Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Aphra Behn ~ Audacious Playwright and Spy for King Charles II

by Diane Scott Lewis

Though the seventeenth century is not my usual area of study, in my continued search for early feminists, to satisfy the naysayers who insist that women never sought rights before the twentieth century, I came across an interesting subject—the first English professional female literary writer.

Aphra Behn (nee Johnson) was born in 1640, presumably near Canterbury. Little is known about her early life or education. Her father might have been a barber, yet Mr. Johnson was purported to be related to Francis, Lord Willoughby who commissioned him as lieutenant general of Surinam in 1663. Aphra may have traveled with him to Surinam where she met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, Oroonoko. Her father died soon after, and she returned to England. All this is still conjecture.

Though no records survive, she supposedly married a Mr. Behn in 1664, who conveniently died in 1665. However, it’s been suggested that she never married at all and took on the guise of a Mrs. for propriety’s sake.

She apparently had a Catholic upbringing—she once commented she was meant to be a nun—and had numerous Catholic connections, during a time of extreme anti-Catholic sentiments. She was a monarchist and held a deep sympathy for the Stuarts, and was dedicated to the restored King Charles II.

Charles II
In 1666, Aphra became attached to the court, possibly through the influence of Thomas Culpepper. After the Second Anglo-Dutch War broke out between England and the Netherlands, she was recruited as a political spy (66-67). She was to establish an intimacy with a regicide’s son, and report on the doings of English exiles who plotted against the King.

Her code name was Astrea, a name under which she later published several writings. But the King was notoriously late in paying her, and she served a stint in debtor’s prison. By 1669 an undisclosed source paid her debts and she was released from prison.

After that, Aphra seems to have given up on espionage. To earn money, she began to work for the theatre, the King’s Company, as a scribe. Poetry was her forte by this time, and she cultivated the friendships of many poets as well as playwrights. Her first performed play, The Forc’d Marriage, was produced in 1670. The play was a popular and financial success. This was followed by The Amorous Prince in 1671. In her works, she ranted against women being forced to marry. She also used her increasingly comedic plays to lampoon the Whig-controlled parliament, especially for denying the King funds.

In 1677, her most successful play, The Rover, was produced. Nell Gwyn, famed actress and mistress to the King, came out of retirement to play the lead.

Aphra’s plays became more and more sexually risqué, and she was accused of being a libertine. This perception was reinforced by her friendship with the Earl of Rochester who was infamous for his sexual escapades.

Her success in the theatre incited envy, and a woman in a traditionally male profession was vulnerable to attack. But Aphra continued writing. Her plays were generally popular, but her contemporaries criticized her for their rampant sexual content. Alexander Pope wrote of her:

The stage how loosely does Astræea tread,
Who fairly puts all characters to bed.

Her play, Like Father, Like Son, written in 1682, was a huge flop. The manuscript no longer survives, but Aphra was arrested for a libelous prologue. She was soon released. When the Company where she worked merged with another, playwriting grew non-profitable for her. She now turned to other forms of writing.

Her first book of poetry, Poems Upon Several Occasions, was published in 1684. She also published in 1684 Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, a Roman à clef  loosely based on a contemporary affair, and she became a pioneer of the epistolary novel. Both works were enormously popular.

Charles II died in 1685 and was succeeded to the throne by his brother, the Duke of York, as James II. Aphra wrote a few plays after this, but in 1688 she penned the short novel for which she is chiefly known: Oroonoko, the story of a noble slave and his tragic love. It was the first English work in print to express sympathy for slaves—and it became an instant success.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 dethroned James II, the king Aphra supported. By this time she was quite ill. Her own descriptions of her malady, and cruel contemporaries’ vilifications, suggest she had severe rheumatoid arthritis.

She died on April 16, 1689, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, where her stone still rests today in Poets' Corner — a huge honor for a woman playwright in the late seventeenth-century.  

The first person ever to earn a living completely from her writing, Aphra Behn defied the system despite controversy, and lived a life outside the expected boundaries.

My newest release is a romantic satire/farce that features a spitfire heroine who defies the limitations of the eighteenth century: The Defiant Lady Pencavel.

For more strong fictional women of the past, visit my website to check out my novels:


O'Donnell, Mary Ann. "Aphra Behn: The Documentary Record."
The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
Blashfield, E. W. "Aphra Behn." Portraits and Backgrounds. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1917.
Salzman, Paul. "Chronology." Aphra Behn. Oxford University Press, 1994.


  1. She was an amazing woman. I discovered her while researching my children's book on spies. She wrote a lot more than Oliver Goldsmith, but he was a man, wasn't he, so he's the one we hear of most often.

  2. Those interested in Aphra might like Liz Duffy Adam's recent stage play, "Or", which opens with Aphra in debtor's prison, and follows her adventures and misadventures. Not strictly true to the scant historical record as we know it, but getting this fascinating woman more well known is a worthy end in its own. Thank you, Diane for picking up the thread for us!


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