“Variety is the soul of pleasure.”
When we think of the groundbreaking women writers of their time we think of the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. We think of how they had to first publish their work incognito, either under a male name or anonymously. But we rarely wonder about those who came before them and had to overcome even more obstacles to put their work out to the world. During the restoration of the British monarchy in late seventeenth century, only 22% of women were literate. This was probably the reason why it would take a while before more female voices were heard.
“Money speaks sense in a language all nations understand.”
However, during this time, there was one woman who never hid her identity or sex and was able to make her living as a writer. There is not much information about Aphra Behn’s early life. She was at one point married to a merchant, but there’s speculation that he died soon after. Considering the circumstances, this would have led her to seek ways to survive in a highly patriarchal society where an unattached woman did not have many opportunities.
“There is no sinner like a young saint.”
While it’s not very clear what kind of espionage she did, Aphra Behn found herself in the Suriname River in Venezuela. Her travels are said to have been inspirations for her later works such as Oroonoko. Eventually she went to Antwerp as a spy for King Charles II. But she found herself running into serious debt, since she was betrayed by someone there. She returned to England, only to be placed in a debtor’s prison. It was during this time that she flourished through her poems and plays, which she continued to write until her death.
“That perfect tranquility of life, which is nowhere to be found but in retreat, a faithful friend and a good library.”
Most of Aphra Behn’s life is a mystery. There’s not enough information about her that has remained to answer questions about why she found herself in all these unusual places. However, her witty quotes continue to inspire and make us wonder more about the first woman known to have been paid to write.
“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.”
It’s likely that her work as a spy for the monarchy has made it difficult to find out more about her life. However, we can only imagine how scandalous and dangerous it would have been for a woman to have taken on this role during this time. So, in a way Behn is not only a character for being her role as a writer but also for having a life worthy of its own story.
“Love, like reputation, once fled, never returns more.”