Listen to this story:

Brought to you by Curio

The Royal Spy Who Became the Feminist Answer to Shakespeare

Aphra Behn was the first English woman in history to work as a professional writer. The only thing more colorful than her boundary-pushing stories was her own secretive life.

The Royal Spy Who Became the Feminist Answer to Shakespeare

In 1695, theater audiences in Britain were riveted by the debut of a tale about two star-crossed lovers. After a bloody two-year war, Prince Oroonoko went to pay his respects to Imoinda, the daughter of a general who had died during the war. He brought slaves with him as a gift for the deceased general’s daughter, “trophies of her father’s victories.” Upon meeting the charming and beautiful Imoinda, Prince Oroonoko promptly fell in love. The two were engaged to be married, until Oroonoko’s grandfather, the King of Coromantee — in modern-day Ghana — became smitten with Imoinda as well. The elderly king, who already had many wives, moved Imoinda into his harem and decreed that she was to marry him.

Deeply in love, Oroonoko and Imoinda still consummated their relationship, despite the risk of angering Oroonoko’s grandfather. One of the king’s wives, Onahal, even helped them. After learning of the two lovers’ actions, the enraged king gave an “order they should be both sold off as slaves to another country.” The king eventually forgave his grandson Oroonoko, but the prince was still tricked into becoming a slave for European settlers across the Atlantic in Suriname, then known as Surinam, a small country in South America that had been colonized by the Dutch.

Imoinda, like her lost love, was sent to Suriname as well. The lovers eventually reunited on a plantation, where the two rekindled their love under the names Caesar and Clemene. They finally wed, and “there was as much magnificence as the country could afford at the celebration of this wedding.” However, just as their relationship had started with violence, it would end in violence as well. After a slave revolt, knowing that they would both likely die at the hands of their enemy, Oroonoko killed Imoinda, and he himself was soon killed by slavers.

The stirring saga comes from Aphra Behn’s book Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, which was also adapted into a popular play. Behn attested that it was inspired by a true story, Oroonoko and Imoinda were real people who lived in Suriname, and that Behn had met Oroonoko in her “travels to the other world.” There is debate about whether parts of Oroonoko were indeed based in reality, or if it was a complete work of fiction, penned to support the growing abolitionist sentiment in England at the time.

Whether fact or fiction, the story of Oroonoko was a hit in Britain. But few knew that the author’s life was perhaps even more extraordinary than those of her characters. Having come from a poor family, Behn became a spy for the English King Charles II, who sent her to Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. She received little to no pay from King Charles, so to make ends meet Behn became a writer. She is often credited with being the first professional female writer in England. If not the first, Behn was one of the first women anywhere in the world to make a living as a writer. And her work, just like her life, pushed conventions about what was expected for women and other marginalized people in the 17th century.

Much of Behn’s early life is shrouded in mystery, likely due to the fact that she came from a poor, unknown family, unlike many writers of the era. According to Janet Todd’s Secret Life of Aphra Behn, Behn was born Eaffrey Johnson, the daughter of Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and his wife, Elizabeth Johnson, née Denham, a wet nurse.

Behn spent her childhood between Canterbury and Harbledown, a village “known for its asylum of the disabled poor,” Todd writes. Her family struggled financially, and Todd believes that Behn’s mother, Elizabeth, may have been the wet nurse for the future Colonel Thomas Colepeper, who was something like a foster sibling to young Aphra Behn. Their friendship may have played a role in her unlikely journey to becoming a spy.

The English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651, left the country in immense political instability. King Charles I was captured and executed in 1649, which led his son Prince Charles II to flee to Paris. A period of military and parliamentary rule lasted for 11 years. During this period, the Sealed Knot, an association of those loyal to Charles and his Stuart family line, led at least 10 uprisings in an attempt to reinstate the monarchy.

Colonel Colepeper was a known ally of the Sealed Knot, and Todd wrote in Secret Life of Aphra Behn that his friend Behn, then a teenager, could have assisted in these secret missions by acting as a messenger, as other women did in this period. That may be when she met Thomas Killigrew, a courtier who was in exile with Charles II, who later became a playwright himself.

