On this day in 1640, Aphra Behn is baptized at Harbledown, near Canterbury, England. A successful playwright and novelist, Behn has been called the first Englishwoman to make her living as a writer.
Behn’s origins are unclear, but historians believe she was probably the daughter of Bartholomew Johnson and Elizabeth Denham of Harbledown. She appears to have lived in Surinam, then an English colony known as Dutch Guiana, for several years as a young woman. In the mid-1660s, she married a merchant by the last name of Behn in England who died several years later.
After her husband’s death, Behn allegedly served as a secret agent in the Netherlands for Charles II of England but was not paid for her services, and was put in prison for debt when she returned to England. She began writing to support herself, and her first play, The Forced Marriage, was produced in 1671 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields by the Duke’s Company. The play was a hit, and Behn wrote many more successful comedies, of which 17 survive. Her most popular work, The Rover, was produced in two parts, in 1677 and 1681. She also wrote poetry prolifically. Her novel Orinooko (1688) told the story of an enslaved African prince.
Behn, a lively and charming woman, became very popular among her many friends. Although one of her plays irritated the Duke of Monmouth, the king’s illegitimate son, enough to land Behn in jail briefly, she continued to write lively, satiric plays and poetry until her death in 1689. She was the first woman to be buried in Westminster Abbey in recognition of her own achievements.