Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689)
Portrait by Mary Beale
A spy and playwright who wrote that she valued fame and recognition ‘as much as if she had been born a hero’. A prolific dramatist of the English Restoration, she was one of the first English professional female writers. Her poem ‘The Disappointment’ which was included in the Earl of Rochester’s ‘Poems on Several Occasions” was about premature ejaculation from the woman’s perspective.
In 1666 Behn became attached to the Court, possibly through the influence of Thomas Culpepper and other associates of influence, where she was recruited as a political spy to Antwerp by Charles II. Her code name for her exploits is said to have been Astrea, a name under which she subsequently published much of her writings.
Aphra Behn died on 16 April 1689, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Below the inscription on her tombstone read the words: “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality.” She was quoted as once stating that she had led a “life dedicated to pleasure and poetry.”
In Virginia Woolf’s reckoning, Behn’s total career is more important than any particular work it produced. Woolf wrote, ”All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”