See also Allison, Dorothy.
The first professional woman writer in England, Aphra Behn was a member of the middle class, a widow who turned to writing out of financial necessity when other female writers were aristocrats. The facts of her early life are uncertain. Born in 1640 in Kent, Behn spent time in the West Indies during her youth, traveling there with her family when her father was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Surinam. In 1664, she returned to England and was married briefly to a London merchant named Behn, of either Dutch or German background. When her husband died shortly thereafter, probably in the Great Plague of 1665, Behn was thrown upon her own devices. She entered the intelligence service of King Charles II but was never sufficiently paid for her work. In 1668, she was committed to debtors' prison.
This experience led Behn to take an unprecedented step for a woman: She began to write for money. The English theater had reopened in 1660, with women permitted to perform on stage for the first time. Behn created strong, autonomous roles for women, presenting them as complex characters rather than as flat creatures. In 1670, her first play, The Forc'd Marriage, was produced on the London stage, launching her on an enormously prolific career as a professional playwright in the 1670s and 1680s. Her plays include The Rover (1677), a protofeminist comedy still performed in repertory today, Sir Patient Fancy (1678), The Roundheads (1681), and The City Heiress (1682).
In addition to plays, Behn also composed poetry, some of a frankly erotic nature. In Restoration literary circles, the moral license afforded male writers did not extend to women, and Behn's subject matters created a scandal. Attacked by contemporaries for her literary and sexual daring, she defended herself in the preface to her play The Lucky Chance (1686):
All I ask, is the priviledge for my masculine part the poet in me...to tread those successful paths my predecessors have so long thriv'd in, to take those measures that both the ancient and modern writers have set me.... If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves: I lay down my quill, and you shall hear no more of me.