” All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
~~ Virginia Woolf ~~
And who is Aphra Behn?
She was a poet, playwrite, translator, spy, Restoration Royalist, no mean wit, and a scarlet woman in a world of men, who was the first woman in England to openly declare herself a professional writer; which means she wrote for the money on any subject she was paid for.
Yet even now, we have a name, a profession and times and dates, but next to nothing about the woman herself: as a woman, she was excluded from all sorts of institutions which men with less than a thimble full of her intellect and talent sauntered into as of right; which means that historians are almost bereft of the avalanche of information which they would have suffocated under had she gone to Oxford, Cambridge, the Inns of Court or the Middle Temple like her male counterparts. She didn`t keep a diary, or write copious letters self aggrandising herself which would have helped in biographical recovery.
However, she was born in England, and undertook spying missions for Charles II, in Antwerp, after which she returned to London and began to make her way by scribbling plays which eventually began to reflect the populist political concerns of the day. She rode the high wave of public hysteria over all manner of mob led prejudice and ignorance, against any unfortunate sections of society which were seen as the big threat of the day to the sanctity of the English way of life.
But as the popular appetite for over wrought drama decreased during the 1680`s, she began to turn her talents towards prose fiction, poetry and translations. Her social importance lies far more in who she was, and what she did, than in any great body of work she may have left us; her ambiguity and shadowy background means that she has found herself co-opted into all manner of political agendas, as a kind of one size fits all women`s suffrage pioneer. The lack of reliable information has meant that later biographers and admirers have been able to construct their own vision of Aphra Behn to their heart`s content.
” Money speaks sense in a language all nations understand.”
She wasn`t doing the work for pleasure or for any great political cause to release women from the yoke of age long male domination, she was doing it for the money to keep her head above water; otherwise, as a woman of lowly birth, there were few avenues to pursue apart from domestic servitude, ensnaring a wealthy husband, or the growth industry of the age – prostitution. Aphra had a talent for the written word, and simply went out there, pushed her way through the crowd and made it pay.
When Aphra died in 1689, her reputation was so considerable, she found herself planted in the burial plot of the nation`s great and good, Westminster Abbey, and it is there that the awesome genius, Virginia Woolf would quietly place her flowers upon Aphra`a grave marker in silent contemplation of the woman who meant so much to her. Aphra probably didn`t have any conscious agenda to further female emancipation, but Virginia knew that she was important in the furtherance of enabling women to speak their minds and be heard above the prejudicial din of the patriarchal society she lived in. It was trial by combat for women like Aphra; they either fought and won on their own terms, or would lose their voice forever. Virginia knew this, and recognised the debt she, and all women owed to Aphra Behn as the first professional writer: it`s not what she wrote that is important to Virginia Woolf, but the fact she wrote as a professional in clear and open competition with men.
Any biography is going to say more about the biographer than the elusive Behn, because her writing style is always shown from the opinions of a character or narrator, and not the woman herself; but it cannot be over stated that in many ways, the race for the universal emancipation of women from the yolk of female servitude, starts with Aphra Behn shooting out from the starting blocks along that serpentine straight to the 21st century.