Before becoming a professional writer, Aphra Behn was a professional spy for England, code-named “Astrea” or Agent 160. She was the first professional female writer in England, and for the first twenty years of her career, she was the only female playwright. It was rumored that she was James II’s mistress. However, we know very little else about her life. The Restoration, as a period, was badly documented, and the institutions that did keep records, Oxford and Cambridge, the Inns of Court and the Middle Temple, excluded women from their ranks. So our understanding of Ms. Behn’s life must depend on the writings she left behind, the voices of her characters, the repeated themes and expressions.
Perhaps as a result of her one certain activity, espionage, Ms. Behn was fascinated with the entanglement of sex and power, both in the personal and political spheres. And because this was considered an inappropriate subject for a woman, she was, for centuries after her death, simply regarded as a smutty writer. The Marquis of Halifax went so far as to blame Behn for the oppression of other women when he remarked, “The unjustifiable freedom of some of your sex have involved the rest in the penalty of being reduced.”
In recent years, however, Ms. Behn has been rediscovered by a more liberal generation of readers and performers. Her plays are now read throughout the English-speaking world and are regarded not as vulgar sexploits, but rather as legitimate and sensual explorations of gender, race and class.
It was Virginia Woolf who wrote, “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.”