Writer, Woman, Playwright, Spy: How Espionage Influenced Aphra Behn’s Writing

Any study of Aphra Behn is really a study of shifting disguises and political guesswork. She is remembered in history as the first woman to make a living by writing in English, all the way back in the seventeenth century. Few know that she became a writer while exploring her first intriguing career: Spy for the British crown.

Fittingly for a spy, Behn was secretive and her reputed garrulity among friends did not extend to anything autobiographical for future generations to rely on. Most of what we know of her is uncertain, gleaned from the literature she left us.

Her espionage career might have begun in 1659, when she was about nineteen years old. The death of Oliver Cromwell sent the bumbling Sealed Knot secret society into a flurry of activity on behalf of the Royalist cause. Her foster-brother Sir Thomas Colepeper and his half-brother Lord Strangford were caught up in covert activities. Behn would have been able to travel to France to liaise with Lord Strangford more easily than Colepeper, who was being watched. She also may have served as a living dropbox for letters exchanged between plotters.

But true to the nature of spies and covert plots, no solid evidence of this role survives. Her presence in it is only hinted at by her relationships with others involved.

A version of Behn’s life story says that she was one of the children of John Johnson, a gentleman appointed Lieutenant General of Surinam, a short-lived English colony in what is now Suriname, South America. In this tale, Johnson died during the transatlantic voyage to his appointment, which meant his widow and his children, including young Aphra, were temporarily stranded in South America. This tale is almost certainly false though. Crucially, there is no record of a Johnson destined for a high office in Surinam, nor any Johnsons among the recorded settlers of the colony.

However, that Behn did go to Surinam in the 1660s is not in question. The descriptions of the colony in her most famous novel, Oroonoko, are too detailed for her to have gleaned them only by reading other people’s reports. In the other stories she wrote, Behn didn’t trouble herself much with research. Stories she wrote set in France and Spain are no different from stories set in England. The setting often remains a mere suggestion, but Oroonoko is different: It gives the impression of the author writing down what she heard and saw around her, lending it a reality that she clearly wasn’t achieving through meticulous research.

The setting often remains a mere suggestion, but Oroonoko is different: It gives the impression of the author writing down what she heard and saw around her, lending it a reality that she clearly wasn’t achieving through meticulous research.

It is how and why Behn ended up in Surinam that is up for debate. Her biographer, Janet Todd, argues that Behn went to Surinam as part of a spying mission for King Charles II. This would explain why, on her return to England, she had an audience with the king to “give him ‘An Account of his Affairs there,’” an incredibly unusual outcome for a young woman’s family trip to South America. Surinam was supposedly overrun with spies at the time, probably because a far-flung colonial outpost was a perfect place for any dissidents in Restoration Era England who had plans for seizing control of a colony or fomenting a revolution.

She may have been there to spy on any number of brewing conflicts. The governor of Surinam at the time, Lord Willoughby, was absent, leaving a power vacuum filled by various personalities. This was also a time of “gold, glory, and God” and various people were reporting back to King Charles II about the possibilities of any and all of these plans succeeding. Spain had already grown immensely rich from riches found in North America, but England hadn’t struck gold yet. Many were taken in by promises of El Dorado, including Behn, who would find herself disappointed that Charles II was already tired of the empty promises of the mythical city.

Behn was profoundly impacted by her trip to Surinam. Though she did have a mission to complete, with few friends and more time on her hands than usual, she began writing. Possibly she was already considering plays or translations as sources of income in case she could no longer engage in spy craft due to age, shifting political tides, or notoriety. She also had connections to the theater world back in England, and may have already been considering how to further insert herself in those circles. Interestingly, she does not seem to have been considering marriage as part of her future at all at this stage, though it would have been the thing to do for a woman her age in Restoration society.

She found much inspiration in the social mobility colonists found in the Americas, especially Virginia, where transported criminals found themselves impossibly rich from tobacco and beaver hunting. Behn hated this sort of class mobility and frequently lampooned it in her work for the rest of her life.

She also made time to meet the Indigenous population living near the English colony. Like many European colonists of her time, she found in the Surinamese a sort of pastoral innocence, and she carefully recorded her exchange of her garters for a set of feathers which she took with her back to England. Her work often reflected a paternalistic attitude toward any person of color.

An avid reader, especially of pastoral romances like the works of dramatist Gauthier de Costes, seigneur de la Calprenède’s, Behn tended to see her own surroundings through that lens. When she transposed the reality of Surinam back into fiction, the very real political dramas took on the pastoral lens of the fiction she enjoyed.

While in Surinam, she probably wrote her play The Young King, a tragicomedy of heroic lovers in Arcadian pastoral settings. It was written with an eye toward pleasing Charles II–he was known to love Spanish-style drama. Though the play wasn’t staged for at least fifteen years after her return to England, she never seems to have edited it–it retains youthful criticisms of power and privilege that she refused to engage in again later in life.

