Bit of a mystery, is Aphra – who says that the reinvention of one’s past is an activity reserved to Hollywood starlets?
She kept her early years a closely-guarded secret.
The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn (1696) states that she was born to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham, a wet-nurse. (That story recurs, as a contemporary, Anne Finch, wrote that she was born in Wye in Kent, the “Daughter to a Barber”) However, a contemporary essay by the unidentified “One of the Fair Sex” maintains that Aphra was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Johnson of nearby Canterbury. Johnson was a gentleman related to Lord Willoughby, who appointed him lieutenant-general of Surinam, for which Willoughby was the royal patentee.
Whether Aphra was Johnson’s by-blow or fostered by him is not known, but what has been established with reasonable certainty was that in 1663 she accompanied Johnson, his wife, and a boy, described as her brother, on a voyage to take up residence in the West Indies. Johnson died on the way, and his wife and children lived for several months in Surinam. Her novel, Oroonoko (1688), is allegedly based on her experiences there and her friendship with a prince of the indigenous peoples…. although there is no evidence that Oroonoko existed, that she had a friendship with him, or that the slave rebellion of the novel ever happened. Colonel Thomas Colepeper, the only person who claimed to have known her as a child, wrote that she was born at “Sturry or Canterbury” to a Mr Johnson and that she had a sister named Frances.
Shortly after her supposed return to England from Surinam in 1664, she may have married Johan Behn. He may have been a merchant of German or Dutch extraction, possibly from Hamburg. He died – or they separated – soon after 1664, and from this point she used “Mrs Behn” as her professional name. Whatever the truth of it, none of it appears in the records… I have played a little fast and loose with Aphra’s activities, for it was not until 1666 that she appears officially attached to the court.
She was recruited as a political spy in Antwerp on behalf of King Charles II, possibly under the auspices of courtier and theatre-owner Thomas Killigrew. (And possibly not.) It happens to suit my story to have her in 1665 as already recruited as a spy, simply because, like many things about the divine Astraea – her code name, and the name she used for much of her later writing – we don’t know she wasn’t, and it tickles me to think of the dubiously-widowed Mrs Behn languishing on the Continent with other impoverished Royalist ex-pats, spinning lurid tales and batting her eyelashes at Russell.
(He didn’t. He wouldn’t…. Did he?)
Her role in Antwerp was to establish an intimacy with the son of Thomas Scot, a regicide who had been executed in 1660 – which is a discreet way of saying she was expected to seduce him. William Scot was believed to be ready to become a spy in the King’s service, reporting on the plots of Roundhead exiles. Aphra arrived in Bruges in July 1666, probably with two others (I wonder who?), tasked with turning Scot into a double agent, but it failed.
The cost of living in Europe shocked her, and only a month after arrival, she was forced to pawn her jewelry. Money had to be borrowed so that she could return to London, where a year’s petitioning of Charles for payment for her expenses was ultimately unsuccessful. It may be that she was never paid by the crown. A warrant was issued for her arrest, but there’s no evidence she ever went to prison for debt. Knowing the fair Astraea, it’s equally likely that she would have served His Majesty for love, and laughed at the warrant.
She began to work for the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company players as a scribe, to keep the wolf from the door. (Not her first writing, but her first paid gig, at least.) Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was staged in 1670, followed by The Amorous Prince (1671). After her third play, The Dutch Lover, failed, she disappears for three years. It is speculated that she went travelling again, possibly in her capacity as a spy – though I wouldn’t put a staged comeback past Mistress Behn’s sense of the dramatic.
Linked with notable writers of the day, she was acknowledged as part of the circle of the Earl of Rochester. (Interestingly, her name was never romantically linked with any of the Merry Gang.) As a mature woman her primary publicly acknowledged relationship was with a bisexual man, John Hoyle, himself the subject of public scandal for murder and sodomy. She was known to have had male lovers – those poems weren’t written by a woman who didn’t know what sex was – but she also writes explicitly of the love of women for each other. Did she have female lovers? She says so, but then she also claimed that Nature had meant her as a nun. More of the self-mythologising of the fair Astraea.
Gay icon, intriguer, author, adventuress. Unconventional businesswoman who lived and died on her own terms, as independently as she had lived. I wasn’t entirely serious, comparing her to stars of the silver screen, but the more I think about it – tirelessly self-promoting, glamorous, self-reliant, deceptively professional, and ultimately tragic. In her last years her health began to fail, beset by poverty and debt, but she continued to write, though it became increasingly hard for her to hold a pen. She died on 16 April 1689, and was buried in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on her tombstone reads: “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.”
Oh, I don’t know.
Reckon the gal’d be proud of the likes of me and you, Jess…
M. J. Logue is a re-enactor, half-trained archivist, sometime copywriter, retired professional tarot reader, and almost always a writer. When not living with a troop of Parliamentarian cavalry circa 1642, she lives in the West Country with her husband, her son, and five cats.