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Canterbury’s Aphra Behn (1640-1689): Literature’s best kept secret

Sat 8th June 2024 to Sun 18th August 2024

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An exhibition exploring the dramatic life and work of this important writer.

  • Canterbury’s Aphra Behn (1640-1689): Literature’s best kept secret
Born on the edge of Canterbury in Harbledown in 1640, Aphra Johnson, the daughter of a barber and a woman serving as a wetnurse, was to become the first professional woman writer in English, Aphra Behn. 

As Aphra Behn, she became a spy and then a fantastically successful playwright, poet, translator, and fiction-writer, who was buried in Westminster Abbey. 

This exhibition celebrates the startling achievements of this daughter of Canterbury, which included two plays so loved by audiences that they were performed on the London stage every season for over 50 years and a novella, Oroonoko, the first fiction in English to centre on a rebellion of enslaved Africans. 

We trace her story, starting in a world where outspoken women might be punished, via her spying trip to Antwerp in 1666, to her glittering London career in the 1670s and 1680s. 

Despite her successes, her journey was full of challenges. As she wryly remarked in the preface to her comedy Sir Patient Fancy, in 1678, ‘The play had no other misfortune but that of coming out for a woman’s; had it been owned by a man, though the most dull, unthinking, rascally scribbler in town, it had been a most admirable play’. 

As Canterbury unveils its publicly funded statue of Aphra, come and find out about the obstacles she faced and celebrate what she achieved despite them.

Exhibition includes: 

Loans from The National Archives, The National Portrait Gallery, The National Trust, The Amelia Tunbridge Wells, Kent Libraries, Registration & Archives and the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. 

Family friendly activities inspired by Aphra Behn’s work as a playwright and spy!  Hoist the city basket up to Westgate Towers, take to the stage with costumes and props and explore  through interactive tasks in Spymaster

Teachers: Find out about our Aphra Behn schools workshop.


Special Exhibitions Room, First Floor, The Beaney

Saturday 8 June to Sunday 18 August 2024 (closed Mondays)

Free admission, £3 suggested donation

Make a donation in advance


Aphra Behn Talks

Running alongside the exhibition are a series of fascinating talks exploring Aphra Behn and the scandalous seventeenth century.

Find out more


purple logo with feather quill.Canterbury's Aphra Behn

A logo with three overlapping blue ovals creating a rounded triangular shape. The words on the right read 'Canterbury Christ Church University'



Artefacts in exhibition case The Beaney Museum

Get closer to The Beaney and immerse yourself in history, heritage, art and culture