Aphra Behn: The Unsuccessful Spy

As cliché as it may be, sometimes things do fall into place. While we all try to find our purpose in life, we’ll make mistakes and have experiences that will change us forever. This might come across as superficial blathering (believe me, it feels like that writing it), but we all have our own niche. No one found this life lesson more apt than Aphra Behn.

Mystery shrouds Behn’s childhood. We don’t have an exact date of birth although her baptism dates to 14 December 1640. No one knows for sure who her parents were. One story states they were John and Amy Amis, another is she was born into the Cooper family. The contemporary biography “The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn” (1696) writes that her parents were Bartholomew Johnson and Elizabeth Denham. Colonel Thomas Colepeper further supports this. He claimed to know Behn from a young age and said her father was a Mr. Johnson. As Elizabeth Denham was a wet-nurse to the Colepeper family, it is likely this was where Behn learned how to read and write.

Regardless, she knew a Mr. Johnson, as she traveled with him and his family to the English colony of Surinam in the early 1660s after he was appointed a military position. Sadly, Johnson died after arriving in Surinam, although his family and Behn would stay on for a little longer. The short time Behn spent in Surinam would inspire her, as later on she would write her most famous work, Oroonoko, the story of a slave who leads a revolt in the colony.

aphrabehn002It’s likely Behn only stayed on in Surinam to save money for a return trip home, as she returned to England in 1664. Soon after she married Johan Behn, a Dutch merchant. Johan’s wealth and connections gave Aphra a taste of the elite. A witty and outgoing woman, Aphra soon forged connections with the wealthy and powerful—including King Charles II. However, Johan Behn soon disappeared from Aphra’s life. Historians have discussed multiple theories, such as that he died in the Great Plague of 1665 or the couple simply separated. Aphra would carry on using “Mrs. Behn” as her professional name.

That same year, England had began a war with the Dutch. Charles II used Behn as a spy because of her brief knowledge of the Dutch language and customs. She received the code-name “Astrea” and went to Antwerp. In the Netherlands, her government gave her the task of recruiting Thomas Scot, the son of a regicide, as a double agent. Many anti-monarchist exiles were living in the Netherlands. The English feared they might plot with the Dutch against Charles II. Upon arriving in Antwerp, Behn received a nasty shock. She was unprepared for the high cost of living and had taken very little money with her. Behn wrote to Charles II asking for more money to fund her mission. While waiting for funds to arrive, she pawned her jewelry to support herself.

Despite her hardship, Behn successfully uncovered plots set by the Dutch. She informed Charles II about a plan by the Dutch to sail up the Thames and destroy the English fleet. Behn received no money from Charles II. Either the funds were lost or Charles never paid for her services for the year she spent in Antwerp. To make matters worse, it was likely Thomas Scot had informed the Dutch of Behn’s mission.

To get back to England in haste, she had to borrow money. Even though she arrived in London safely, she was now in debt. With no husband and still no money from Charles II, she couldn’t pay off the debt. They issued a warrant for her arrest. Behn’s history often includes that she spent a brief time inside a debtors’ prison, though there is, like much of Behn’s life, little evidence to support it. Regardless, Behn decided to never rely on others again. After this brief ordeal, both the Kings Company and the Dukes Company theatre groups hired her as a scribe.

aphrabehn003A few years later in 1670, Behn staged her first play “The Forc’d Marriage.” From the 1670s to 1680s she wrote and staged 19 plays. Behn often authored her work under “Mrs. Behn” or her onetime code-name “Astrea.” Her popular comedies ensured that Behn became one of the most successful playwrights in England. She was one of the first Englishwomen to earn a living solely through writing. One biographer acknowledged this, noting that “Mrs. Behn wrote for a livelihood. Playwriting was her refuge from starvation and a debtor’s prison.” When the theatre declined in popularity by the 1680s, Behn turned her attention to writing novels. Alongside translations of other people’s works, she wrote her own stories. A year before her death, she published Oroonoko, twenty years after her journey to Surinam. The novel became a great success and as abolitionism gained momentum, many celebrated Oroonoko as the first anti-slavery novel.

Aphra Behn died on 16th April 1689. They buried her in Westminster Abbey. While Behn was no James Bond, she left behind a legacy far greater than had she remained a spy. In 1929, Virginia Woolf would later declare in the iconic “A Room Of One’s Own”;

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.”

Through her writing, Aphra Behn proved that a woman regardless of background could succeed if given the opportunity to educate herself. While Behn’s connections educated her, her skills and other of other educated women proved women are intellectually equal to men. Likewise, through her first-hand experiences in Surinam, Behn could write a novel which sowed the seeds of the abolitionist movement. All of this from a woman lucky enough to receive an education, who fell into writing when she was at rock bottom. Sometimes life does find a way.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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