Five things you never knew about Aphra Behn

4th Aug 2017

Author, spy, political propagandist, Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of English literature, a female polymath who rose from humble origins to come close to the heart of power.

Liking the sound of her? Us too. Here's five things about her you might not know...

When Aphra Behn: A Secret Life launched over a decade ago, The Times Higher Education Supplement knew it would be “of interest to everyone who cares about women writers.”

The Independent on Sunday called the author, Janet Todd, “one of the foremost feminist literary historians writing in this country.”

They recognised that Todd had “devoted her literary career to recovering the lives and works of women writers overlooked and disparaged by generations of male literary scholars”.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Todd to celebrate remarkable Aphra Behn biography being published in paperback (Fentum Press, £14.99).

So, with thanks to Todd, here are our top five things you never knew about Aphra Behn:

1) Aphra Behn was the first woman in British history to earn her living entirely from writing

This fact is especially remarkable as Aphra Behn (1640-1689) lived during The Restoration Period. Todd explains that few options of earning a living were available to women at the time; “mainly domestic service, teaching, and sex work.”

She also points out that “few men had, before this time, earned an entire living by writing either – earlier male authors tended to have another job as well.”

2) She wrote frankly on issues no published female author had before

Works by Aphra Behn address sexual and psychological topics such as obsession, self-delusion, impotence, orgasm and bisexuality, among many other topics.

3) Her literary works spanned an enormous number of genres

Aphra Behn published lyric and erotic poetry, novellas, novels and plays. She also worked as a translator into English for both romances and scientific works.

Todd notes that “Aphra Behn was central to the commercial literary culture,”adding that “I don’t think any other woman had her breadth of literary achievements.”

4) Her life’s work spanned more than just literature

Somehow, in between penning all of the above, Aphra Behn worked for a number of years as a Royalist spy, first in the Netherlands, then South America. In the last years of her life, she used her poetic skills to serve the Stuart kings, Charles II and James II.

5) This all despite a lack of education

Todd points out that Aphra Behn was never taught classical languages, and as such was “shut out from much male knowledge.”

However, “she never felt that great learning was necessary for writing creatively – common sense and wit were compensatory.” Well, quite.

Staunchly resistant to attempts to centralise the work and words of men, it seems fair to say that both Aphra Behn and Janet Todd are women after our own heart.

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life is available now from all good bookshops.

Janet Todd is a novelist and internationally renowned scholar, known for her non-fiction feminist works on women writers. She is an expert in her field and has published books on Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen as well as Aphra Behn. After working as an academic around the world, Janet now lives in Cambridge and Venice.

Guest post by Clara Heathcock. Clara works in publishing, formerly for Turnaround, now for Black Dog Publishing and Artifice books on architecture. Her research interests include the critical reception of contemporary literary fiction by women, and the new wave of avant-garde small press comics. She illustrates and publishes the small-press publication, Facebook Chats with Women – copies available at claraheathcock.wordpress.com.