It may seem amazing to us nowadays that one of the first female novelists – who came from what is deemed a period of such enlightenment, cultural change and shifting boundaries – is still relatively unknown, even despite her hugely fascinating life. Aphra Benn was one of the first women to earn a living by the pen and, although she was eulogised in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, history seems to have ‘conveniently’ forgotten her.
In terms of literary achievements, Behn was radically progressive: her most famous novel Oroonoko explored the complex concepts of colonialism, gender, race, and slavery in a manner that none of her predecessors had dared to do. Predominantly a playwright, she pushed cultural boundaries: writing of adultery, passionate encounters and corruption within her plays, daring to venture more than once into the realm of controversy in order to be taken seriously as a writer. In her prose, Behn tentatively touches on homosexuality and polygamy, highly radical concepts that failed to garner the reputation that she deserves as a one-woman revolution fighting to make herself known during the Enlightenment.
It’s not only her work that was revolutionary; Behn became a spy for Charles II during the Second Anglo-Dutch war. She used her sexuality to form romantic relationships with Dutch spies with the aim of turning them into double agents. Despite the abject poverty she was subjected to later in life, she continued to write voraciously – a woman who wrote because she had to (despite struggling to even hold a pen in her last few years). Behn claimed that she had led a life “dedicated to pleasure and poetry” and there appears to be no disputing that; she led a life full of radicalism and excitement. Her works are peppered with acrid wit, biting satire and famously progressive concepts. It’s clear that Behn was a woman before her time and I for one propose that now is the perfect time to bring her back to life.
Words by Beth Chaplow