e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

The first professional woman writer in England

I have a wonderful book – Poem for the Day edited by Nicholas Albery. Not only does it give a poem for each day of the year (plus leap year), but also a whole collection of poetry-related snippets.

Today is the anniversary of the death of Aphra Behn (1640 to 16th April 1689). What a lady! In a relatively short life, by modern standards, she fitted in travel, marriage, widowhood, work as a spy and a stint in debtors’ prison, as well as writing plays, novels and poems. She was one of the first women to earn enough by writing to support herself. She was sympathetic to Catholics (at a time when Catholics were seriously unpopular), and was one of the first to write against the horrors of slavery.

She was no saint and has had plenty of criticism in her day and since. But her fame lives on – both for her writing and her feminism. Virginia Woolf wrote of her:

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.

Like many other famous spies, there are mysterious gaps in her biography. These have allowed later authors to invent incidents and include her in their stories. She even appears in the science fiction series Riverworld by Jose Phillip Farmer.

Most of her poems are about love. Love Armed, below, is one of the shorter ones.

Love Armed

Love in fantastic triumph sate
Whilst bleeding hearts around him flow’d,
For whom fresh pains he did create
And strange tyrannic power he show’d:
From thy bright eyes he took his fires,
Which round about in sport he hurl’d;
But ’twas from mine he took desires
Enough t’ undo the amorous world.

From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his pride and cruelty;
From me his languishments and fears,
And every killing dart from thee.
Thus thou and I the god have arm’d
And set him up a deity;
But my poor heart alone is harm’d,
Whilst thine the victor is, and free!


Single Post Navigation

9 thoughts on “The first professional woman writer in England

  1. I haven’t read Aphra Behn since my undergrad years almost fifteen years ago, but I keep meaning to, and I always forget about her literary contributions until you and Virginia Woolf keep reminding me. I’d no idea she was a spy. Must look into that. Sounds intriguing. Thanks for celebrating her life and work!


    • Thank you for your comment. I hope that one day someone will do a study of feminism and spying. There’s plenty of material. It seems spying was one of the few careers open to women in the past.


  2. Ruth Nestvold on said:

    I just added my own memorial to my blog:


    Thanks again for the reminder!


  3. Pingback: Aphra Behn: Dec. 1640 (?) – April 16, 1689 | Ruth Nestvold – What’s New

  4. Ruth Nestvold on said:

    Thanks for visiting my blog and reminding me of the anniversary! I will have to post again today to commemorate it. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: