novel.


    Aphra Behn is buried at Westminster Abbey


    Behn died on 16 April 1689 and was buried in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey; the inscription on her tombstone reads: Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality. Which, to be frank, doesn’t really capture her own philosophy of living for ‘pleasure and poetry’. Although her work continued to appear on stage for decades after her death, her reputation plummeted over the next two centuries. She was widely considered an “unwomanly” writer of risqué plays. She was, in current parlance, cancelled.

    It wasn’t until the first wave of feminism in the 1970s that she was rehabilitated. Her rising reputation is no surprise, because Aphra Behn is, in many ways, a very modern figure, blurring as she did gender boundaries in a way that feels very contemporary. So, it is a timely moment for her legacy to be celebrated by erecting a likeness of her in her birthplace and to preview the monument in a setting that was almost a recurring character in her work – the City of London.

    Behn knew the City well. Her characters patronise the shops of Paternoster Row, drink at the Sun in Cheapside and the George in Whitefriars Row and buy their horses in Smithfield. The Royal Exchange figures prominently in many of her works, such as the play The City-Heiress (1682) and the posthumously published short story The Adventure of the Black Lady. The Royal Exchange is dropped casually into many conversations in her plays, underlining how central it was to everyday life and business in the City in the 17th century.

    The campaign to have Behn commemorated in bronze was initiated by academic, poet and campaigner Charlotte Cornell, who became chair of the A for Aphra campaign, which was quickly backed by the prestigious Canterbury Commemoration Society and gathered celebrity supporters including Margaret Atwood, Jeffrey Archer and Jenny Uglow. The long list of submissions for the statue has now been whittled down to four and they are coming to that very place that Behn mentioned so often – The Royal Exchange.


    All four shortlisted Aphra Behn statue designs will be on display at The Royal Exchange. Photo by Petar Velchev


    From 11-13 July, the four shortlisted designs, in the form of maquettes cast in scale (50cm) in bronze (pictured above), can be seen in the courtyard of The Royal Exchange. Visitors can then vote for their favourite. The quartet are Maurice Blik’s Mind Over Matter, Meredith Bergmann’s The Untamed Heart, Christine Charlesworth’s Aphra: Poet, Playwright, Pioneer and Victoria Atkinson’s Astrea. The winning design will then be commissioned as a full-size statue to be erected in the very heart of Canterbury, as a permanent tribute to Aphra Behn’s life and works.

    Those who can’t make it to The Royal Exchange can still cast a vote via from now until 1 September. On the same website, you can also bid to own one of the four maquettes, which will be auctioned (among other desirable lots) at a gala dinner to be held in Canterbury on 16 July, with speeches by Charlotte Cornell and actor Alexandra Gilbreath and Bargain Hunt‘s Charlie Ross wielding the auctioneer’s hammer.

    It’s taken a while, but it seems that the pioneering, mysterious and endlessly intriguing Aphra Behn is finally getting the wider attention she has long deserved – Astrea is uncancelled at last. I can’t help feeling that the late Philip José Farmer would have been pleased.


    Robert Ryan is a British journalist, author and screenwriter.