Did you know Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719) is considered to be the first novel written in English?
Did you know there is another contender to that title written by a woman?
Oroonoko was published in 1688 by Aphra Behn.
Born: 1640, Canterbury, England
Died: 1689, London, England
Writer: Novelist, poet, playwright
Being a woman of the 17th century, not much is known about Behn’s life that can inform her work and its intentions. One interesting fact is that she was thought to be a spy for Charles II in 1665 during the Second English-Dutch War. Afterwards, she started writing plays and poetry that would be feminist my today’s standards. It explored themes of female sexuality and male sexual dysfunction.
Oroonoko is also brave in its anti-slavery sentiment, our protagonist being neither white nor English. It is thought she did visit the novel’s setting of Surinam, South America (an English colony at the time).
We may not know about it today because it wasn’t enjoyed in the 18th century as much as it was in the 17th century due to the violent scenes included in the novel. Later centuries didn’t have better views of her bold themes. It wasn’t the virtue they expected from a woman. Of course, there’s the fact that Behn is a woman and that doesn’t help novels receive widespread acclaim. Women’s fiction is more often that not dismissed as a lower standard of literary technique. But it can’t be dismissed that Behn was one of the first women to make money as a writer.
Aphra Behn is a feminist icon, writing about female pleasure and people of colour in 17th century.
I will end with a quote from A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf:
“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”