Aphra Behn- The First Female Writer

Aphra Behn- The First Female Writer

Aphra Behn- The First Female Writer

-By Shruti Menon

Many a time when we talk about great historical figures, we fail to notice that the names we take are all those of men. We know that it’s not because women didn’t exist back then, of course, but it is because they were not given much importance as thinking human beings with autonomy. Due to this, many women did not have access to the same institutions and opportunities as men, and if they did try to be visible in the public sphere, the patriarchy would silence them. This seems to have happened in the retelling of history as well, and many a time we don’t give women the credit we give male revolutionaries. So it’s important to take a step back and examine our perception of our history.

Aphra Behn, an English playwright, poet, translator and fiction writer from the 17th century was one of these revolutionary women. She was the first woman to earn a living through writing. Not much is known of her early life, and it is believed that she intentionally covered this up. Behn seemed to like masking her identity as she did it in various ways— obscuring details of her early life, and by taking on many alternative pen names, all variations of her own.

Behn was later employed as a spy for King Charles II in Antwerp, but the cost of living abroad was so high that when she came back, she was steeped in debt. She was not paid for her work abroad and coming back, it is believed that she was put in debt prison. Up till this point, Behn had written only poetry, but now she began to write for sustenance. She worked for theatre companies as a scribe, and soon became a notable playwright with works like The Forc’d Marriage and The Rover — she prospered writing comedies. She was in social circles of many other intellectuals at the time and also wrote a lot of political commentaries.

In all, she would write and stage 19 plays, contribute to more, and during the 1670s and 1680s, she was one of the most produced playwrights in Britain, second only to Poet Laureate John Dryden. She wrote ferociously till her last years, ridden by poverty and sickness.

Trailblazers like Aphra often remain unforgotten due to a patriarchal insistence on the superiority of men, however, these women were just as prominent. Their work is even more impressive because, considering the time they lived in, mere talent wasn’t enough for their voices to be heard, it was their grit, persistence, and assertive self-belief that made people refrain from dismissing them. It is important that we understand and honor those struggles in this day and age, and vow to never let society become as deaf to women as it used to be.