Aphra Behn is most famous as the first woman to support herself as a writer in English, but before she launched her literary career, she had a more secretive one. This episode is the story of her career as a spy.
This episode is part of the series is Women in Espionage.
The best spies may be the ones we still don’t know about. Aphra Behn was not one of those.
If you are an extremely attentive listener, you may know that I’ve mentioned her once before in episode 6.1, and that is because she is one of many possible claimants for the title of first novelist writing in English.
I chose not to cover her in that series on novelists, but I am covering her now in her other career as intelligence agent, and I will focus on that part of her life, even though, truth be told, she was far more successful as a writer.
Aphra lived in a time period that was overflowing with suspicion and thus a need for espionage. So here’s a brief recount of the relevant English history.
In 1649, the English were beyond fed up with their king Charles I, and they executed him. His son, who was also inconveniently named Charles, was on the continent. Scotland, but not England, proclaimed him king. Oliver Cromwell ruled the English Commonwealth as Lord Protector in the period known as the Interregnum. He died in 1658. His son Richard succeeded him, but Richard had basically no following and no authority, so that didn’t last long.
Parliament met and decided that Charles II had, after all, been king since 1649, they just hadn’t noticed that somehow. He entered London and was crowned in 1661 in what was known as the Restoration.
Before, during, and after all this mess, there was an enormous amount of political intrigue. Are you a royalist? Are you in favor of any one of several republican governments formed in the Interregnum? How much violence are you prepared to unleash to support your position? If you want to talk polarizing politics, this was polarizing politics, only without instant communication or social media.
Ergo, spies. And a lot of them. By this point, England had a long history of serious espionage. Queen Elizabeth I had an extensive spy network, and even has a painting of herself in a dress with eyes and ears all over it to symbolize how she knew about everything. Obviously, there had been a lot of political upheaval since her day, but the concept of the spy network had deep roots.
Women at the time were considered to be too irrational and undependable to be agents, which was exactly why they were so perfect for the job. Historian Nadine Akkerman has exhaustively documented how women of this time period were heavily involved in espionage, but often invisibly because they were less likely to be suspected, less likely to be believed, and therefore, less likely to be punished if caught (Akkerman, 4). Which is not to say they faced no punishment. Just less, in a world where both torture and the death penalty were real possibilities.
So there was Lucy Percy Hays otherwise known as Lady Carlisle, a genuine femme fatale, who inspired the Three Musketeers character Milady de Winter. If you are interested in her, the podcast Vulgar History has an episode about her. There was Lady Halkett who helped the Duke of York (later to become King James II) escape by dressing him in women’s clothes and even had the cheek to write that they “fitted his Highness very well and [he] was very pretty in it.” (Akkerman, 190, and Halkett, 22). There was Jane Lane, who dressed Charles II as her servant and counterfeited passports for them both to escape. And countless others, some of whom we know only because the treasury gave them pensions for their service. All the details about that service are still a secret.
And then there is the highly unusual life of Aphra Behn. She left a large body of writing for us, not one word of which concerns her childhood. In the later days of her fame, only one person stepped forward to claim knowing her then. If we trust his account, then she was born in Kent, around the year 1640, which meant Charles I was not yet dead. She was the daughter of a barber and a wet nurse, and maybe had the maiden name of Johnson. She would have grown up in civil war, with the regicide happening when she was about 10.
We don’t know if she went to school, but somewhere she learned to write with a clear hand. She did not learn Latin or Greek, an omission she later lamented.
By the early 1660s, Oliver Cromwell was dead, and Charles II was on the throne and Aphra was in Surinam. Probably.
For those of you who, like myself, have a few years between now and your last South American geography lesson, Surinam is an itty bitty country (then a colony) on the northern coast. Basically, there’s Colombia and then moving east there’s Venezuela, and then Guyana and then Surinam, which at this stage was an English colony with a lot of Dutch colonists and interest.
There is no absolute proof that Aphra went there. Her memoirs say she did, but the so-called memoirs were commissioned after her death (Todd, 12), and most of it is lifted from Oroonoko, the book Aphra wrote maybe as fiction. Or maybe its autobiographical fiction. Possibly.
