Why Cafe Aphra?

I have frequently been asked the question about our name, "Why Cafe Aphra?" and so thought I probably ought to post up an explanation properly this time. We are a group of writing friends who met on a writing course organised by the wonderful Arvon Foundation up in the Scottish Highlands several years ago. We decided to keep in touch and support each other with our writing, and then thought of expanding this writing community by turning it into a blog for everyone.

So, why Cafe Aphra?
We liked the idea of a virtual cafe, a place where people can pop in for a coffee or tea and warm themselves up with some encouragement and motivation, consolation, inspiration, recognition or simply the company of other writers. Albeit in cyberspace. Many of us love the idea of having a close group of writing friends who understand you and your work but most of us do not have these wonderful folk living close by and certainly cannot arrange to meet in person for emergency coffee and cake. Life, as they say, has that rather pesky tendency to get in the way. So this is why the internet can be such a wonderful thing: it allows us to hang out together, comment on each other's writing, read each other's musings and share our successes, even when we are in different time zones and on different continents.

As for the Aphra bit, well of course that refers to Aphra Behn, the extraordinary 17th century lady and first professional female English writer. Since we were, coincidentally, a group of women writers and friends, we all felt it shocking that none of us should really know much about this important literary figure. How was she not a household name? We decided to find out some more about her and named our virtual writing community in her honour. To give you an idea, Virginia Woolf once wrote: "All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."

So does that mean this blog is just for women?

No. It may have started out more or less as a blog for women writers - mainly because all of us founding members were women - but we very quickly realised that it would be a mistake to exclude male contributors and readers from the blog. We wanted our community to be warm and inclusive, a safe and open space for writers to share their work and experiences. We did not want to be excluding people on the grounds of their gender or on any other grounds, either. So Cafe Aphra over time has become very much an equal space for men and women writers to showcase their work and comment on each other's writing. And even though we're committed to discussing and hopefully helping to overcome the obstacles and difficulties many women face in their writing, we would very much like Cafe Aphra to remain a place where all people who write feel welcome to come and drop in, irrespective of their gender or anything else.

So, who was this amazing Aphra Behn?  

Curious? Read on....

APHRA – The Inspiration: Imagine a woman who writes. She’s blazing a trail of poetry and drama and words, but she’s in debt, lacking time, scandalizing friends and society; she’s a ‘darling’ among the creative set but struggles to gain acceptance in the eyes of the wider public. Aphra Behn, writing nearly four hundred years ago, overcame each of these challenges and became the first great English female writer. Her life might have been very different from ours, but the challenges and experiences that she had around her development as a writer are not so very different from our own. 

Many of us, too, are busy women, working women; we are women with professional and familial obligations and responsibilities; we struggle to find time, we struggle to make financial ends meet; and we are women who write. None of us are big published writers, but we share an interest – even passion for writing and a desire to find a way to write within the crammed corners of our lives. We have named our community in honour of Aphra Behn’s life. We do not have publishing credentials – yet – but we are inspired by the story of Aphra Behn’s life, by her achievements, talents and integrity. And we think that Aphra would have approved of, and encouraged, our efforts.

APHRA – The Facts: Aphra Behn was born near Canterbury, England, in 1640 and grew up during the Civil War. At the age of 20 she visited an English sugar colony in Surinam, South America, where she is believed to have met the African slave leader whose story provided the outline for Oroonoko
- one of the most notable novels of the time and widely credited as the first book to describe the horrors and inhumanity of slavery. On her return to England she was sent as a spy to Antwerp and there, naturally, devised her own version of a spying code. On home territory again she was imprisoned briefly for debt before she turned to writing to support herself.

APHRA – The Scandal: In her time, critics in Restoration England were scandalised by her lively wit and sexual candour and she was criticised both for her work and for her right to do it. Notwithstanding the opposition she attracted, which came often though not exclusively from other women, she was one of the most popular novelists of the period and such an accomplished poet that there was serious talk of making her a female laureate. Her pseudonym – which was amazingly the same as her espionage identity
was Astrea Behn and it was under this name that she was buried in Westminster Abbey after her death, aged 49, in 1689. The inscription on her tomb reads: ‘Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be, Defense enough against Mortality.’

APHRA – The Writer: Aphra Behn has been described as someone who wrote for her bread, but who also cared deeply about her craft, its purpose and practice. She claimed her right to work and claimed the merit that her work deserved. Like many busy people, she wrote quickly and, as many of her contemporaries were forced to do, often in a room full of people; like many of us, she did not have "a room of her own". If she was writing today, she would probably have retreated to a cafe with her laptop or notebook, been seen in a corner of the public library, or perched with a notebook on the edge of the kitchen table.

CAFE APHRA – The Community: Surrounded by literary friends and patrons, Aphra Behn was fortunate to be grounded in a strong creative community and this forms the driving principle of Cafe Aphra. We believe that writers can support each other if provided with a forum through which to do so. Aphra Behn was the first woman who showed the world that women can write, and do write, and will write - even in the face of substantial adversity. Cafe Aphra aims to provide the space and the community to encourage, support, inspire and recognize aspiring writers because:
"The pictures of the pen shall outlast those of the pencil, and even worlds themselves."  
- Aphra Behn,Oroonoko

by Sara Roberts and Yvonne Stevenson-Robb


  1. Interesting. I'd never heard of Aphra Behn; she makes a great inspirational figure for the blog.

  2. Well absolutely! I just can't believe she isn't more widely known really... should be a household name, you would have thought, considering she was the first professional female writer in the English Language!


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