3. Aphra Behn was a playwright, poet, a spy and a feminist who refused to marry and so compromise her principles
Almost nothing is known of Aphra Behn’s life, only her work. Nevertheless, at the start of the 20th century, she was heralded as one of the most important early feminists in British history. Indeed, for the members of the famous Bloomsbury Group of bohemians, Behn was a true pioneer. Despite living in the male-dominated 17th century, she enjoyed a successful career as a woman of letters. In fact, she’s regarded as the world’s first professional female writer.
Born in 1640, she somehow (historians can’t agree on the details) made it into the court of King Charles II. Incredibly, before embarking on her literary career, she served as a royal spy, undertaking espionage missions in Belgium and perhaps even Suriname. By the 1660s, she was back in London and making a name for herself as a writer. Despite not having a university education – women weren’t allowed in Oxford or Cambridge at this time – she was a successful poet and playwright. Most notably, she marketed herself as a professional, earning an honest living from her craft.
For a long time, Behn was condemned as a ‘scarlet woman’, of loose morals. To her critics, she aped the bad behaviour of men and was ‘unfeminine’. In the last century, however, her reputation was restored. Virginia Woolf and her contemporaries celebrated her as an early feminist. They cited Behn’s later years, when she lived in obscure poverty, as proof that she never compromised on her ideals or independence. Rather than taking a male sponsor, or even a lover to support herself, she chose to go it alone as a writer, even if it meant financial ruin.