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[...] a Devil on\'t the Woman damns the Poet.
-- Aphra Behn, Preface to The Lucky Chance

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was not the first woman writer; neither was she the only
woman writer of her day. But Aphra Behn holds the singular distinction of being the
first professional woman writer in the English language. That\'s right, ladies -- Aphra
Behn was the first woman writer who did it for money.

It was a natural choice for this young woman, a recent spy for the crown and a widow
at the age of 26, to turn to selling herself (in a manner of speaking) in order to
survive.Many other women of the period did so; but instead of novels and plays, they
sold something much more fundamental and far more common. Single women,
whether spinsters or widows, often allowed themselves to be kept by rich men of the
commons and nobility alike. Mrs. Behn chose not to sell herself but her wits and
words, and was branded a whore for her efforts.

Not much is known of her origins. Most biographers seem to agree she was born Aphra Johnson in or around
1640, and that she acquired her education and her connections at court through a noble childhood friend for
whom her mother acted as a wet-nurse. She very likely traveled with her family to Surinam in her early 20s; at the
age of 26, after having been briefly married to a Mr. Behn (of which nothing is known), she went to Antwerp as a
spy for the crown. The mission was singularly unsuccessful, and she returned to England a debtor (very likely
serving a short term in prison).

When she got out, she began to write, at first "for bread," but soon she made it clear that she was writing not only
for money but for fame -- and also to fulfill what she called "my masculine part, the poet in me" -- clearly asserting
her rights as an artist despite her gender. She was not interested in modesty or in timidity, and during her career
tackled several genres with equal ease -- a feat certainly not matched by many male authors of the period.

"She was a mere harlot who danced through uncleanness and dared [the male dramatists] to
follow." -- John Doran (19th-century theatre historian)

The "Punk and Poetesse," as she was soon dubbed ("punk" meaning "prostitute"), was the single most prolific and
successful dramatist in Restoration England with the exception of John Dryden, the country\'s poet laureate. She,
like Shakespeare before her, took existing bad plays with decent plots and turned them into very good plays --
unlike Shakespeare, this work of hers was likened to "the birthing of bastards."

Not only content with writing for the theatre, she became one of the first novelists in the English language, writing a
racy epistolary roman à clef about an affair between a nobleman and his sister-in-law. Other prose works dealt
unflinchingly with issues of class, politics, gender and race in a way that was not attempted by many of her male
colleagues. She was also well known for her poetry, much of which was quite erotic (but not without humor), her
political tracts and propaganda for the Stuart monarchy, and her foreign-language translations.

Aphra Behn was an outsider and an observer from the beginning, and much of her work reflects that. She often
played with the image of the prostitute which was from the beginning associated with her -- "selling" herself as a
woman writer, but all the time insisted that the pen had no gender, that there was no topic that was not
appropriate for a woman. Many of her writings explore the question of desire -- who wants what, and why, and
what keeps them from it -- and often from the female point of view. As a professional writer, she was the only
woman of the time whose work was created and put out not only for her personal satisfaction but for the praise
and criticism (and coin) of others.

All women together ought to let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn[...], for it is she who
earned them the right to speak their minds.