Aphra Behn (1640-1689)
Aphra Behn, alleged by Vita Sackville-West to be the first women in England to earn a living as a writer, is a bit of a mystery. Little is known about her background - who her parents were and where she was born - but the details of her life that are known paint the portrait of an intriguing woman.
Aphra lived for a time in Surinam, an experienced that inspired her first novel, Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688). She was married for a short time and widowed at age 25. She secured employment as a spy for King Charles II and was sent to Belgium in this capacity. The King refused to pay her return trip, however, and after borrowing the funds to return, she was thrown into debtor's prison.
After leaving prison, Aphra worked hard to make sure she was always capable of supporting herself. She became a successful London playwright and then a novelist. She wrote poetry, feeling that this form allowed her to express her "masculine" side.
Aphra's opinions were unconventional, and because she openly expressed her viewpoints in her lifestyle and through her writing, she was seen as scandalous. Her poetry remarks on romantic relationships with both men and women, discusses rape and impotence, puts forth a woman's right to sexual pleasure, and includes scenes of eroticism between men.
As scandalous as her reputation was to some, her work was well-admired by others and she earned the nickname The Incomparable Astrea (referring to her spy codename of Astrea) from these admirers.
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