Once Charles II returned and assumed the throne of England, Killigrew sent Behn to Antwerp to work as a political spy during the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665. As an attractive woman, she could slip into dangerous situations without alarming the enemy.

Behn’s main mission in Antwerp was to try to convince William Scot, who was believed to be spying on England for the Dutch, to become a double agent. Scot’s father was himself executed for being a double agent. It is unknown whether Behn was successful in recruiting Scot, but she was apparently adept at plying him for information. In a report to her superiors, Behn wrote that she stopped short of seducing him, but declared that Scot was “so extremely willingly to undertake the service that he said more to confirm me than I could expect.”

It was sometime after her likely work for the Sealed Knot and before the Second Anglo-Dutch War that Behn ventured across the Atlantic to Suriname on another secret mission, during which she claims to have met Caesar and Clemene.

Upon her return to England, she married Johan Behn, a merchant from Hamburg. Their union was short lived, and Johan either left Behn or died shortly after their wedding in 1664.

While her career as a spy offered Behn an amount of freedom that most women did not have at this time, she was not compensated for her labor.

According to James Walker’s 1932 journal article “The Secret Service Under Charles II and James II,” while the spy service was active, only 700 pounds were set aside for surveillance each year, roughly equivalent to just over 100,000 pounds today. It is likely that Behn was not the only spy who was underpaid or received no payment for her services. It is perhaps safe to assume that her gender did not vault her to the top of the payment list.

Behn petitioned King Charles II for payment, but despite her lifelong loyalty to the Stuart line, her request was never fulfilled. She sunk into debt, and an arrest warrant was even issued at one point for this debt, although there is no evidence that she was ever tried or even apprehended.

Behn had to find a new way to earn a living. She had an idea that would have been unthinkable for most women of her time. She turned to writing for money.

In the early 1660s, with the Stuarts now firmly back in power, Behn’s handler, Thomas Killigrew, was granted temporary permission from Charles II to start the King’s Company, one of two theater companies in London.

Behn, looking for a way to make a living and filled with stories from her travel, become a scribe for the King’s Company, and later for its contemporary the Duke’s Company. She found she was quite good at this new endeavor, and unlike her service as a spy, writing came with a paycheck.

Todd writes in Secret Life of Aphra Behn that Behn witnessed the “pressure that playwrights often had to work under if they were true professionals.” Behn knew that she had a unique talent, but she was also well aware that she had to write plays that would maximize profits. Behn initially decided to use the gender-neutral pseudonym Astrea — her spy name — because “she would be less vulnerable to the inevitable comments made about a publicly writing woman.”

Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, had its debut at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London in September 1670. A tragic comedy, The Forc’d Marriage follows the story of Erminia, who is forced to wed a man she does not care for. Like many of Behn’s plays and poems, The Forc’d Marriage questioned 17th-century gender norms and expectations, such as arranged marriage.

While Shakespeare and other playwrights touched on arranged marriages as well, Behn’s perspective as a widowed woman with no intention of remarrying set her work apart. In her writing, she addressed how women wanted more out of life than to be docile and aesthetically pleasing to their husbands.

“Beauty alone goes now at too cheap rates,” Behn wrote in The Forc’d Marriage’s prologue. “Therefore they likewise and politic states, curt a new power that may the old supply, and keep as well as gain the victory.”

With these statements, Behn was “declaring her entry into the hitherto masculine domain of literature as a step for all women,” Angeline Goreau wrote in Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Key Women Thinkers.

Behn’s next two plays, 1671’s The Amorous Prince and 1673’s The Dutch Lover both further criticized arranged marriages. Male critics savaged The Dutch Lover, and in a commentary after the production had failed, Behn wrote that “plays were certainly intended for the exercising of men’s passions, not their understandings.”

She would not have another play staged or poem published for the next three years. She was likely traveling during this period, perhaps continuing her surveillance work.

Behn returned to writing a few years later, and her new plays and poems pushed what was considered appropriate for a woman of her time. In Abdelazer, Behn explored how female sexuality was overlooked, and when it was recognized, punished. When the character of the Queen starts to take pleasure in sex, her lover, Abdelazer, not only stops desiring intercourse with the Queen but actually orders her to be murdered.