Certainly the book has some accurate details about Surinam. Yes, she could have gotten those by talking to someone who had been there, but she didn’t bother to do that with the stories she set in Spain. Authors weren’t yet expected to do a lot of research. Biographer Janet Todd takes the view that Aphra really went, so the question is why?
Most people who went to the colonies were either wealthy men with money to invest or desperate men with nothing but their own physical labor to invest probably for someone else’s benefit, which is to say they were indentured servants or slaves. Most women who went were also in that desperate category.
Aphra was neither wealthy nor desperate. So she may have gone as a housemaid. Or as a lady’s companion to a wealthy man’s wife or mistress. Or as the mistress herself. Or as a spy.
We do know Surinam was riddled with spies (Todd, 42). Colonies had their internal politics and also they were generally cheating their European masters or at least they were suspected of cheating, which amounts to the same need for surveillance.
If this was Aphra’s role, she was probably a Royalist spy, keeping an eye on the Deputy Governor, William Byam.
The other person of note in Surinam was one William Scot, spelled variously with one or two t’s at the end. He was the son of a man who had voted to execute Charles I, which was currently a mark against him, now that the Royalist party was back in charge. Scot was accused of having played a double game in an uprising before the Restoration. And he also had ties to the Dutch, England’s number one rival of the moment. So he was an altogether unsavory and suspicious character.
Deputy Governor Byam eventually expelled a woman named Astrea. The name is of interest because that was the code name Aphra used later, both as a spy and also as a pseudonym in her literary career. And according to Byam, after her fled Celadon, later the code name for William Scot (Akkerman, 207). So if Aphra was there, and if she was a spy, and if she was using the code name Astrea at the time, then she was found out. And kicked out.
Somewhere between Surinam and England, Aphra, the single woman, became Mrs. Behn. There is no record of the marriage. There is a Johann Behn, merchant sailor, in the records. If he was the lucky man, he didn’t stay lucky long. Maybe he died. Maybe he moved on. At no point does Aphra appear to have a provider or a protector. And her later depictions of matrimony and merchant sailors are not what you’d call positive. One suspects the marriage didn’t go well.
But still, in this day and age, having a married name and the title of Mrs. gave her position, status, and respect that a single woman could never have. My sources do not say so, but I think it’s possible that Mr. Behn never existed at all. What could be easier than to invent a short marriage when you’ve been away for a few years?
According to the Memoirs, Aphra had an audience with King Charles II. And why would the daughter of a barber and a wet nurse get one of those? Unless she were an agent, with news to report.
It is not until 1666 that Mrs. Aphra Behn finally and definitely enters recorded history. It is in the form of a document issued by the office of the Secretary of State, Lord Arlington. It is called “Memorialls for Mrs. Affora” and it gives her a 14-point list of instructions (Akkerman 206).
Her job was to contact a certain William Scot, formerly in Surinam, now in Holland, and persuade him to hand over info on the Dutch for England’s benefit. She was to find out from Scot how many ships the Dutch had, how many they had lost in a recent skirmish, whether and when they would join with the French, what the private East India trading company fleet was doing, whereabouts of other merchant ships, whether the English dissidents currently hiding out in Holland would invade and if so, where they would land, and anything at all about Dutch spies in England. It’s quite a lengthy list.
All of this she was to relay in code to Arlington (Todd, 87).
Aphra was authorized to dangle both money and a potential pardon from the English government to convince William Scot that this was a good idea. In the meantime, her own expenses would be paid, and as a woman on her own, she obviously needed a job, so this was what she took.
What her cover story was is not clear, but one of her companions was a Mr. Piers, merchant sailor, which suggests maybe she was working out a deceased Mr. Behn’s affairs (Todd, 88)? Assuming there was a Mr. Behn.
Why was Aphra the one to do this? Well, it makes more sense if she really was in Surinam and knew William Scot. She could contact him far more easily than a stranger. Some have suggested they were lovers in Surinam, but if that was so, why would Arlington trust her to put England’s interest ahead of Scot’s? For there was no denying that this was a dangerous business. The Dutch government would not look fondly on selling any of their secrets. So off Aphra went, not to hostile Holland, but to neighboring and neutral Flanders, where she wrote Scot a letter and asked him to come meet her.
