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Aphra Behn, the Canterbury woman who became a spy and wrote one of the world's first novels

Born to a Kent barber in the 17th Century, Aphra Behn would go on to lead an extraordinary life.

Not only did she become a spy - she also wrote one of the world’s first novels.

Aphra Behn, by artist Sir Peter Lely in 1670
Aphra Behn, by artist Sir Peter Lely in 1670

Despite her remarkable achievements, and renown among high society during her career, she is far less well-known than her talents deserve. This would no doubt be unwelcome news for the author, who once proclaimed: “I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero.”

There are various accounts of who Aphra’s mother and father were. One version is that she was born in 1640 to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham, a wet-nurse, in the Sturry area of the Canterbury.

Despite her humble origins, she somehow acquired an impressive education, displaying a knowledge of European culture even in her earliest works.

Her mother was the wet-nurse for Colonel Thomas Colepepper, a relative of the aristocratic Sidney family. This may have been how Aphra built the connections which led to her becoming a spy.

Operating during the era of the English Civil War, Aphra was very much on the side of the royalists. Using the nickname ‘Astrea’, she was sent to the English colony of Surinam and tasked with getting close to parliamentarian William Scot - son of Thomas Scot, one of the politicians who organized the trial and execution of Charles I.

The Dutch burning English ships at Chatham in June 1667. Painting by Jan van Leyden
The Dutch burning English ships at Chatham in June 1667. Painting by Jan van Leyden

Returning to London, she is believed to have married a merchant called Johann Behn.

It is understood to have been a very short marriage, with the couple swiftly separating.

Then in 1666, Aphra was sent to gather information for the royalists from William Scot once again - this time in Antwerp.

By this point, England was at war with the Dutch. Scot was offering Dutch secrets to the English. But Aphra did not realise that Scot was in fact fooling her. He was pretending to be a double-agent and is thought to have betrayed her to the Dutch.

When Aphra returned to England she was penniless and even threatened with debtor’s prison. In order to raise some cash, she started writing for the stage - her 19 plays between 1670 and 1690 making her the most prolific dramatist of that period.

King Charles II
King Charles II

Some of her plays had a political slant which defended Charles II’s government.

Unusually for a woman of that time, Aphra was associated with free-thinking and gained further fame for penning erotic poetry.

She is believed to have struck up a relationship with John Hoyle, a bisexual lawyer with a reputation for violence.

But by 1688, Aphra was facing a range of troubles. She feared the Stuart regime she had so fervently backed could soon be toppled. And she felt herself becoming seriously unwell.

Beset by poverty and debt she began to work even more frantically. Among her output in 1688 was Oroonoko - a tragic tale of slavery and nobility with a particularly grisly ending.

Sketch of Aphra Behn by George Scharf
Sketch of Aphra Behn by George Scharf

Among several other candidates, Oroonoko has been said to be the first-ever novel written in English. It pre-dates Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe - often cited as the original novel. But at 77 pages is perhaps too short to claim the title.

After the prodigious efforts of her final few years, Aphra died on April 16, 1689, at the age of 48. She was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey.

Over the centuries she has been praised by literary figures - particularly the female authors who followed her lead.

Virginia Woolf described her as the first English woman to earn her living by writing.

She said: “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.”

*Information sourced largely from the Penguin Classics edition of Oroonoko, with introduction by Janet Todd, Professor of English at the University of Glasgow.

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