Like the Queen, Behn herself experienced a relationship with a violent man whom she felt did not care about her pleasure. Todd writes that Behn’s relationship with fellow writer John Hoyle seemed to be the most dominant one of her life, even if it “may not have been consummated or at least have been always sexually unsatisfactory.” Todd adds that Hoyle “had been on a capital charge for stabbing an unarmed watchmaker on the street,” and while it is unclear whether Hoyle was violent with Behn, considering the content of her plays, it seems a possibility.

It was during this period that Behn became a commercial success, and while she was never wealthy, she earned enough to support herself financially without a father or a husband controlling her life.

Her breakthrough inspired writers like Virginia Woolf, who commended the impact Behn had had in opening the doors for independent women writers in her essay, A Room of One’s Own, widely considered an important feminist text. “Aphra Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind, but was of practical importance,” Woolf wrote.

In her own time, critics found Behn to be crass and deemed her plays controversial. She was, however, popular in the literary scene, and counted writers like John Dryden, Elizabeth Barry, Thomas Otway and Edward Ravenscroft as her friends. Having picked the winning side in the civil war, she remaining close with the royals and was friends with the Earl of Rochester.

While her plays attracted the most attention, Behn’s poems were equally ahead of their time. In “The Disappointment,” she depicts a sexual encounter between a shepherd, Lysander, and a woman named Cloris, whom Behn wrote had “charming languishment.” Tragically, Lysander is unable to have an erection, leaving Cloris woefully disappointed.

In the journal article “Power, Gender, and Identity in Aphra Behn’s ‘The Disappointment,’” Lisa M. Zeitz and Peter Thoms write that the poem “depicts female sexual desire in a way that leaves no doubt that Nature — the power of natural desire — operates equally in men and women.” In so doing, “Behn challenges gender roles, and now it is Lysander who occupies the traditionally feminine position of vulnerability.”

Behn paved the way for women writers, even while many of her contemporaries, including other women, criticized her for being “the first woman to openly discuss sexual matters print,” as Goreau puts it in Feminist Theorists.

In terms of her interests, Behn’s early feminist fervor was matched only by her political views. Despite not being compensated for her spy work, she remained a loyal supporter of King Charles II. In her play, The Rover II, she decried politicians’ decisions not to give more funds to the king.

Her most controversial political act came in the epilogue of her play Like Father, Like Son, which accused James Scott, the illegitimate son of King Charles II of England, of wanting to commit regicide against his father. The bold claim got her arrested in 1682. This is Behn’s only play that has never been reprinted, which makes it impossible to know the depth and specificity of her accusations. She was, however, on to something. After Charles died, Scott was executed for attempting to kill his uncle, King James II (who would be removed from the throne a few years later due to his Catholicism).

Behn was also an advocate for ending slavery, and while Oroonoko was seen as a pro-abolitionist text at the time, its legacy is more complicated. In the journal article “White Skin, Black Masks: Colonialism and the Sexual Politics of Oroonoko,” Susan Z. Andrade argues that the white narrator’s “attraction to oppressed peoples is completely consistent with the ideology of European dominance, and that identification as well as refusal fuels this relation.” Andrade argues that Behn herself was causing harm because of her “participation in imperial culture” while in Suriname, and she also criticizes Oroonoko for its depictions of violence against Black people.

Behn’s plays, books and poems continued to be successful, but her health steadily declined and she fell into financial trouble again. By the end of her life, she was living in poverty once more.

In 1689, despite desperately needing money, Behn rejected an invitation to write a welcoming poem to King William III, because she believed that the throne should have remained in the late King Charles II’s family line. Loyal to the very end, she passed away just a few days before William III’s ascension to the throne.

In the decades following Behn’s death, her plays grew in popularity, including the stage adaptation of Oroonoko. It is somehow fitting for this woman who was so ahead of her time and underappreciated during it that her own tombstone at Westminster Abbey seems to mock her own bitter end, with the epitaph: “Here is proof that wit can never be defense enough against mortality.”