The speed with which she accomplished this does suggest that they knew each other already, which is one reason for thinking she really went to Surinam. At any rate, he came.
He may have come because Aphra was tall, beautiful, witty, and charming, but more likely he came because he was in debt and needed money. Either way, he answered some of her questions, and that was success number one.
But there was a major wrinkle that nobody bothered had to mention to Aphra at first. She was not the only English informer with an eye on Scot.
Thomas Corney had been an English merchant with an estate in Holland. He had previously been an agent for Lord Arlington. Scot had been one of Corney’s informers, but Corney had accepted Scot’s lies as fact. He passed them on to Arlington, whereupon Scot turned him into the Dutch government, for which Scot was handsomely paid. Corney was imprisoned for six months, tortured with the rack, and released to find that his estate had been confiscated. He was a failed spy, a failed merchant, a broken man, and all of it, all of it was William Scot’s fault. Corney was not one of those who believed in forgive and forget. He fully intended to get his revenge (Akkerman, 208).
He was no longer on Arlington’s payroll, but he wrote in reports anyway, hoping for a handout and also because he wanted to undermine the” shee-spy” as he called Aphra.
And how did he know she was a spy? Well, first because someone in her party told him, and then she confirmed it by showing him her credentials, even though point number 13 on her 14-point list was “to use all secrecy imaginable.” She doesn’t seem to have fully appreciated point number 13 (Marshall, 18).
Corney understood point number 13 all too well. That’s why he told everyone he knew about her business, which was a lot, as both he and she seemed to be able to access each other’s correspondence. That was not as unusual as you might think. Private messengers were expensive and also corruptible. Various black chambers routinely opened, copied, and resealed letters. The world just wasn’t very private.
Aphra had been given a code to use. She was to refer to herself as 160. Scot was 159. Amsterdam 26, etc. (Todd, 86). But that kind of code can’t have been too hard to figure out.
In the end Arlington must have been tearing his hair out as he received letters from both Aphra Behn and Thomas Corney, both claiming that the other was indiscreet and would ruin everything, both begging for more money so he or she alone could finish the job (Akkerman, 211).
Corney also said the whole mission was stupid. Scot had already betrayed England at least once. He was in debt so he couldn’t enter major cities where info was to be found, everyone hated him, and he couldn’t speak Dutch, so he couldn’t even eavesdrop. He strongly suggested that Scot and Aphra Behn were lovers, collaborating to swindle Arlington out of his money (Akkerman, 213).
For her part, Aphra said that Scot only came to Flanders to see her once, and he was too terrified to come again because Corney swore to kill him. Also Antwerp was really, really expensive and could she please, please have more money so she could pay off her landlord and reward Scot for the little he had so far done? He said he had more info if his pardon came through.
He also wanted her to come to Holland because that was safer for him. But the English had just burned some of the Dutch fleet in its own harbor, anti-English feeling was stratosphere-high, and Aphra wrote “I dare as well be hanged as go” (Todd, 95).
Scot did write her several letters of information, such as an estimate of how many ships had burned, and the names of a handful of Dutch agents working in England (Todd, 97).
But here we get to the most interesting bit. Aphra copied out most of these letters and sent her copies to Arlington’s office. She didn’t send the originals.
According to Aphra herself, she did this because Scot was afraid to have his own handwriting implicated if the letters were intercepted (Todd, 104), which we already know was genuinely a serious concern.
According to biographer Janet Todd, there was another reason. Scot’s information was not terribly informative. She was rewriting to make it sound more impressive than it actually was, occasionally with a comment on what English policy should be (Todd, 101, 105).
According to Mary Ann O’ Donnell, English professor, the letters from her spying mission give us “the opportunity to hear the voice of Behn unfiltered by the literary modes and personae she later adopted” (O’Donnell, 4).
But historian Nadine Akkerman has a yet different view. According to her the idea that Scot was afraid to have things in his own handwriting is ridiculous. He had already sent it in his own handwriting to get it to Aphra in the first place. That was already punishable, probably by death. Also he had not yet received either a pardon or money because Aphra had already burned through her initial advance and hadn’t yet persuaded Arlington to send more. Why should he betray the Dutch (who were paying him) for the English (who were not)?
