Aphra Johnson was born near Canterbury in 1640, and baptised on 14 December of that year. She is thought to have spent some of her youth in Dutch Guiana in the West Indies. In 1664, she married Johan Behn a merchant of Dutch or German parentage, but the marriage is not thought to have lasted very long. She is known to have acted as a British spy in Antwerp in 1666. Imprisonment for debt led her to write for an income.
Behn wrote a series of successful plays. Her first, 'The Forc'd Marriage' was produced in 1671. 'The Rover' (1681), her most successful, was produced in two parts and included in its cast Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II. Among Behn's sources was the Italian commedia dell'arte (improvised comedy), which she used in her farce 'The Emperor of the Moon' (1687), forerunner of the modern-day pantomime.
Behn's novel 'Oroonoko' (1688) was the story of an enslaved African prince and is now considered a foundation stone in the development of the English novel. As well as plays and prose Behn wrote poetry and translated works from French and Latin. In her time she was a celebrity, unusual for her independence as a professional writer and her concern for equality between the sexes.
Behn died on 16 April 1689 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.