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  • Susan Stoderl

Women Writers | Aphra Behn | First Woman Professional Writer and Spy

Aphra Behn, 17th Century Writer and Spy

Aphra Behn (c. 1640—1689) was an English dramatist, fiction writer, and poet, and possibly the first woman writer to earn a living from writing. Her story is a mystery and only partially known. However, she left a large volume of plays, novels, poetry, and short stories. Behn’s works often explored themes of love, gender, power, and social norms. Like most writers, they probably parallelled her life. 

In 1663, she traveled to the English slave colony of Surinam on the coast of Venezuela. Rumors circulated she had an affair with William Scot, the exiled son of Thomas Scot who had been involved in the trial and execution of Charles I. After returning to England in 1664, she married a merchant named Behn. Widowed and penniless one year later, she became a spy for King Charles II. She traveled to Antwerp, to entice William Scot into giving information to the English, but her mission failed. The result of her attempt was to arrive back in England in debt and to be put in debtor’s prison. This made her a trailblazer for women in intelligence and covert operations. It also likely influenced her writing by infusing her works with intrigue, secrets, and hidden identities. Upon her release from prison, she began writing plays for the London theater, and later novels for print.

Behn’s literary output was prolific. “The Rover,” a play produced in (1677), possessed strong female characters who challenged societal expectations, much like Behn. “Oroonoko” (1688) was based on her experiences in Suriname and is one of the earliest English novels. It tells the love story of an African prince enslaved in the New World and a white woman. It honestly details the cost of being enslaved. Other works of Behn were bold in the fact she pushed boundaries by addressing sexuality and desire openly.

“A poet is a painter in his way, he draws to the life, but in another kind; we draw the nobler part, the soul and the mind; the pictures of the pen shall outlast those of the pencil, and even worlds themselves.”

— Aphra Behn, Oroonoko


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