Akkerman’s theory is that there was no reason at all for him to do this. He was a dead source. When Aphra realized this, she had a choice: admit failure or be creative. According to this theory, the rest of Aphra’s letters to Arlington were not copies, they were the initial attempts of a writer who was later very famous for her fiction. Far from being unfiltered by “literary modes and personae,” they were in fact a literary mode and personae through and through.
If that’s true, then where did she get the information? Well, unlike Scot, Aphra did speak Dutch, and she was staying in a busy inn filled with Dutch people. So a little eavesdropping, a little reading of the newspaper, a little putting two and two together was all that was really necessary to provide the kind of intel she sent (Akkerman, 215). None of it was truly earth-shattering.
Whether the letters were fiction or not, she couldn’t keep it up after Scot was arrested by the Dutch.
He disappears from the record, so possibly that arrest didn’t go well for him. Aphra was recalled home, though she had to borrow money even to get there. She had not gained much either in money or reputation, so her spying career, so far as we know, came to an end in 1666.
Just as a side note, the following year the little colony Surinam was no longer in English hands because Charles II traded it, its mines, and its sugar plantations for a little Dutch colony called New Amsterdam, now known as New York City, which had neither mines nor sugar plantations. The Dutch definitely felt they were getting the better end of that deal.
Meanwhile, Aphra started writing plays and poetry and a little prose. Before this period writers always had other income, either as landed gentry or court officials or as actors, like Shakespeare. Only now was it possible to support yourself with the pen alone, and Aphra was the first woman to do so in English. The plays were the major source of income, but in modern literary history, it’s the book Oroonoko that attracts more interest. It’s the tale of an African prince, who is tricked into slavery and sold to a master in Surinam. He leads a slave revolt, but it ultimately fails and Oroonoko is slowly dismembered in punishment. The book is not abolitionist and does not stand up to modern scrutiny in terms of proper race relations. However, it is ahead of its time in many ways: it puts a black man at the center of the story and portrays him sympathetically. It has a female narrator. It is a woman who uses a poison arrow to kill the villain of the story, evil Deputy Governor of Surinam, who just so happens to be named William Byam, who just so happens to be the real, historical governor of Surinam, who probably expelled Aphra from the colony. Just how much of this story is actually non-fiction is one of the arguments against calling it the first English novel. We really don’t know.
Aphra Behn died on April 16, 1689, a mere five days after William (a Dutchman, gasp) and Mary were crowned as joint monarchs of England.
Her plays, so popular in their own time, did not really continue to be so. The more morally uptight generations to follow found them embarrassingly bawdy and having been written by a woman didn’t help. Aphra’s own personal reputation in later life also didn’t help. Let’s just say it didn’t fall within strict Victorian standards.
In the 20th century, Virginia Woolf rediscovered Aphra Behn and said that “All women ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” (quoted in Todd, 3).
Should you wish to leave flowers, that tomb is in Westminster Abbey with the following epitaph:
“Here lies a proof that wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality”Todd, 435
Halkett, Anne. The Autobiography of Anne Lady Halkett. United Kingdom: Camden Society, 1875. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Autobiography_of_Anne_Lady_Halkett/GzAv24s79IMC?hl=en&gbpv=0. Accessed August 5, 2022.
Akkerman, Nadine. Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain. S.L., Oxford Univ Press, 2020.
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Spy Who Became England’s First Successful Female Writer.” Smithsonian, Smithsonian.com, 13 June 2017, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/spy-who-became-englands-first-successful-female-writer-180963643/. Accessed 29 July 2022.
Marshall, A. (2015) ‘“Memorialls for Mrs Affora”: Aphra Behn and the Restoration intelligence world.’ Women’s Writing, 22 (1): 13-33.
O’Donnell, Mary Ann. “Aphra Behn: The Documentary Record.” The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn, edited by Derek Hughes and Janet Todd, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 24 Nov. 2004, pp. 1–10, beckassets.blob.core.windows.net/product/readingsample/152724/9780521527200_excerpt_001.pdf. Accessed 3 Aug. 2022.
Todd, Janet. Aphra Behn : A Secret Life. London, Fentum Press, 2017.