Aphra Behn: Spy, Author, and Ashford’s First Feminist

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Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely c. 1670 (c) Yale Center for British Art

What is it with Ashford’s heritage and spying?  In February, I wrote about Ashford’s links to Ian Fleming, drawing on his experience as a secret agent, to write the James Bond novels.  And, I’m conscious I’ve yet to write about Freddie Forsyth, also mentioned in the Fleming post: another spy and famous espionage novelist, hailing from Ashford.  But, before all those blokes, there was a woman.

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Sketch of Aphra Behn by George Scharf, from a portrait believed to be lost, 1873

And what a woman … So, not a man.  Neither was she grand, nor a non-conformist.  In other words, few records about her life exist, apart from her own writings and a couple of contemporary biographies (not always to be trusted because all writers have their narrative agendas … like promoting Ashford, for example …).

Which is why I’ve decided that she was born in Ashford.  Some say Sturry, near Canterbury (where Christopher Marlowe lived: himself a playwright and spy), but the profile of her father, as a barber, and her mother, as a wet-nurse, best fits baptismal records for Wye, part of the borough of Ashford, in December 1640.

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Wye College, which was a grammar school when Aphra was a child.  It would’ve been a familiar building to her.
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A 17th century house in Wye, typical of the sort Aphra would have grown up amongst.

It is likely that her mother’s job as a wet-nurse brought her into contact with the heads of local influential, aristocratic families, such as those of Thomas Killigrew and Thomas Culpeper (sometimes Culpepper or Colepepper is described as her foster brother), setting her upon her initial career path as a spy, under the codename ‘Astraea’ (ironically, the name of the virgin Greek Goddess for innocence and purity).

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Portrait of Aphra Behn by Mary Beale [in the public domain]

She first became a political spy for Charles II in Antwerp.  Here, her role was to seduce William Scot, son of Thomas Scot: an English politician who had been charged with the regicide of Charles I and thus executed in 1660.  William had been spying for the Dutch and she hoped to make him a double agent, reporting on the activities of British exiles plotting against Charles II.  However, it seems he betrayed her to the Dutch.  She fled; but another mission soon followed, this time to Surinam, a Dutch plantation colony in the Guianas in South America.  It was on this trip that she met an African slave leader who was to form the main character for her most famous novel, Oroonoko.

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Aphra Behn

Upon her return from Surinam in 1664, there is some evidence that she may have spent a spell in debtors’ prison (Charles II was very tardy in paying his spies – and she had already pawned all her jewellery) and then married a Johan Behn.  Again, his background is obscure, but it’s probable that he was a merchant from what is now part of Austria or Germany.  It’s also unclear whether he died or they split up but, thereafter, Aphra wrote as Mrs Behn, yet lived alone, having many lovers of both sexes.  Once more, at the time, having any kind of lover outside wedlock was scandalous behaviour for a woman – at least for one who was not an aristocrat.

Having previously written and published poetry (much of it homoerotic) – she was the country’s first professional female writer – she became a scribe for the King’s Company and Duke’s Company players in newly-re-opened theatres which had been closed under Cromwell’s Protectorate.  The titles of her plays, such as The Forc’d MarriageThe Amorous Prince, and The Rover, give an indication of the bawdiness of Restoration comedy.  She was friends with the Poet Laureate, John Dryden, and Edward Ravenscroft.  In one year, she had 17 plays on in London – the most of any Restoration playwright – to Dryden’s 14.

Title page of Feignd Curtizans by Aphra Behn (wikimedia)

In later years, as fashions changed with the new Catholic King, James II, the so-called lewdness of her plays was mocked and she was criticised for writing with too ‘masculine’ a voice.  She then turned to translation, translating many French popular works into English.

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She also wrote many novels of her own, notably Oroonoko, published less than a year before she died.  It is the tale of an African Prince, tricked into slavery and sold to British colonists in Surinam.  Oroonoko meets the narrator, perhaps a thinly-veiled Behn, who relates his story of love, rebellion and, ultimately, execution.

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Aphra Behn died on 16th April, 1689, and was buried in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey.  Her tombstone inscription reads, ‘Here lies a proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality’: a pithy reminder about her awareness of the importance of life, and its absurdity.

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Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, wrote: ‘All women together ought to lay flowers upon the grave of Aphra Behn … for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’


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