The Passionate Shepherdess: The Life of Aphra Behn 1649-1680 by Maureen Duffy
The barest facts of Aphra Behn's life are astonishing in themselves. Born in 1640 she had by her mid-twenties, travelled to South America, returned to England, been married and widowed. She was sent by Charles II to Antwerp as a spy, then on her return was imprisoned for debt. Once out of prison she chose to stay independent; and moved on to become one of the most successful dramatists of the Restoration theatre, author of one of the most popular novels of the period, "Oroonoko", and a poet of such reputation that men at the time were moved to consider seriously the possibility of a 'female laureate'. Yet Aphra Behn's personal and literary achievements have suffered an eclipse unparalleled in literary history. Her lively wit and sexual candour provided an easy target for the prudish scorn and criticism of late 17th-century England. She had asserted her position - second perhaps to Dryden - among 'the giants of wit and sense' in her age, as Defoe was to say later; but subsequent critics were to pass off her work as 'a reproach to her womanhood and a disgrace even to the licentious age in which she lived.' With scrupulous care Maureen Duffy has lifted the tarnished image of Aphra Behn from the muddle of sensational legend that has for too long obscured her true achievement - as an artist and as the pioneer who opened up the whole field of literature to women.