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‘All women ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds,’ said Virginia Woolf.18 Indeed, Behn was the first professional woman playwright who made a regular income from writing for the theatre, ‘forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it,’ as she says in her Address to the Reader in Sir Patient Fancy. Whether she was in fact able to support herself by writing is questionable, though. She may also have worked as a hack, as an amanuensis, or as a prostitute, or she may have been a kept mistress. However, as a woman who had written 19 plays and openly aspired to fame and immortality, like all her male peers, her position was utterly different from that of a Frances Boothby or Elizabeth Polwhele, or any other young woman producing the odd play, who could be regarded as a curiosity, but not as a serious rival. Behn was one of the most prolific playwrights of her time, second only to Dryden in the number of plays she wrote. If one considers that by that time very few writers, male or female, had made a regular profession of writing and that most contemporary successful male dramatists were either from the aristocracy or well connected, and had received an education at university or the Inns of Court, the pretensions of this woman must have seemed extravagant.
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