Female spies were—and continue to be—positioned as fetishes and commodities, constantly sexualized and reduced to a roadblock to be overcome by the dominant male spy.

While Behn was in Surinam, she almost certainly met William Scot, the exiled son of an executed republican. His father Thomas Scot had been a member of the House of Commons and instrumental in the trial and execution of Charles I. William also had political aspirations, and though he probably would have been safer somewhere further from English society, he was in Surinam, probably making deals and trying to find his way back into political influence.

Rumor had it at the time that Behn and Scot were having an affair. He was married with a child, though living apart from them. The affair was remarked upon by their contemporaries in letters home, though Behn’s given name is Astrea, taken from the seventeenth-century French pastoral romance L’Astrée by Honoré d’Urfé. She later adopted the name as her pen name; she may have already been using it as a pseudonym in Surinam.

The immensely long novel centers on a fictionalized pastoral idyll in France during the fifth century, where a young shepherdess and shepherd—Astrée and Celadon—fall in love. Celadon is a perfect lover, but Astrée is “a curious combination of vanity, caprice and virtue; of an imperious, suspicious and jealous nature, she is not at all the ideal creature of older pastorals.” It makes sense that Behn would choose such a codename. She would challenge many of the “superficial associations of such a name” throughout her life, and though a lot of her writing relied on pastoral imagery and tropes, she often challenged those as well.

Behn returned to England in 1665. She gave her report of English affairs in Surinam to Charles II. What she was up to for the next year is unclear, though we know that she kept up with the ongoing dramas of the colony through the pamphlets that were published about it.

Some of these intrigues found their way into Oroonoko, her novel published in 1688. The failed rebellion of the eponymous enslaved prince, Oronooko, was foretold in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Surinam’s Governor Lord Willoughby. The would-be assassin, the troublesome Thomas Allin, was someone Behn may have reported on during her time there. He died by suicide rather than be executed for his attempt; her protagonist was executed instead.

She must have made inroads in the political and theatrical spheres, because in 1666, Thomas Killigrew sent Behn to the Netherlands as a spy. Killigrew was the dramatist heading up the King’s Company troupe and secretly working in intelligence for the King. This was during the darkest point of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, so Behn probably only landed this precarious role because she had done good enough work in Surinam.

Her mission on behalf of the English king was to meet with her old flame William Scot, who now claimed to have information for the Royalists about a Dutch-sponsored uprising in England. She was to assess what information he had and whether it was worth anything. Killigrew knew of their romance in Surinam and was happy to exploit it for the king’s gain.

Behn was ill-equipped for this dangerous mission. Though adept at role-playing, she was somewhat naive. She was a bad judge of character and more easily fooled by false sincerity than someone undertaking a third espionage mission should have been. She was also quite talkative and would never be remembered as discreet.

Unsurprisingly, she was not successful. Scot was hard to deal with, and Behn didn’t have the resources to succeed even if he had been helpful. They both asked for too much from their spymasters and received nearly nothing. It was a plight shared by all Royalist agents taking risks for the Crown. Behn returned to London in May 1667, having had the good fortune of missing the catastrophic Great Fire of London the year before, but with little else to show from her trip.

Writing became an urgent necessity after her return from the Netherlands. Charles II was infamously stingy with payments to his spies, often simply not paying them at all. Behn’s stay in Antwerp had left her in immense debt, and she spent time in a London debtor’s prison before being released with a patron’s help. She had good handwriting, so she began copying manuscripts for fast money before looking toward the theater for her next adventure.

On September 20, 1670, Behn had her theatrical debut: her play, The Forc’d Marriage, was staged by the Duke’s Company. Like many of her works, it was a tragicomedy that ends in two noblemen marrying commoners against their parents’ directives, a scandalous concept at the time. She would return to the concept of escaping a bad marriage numerous times in her work; her biographer Janet Todd assumes the repeating theme was inspired by Behn’s own bad luck in love.

The women in Behn’s stories often live bleak lives, even when they’re removed to pastoral idylls. They are forced to manipulate and negotiate through places where men have all the power. Behn led a similar life working in the theater; calling her a whore would have been only a slightly lower insult than calling her a poetess at the time.

Yet, it was threatening to men that this female writer was so popular. In an essay, Rutgers University professor Elin Diamond writes,

The conflict between (as she puts it) her “defenceless” woman’s body and her “masculine part” is staged in her insistence, in play after play, on the equation between female body and fetish, fetish and commodity….Like the actress, the woman dramatist is sexualized, circulated, denied a subject position in a theatre hierarchy.

Similarly, female spies were—and continue to be—positioned as fetishes and commodities, constantly sexualized and reduced to a roadblock to be overcome by the dominant male spy. Behn’s experience in both worlds would have led her to navigate them as only she could–an independent agent set on getting what was hers.


Unruly Figures: Twenty Tales of Rebels, Rulebreakers, and Revolutionaries You've (Probably) Never Heard of - Clark, Valorie Castellanos

Unruly Figures by Valorie Castellanos Clark is available via Princeton University Press.

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