Aphra Behn’s early life has been the subject of much conjecture but it is likely that she was born in Wye, Kent, the daughter of a barber, Bartholomew Johnson, whose wife worked as a nanny for the nearby wealthy Culpepper family’s children, one of whom later described Aphra as his foster sister. In 1663 she visited the English colony Willoughbyland (now Suriname), why or with whom is unclear, but it led to her writing the novel Oroonoko, the story of an African prince who was tricked into slavery.
On her return she is believed to have married a German of Dutch merchant, Johan Behn but he does not feature in her life for very long afterwards. By 1666 she had become attached to the court, possibly through Thomas Culpepper where she was recruited as a spy by Charles II to report on English Exiles plotting against the restored King in Antwerp. She does not appear to have been paid for her efforts and ended up briefly in a debtor’s prison.
To survive she worked for the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company players, writing around twenty tragi-comedy plays from 1670 onwards. These were highly popular but some were attacked for being too sexually explicit by critics who clearly thought that writing about such matters was a male prerogative. Although she defended herself vigorously, this does not seem to have bothered her unduly and she went her merry feminist way without fear of damage to her reputation. Her two Rover plays, her most successful, documented the adventures of English Cavaliers in Madrid and Naples. They were dedicated to Charles II and the Catholic Duke of York, the King’s mistress Nell Gwyn acting in one of them.
Aphra Behn was one of the most prolific writers of the Restoration period and in addition to plays wrote a number of novels and published two collections of poetry, although most of her poems originally appeared in her plays. She wrote freely about sex from a woman’s point of view and her private life, particularly her public association with the bi-sexual lawyer, John Hoyle, who twice narrowly avoided sentences of capital punishment for murder and sodomy, raised questions about her morality. As she herself wrote shortly before her death, she had led a life dedicated to pleasure and poetry. She died in 1689 beset by health problems and poverty in her last few years, and is buried in Westminster Abbey, but not in Poets’ Corner. She was one of the very first successful female writers and could justly be said to have been ahead of her time.