Meet a Writer: Aphra Behn, 1640-1689

As part of our attempts to inspire you to take part in our charity fundraising anthology of poetry we’ve compiled a VERY quick introduction to one of the first women to make a living through writing, Aphra Behn – playwright, poet, and spy (yes, really). Behn has recently become something of a feminist idol because of her saucy writings that tackle themes previously considered uncouth for ladies to think about, as well as the very fact that she chose to write at all, using her mind to take control of her own life rather than relying on a man to do it for her. 

Time as a Spy

Until her later years when she became a prolific writer, Behn’s life is mostly a mystery. There have been arguments that she did it on purpose, scratching out her own past for one reason or another, perhaps to obscure her roots or even just to maintain an air of mystery. What is known is that she spent some time abroad working as a spy for the crown, and that she almost certainly never received full payment for her services. 


She wrote many which were well received in her time. Her most famous work ‘The Rover’ was a witty, bawdy Restoration play that could boast Nell Gwyn, the famous mistress of Charles II, among its cast members. Although she was able to make a living through her plays, she was never rich, and died poor.


When everybody talks about the birth of the English novel, they make a lot of noise about Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. Behn’s short novel Oronooko was however published much earlier in 1688 and has the easily recognisable linear plot and style of a novel. Despite this, it is usually excluded from the canon – the only good reAphra Behnason for this is because she was a woman, and despite her success and popularity during her own lifetime, she was quickly forgotten about by academics until the fairly recent re-discovery of her works.

Sexy Times!

Behn’s writing was notable for its racy themes. Her poetry is notable for exploring sexual themes from the perspective of both genders and, potentially, even explores same-sex love. At the very least, there is an androgynous quality to her characters and their lovers – 

To the Fair Clarinda

Fair lovely Maid, or if that Title be
Too weak, too Feminine for Nobler thee,
Permit a Name that more Approaches Truth:
And let me call thee, Lovely Charming Youth.
This last will justifie my soft complaint,
While that may serve to lessen my constraint;
And without Blushes I the Youth persue,
When so much beauteous Woman is in view.
Against thy Charms we struggle but in vain
With thy deluding Form thou giv’st us pain,
While the bright Nymph betrays us to the Swain.
In pity to our Sex sure thou wer’t sent,
That we might Love, and yet be Innocent:
For sure no Crime with thee we can commit;
Or if we shou’d – thy Form excuses it.
For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believes
A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant Leaves.

Though beauteous Wonder of a different kind,
Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis join’d;
When e’er the Manly part of thee, wou’d plead
Though tempts us with the Image of the Maid,
While we the noblest Passions do extend
The Love to Hermes, Aphrodite the Friend.

Another example of Behn’s saucy poetry, ‘The Dream’ is clearly about a very ‘specific’ type of dream…

The Dream

All trembling in my arms Aminta lay,
Defending of the bliss I strove to take;
Raising my rapture by her kind delay,
Her force so charming was and weak.
The soft resistance did betray the grant,
While I pressed on the heaven of my desires;
Her rising breasts with nimbler motions pant;
Her dying eyes assume new fires.
Now to the height of languishment she grows,
And still her looks new charms put on;
– Now the last mystery of Love she knows,
We sigh, and kiss: I waked, and all was done.

`Twas but a dream, yet by my heart I knew,
Which still was panting, part of it was true:
Oh how I strove the rest to have believed;
Ashamed and angry to be undeceived!

Pick up a Pen!

Virginia Woolf said of Behn, ‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she — shady and amorous as she was. — who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you to-night: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.’

So if you’ve been inspired by Behn’s total awesome-ness, pick up a pen and submit some poetry for a great cause, Cancer Research UK. And please like our Facebook, tell your friends, share our links, spread the word!


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