March 11 is the anniversary of The Daily Courant, the first British daily newspaper. It was first published in 1702 by Elizabeth Mallet at her premises next to the Kings Arms tavern at Fleet Bridge in London. Being an admirer of British literary history and its multifarious creative endeavours, I thought of writing a newspaper report about the curious life of Aphra Behn, one of the first English women to earn her living by her writing. Behn broke cultural barriers and served as a literary role model for later generations of women authors. Here is a scoop on her life, and activities outside the realm of writing, published posthumously.
Although this report is of course fictitious, the people, places and opinions presented are factual and verifiable.
Astrea- a Stuart Spy?
Aparna Krishnan (Special Correspondent)
London, March 11, 1702
Incriminating evidence about the recently deceased playwright Astrea has come to light. Astrea, the pseudonym used by the woman writer Aphra Behn, turns out to be more than just a devout supporter of the Stuart rule. The Daily Courant exposé has unearthed startling facts about the writer’s role as a spy of Charles II in Surinam and Antwerp.
Lady Bartholomew Johnson, who traveled with Mrs Behn for a while in Surinam, claims
‘…she was always distant. She never seemed interested in the children or in the beautiful plantations. She often pestered my late husband to talk about the Society of Surinam and The Council of Police there.’
It is alleged that it was during the Surinam trip that Behn met an African slave leader, whose story formed the basis for one of her most famous works, Oroonoko.
Astrea is revealed to be Behn’s code name used in 1665, during her recruitment as a political spy in Antwerp. Born during the buildup of the English Civil War, Behn is a child of the political tensions of the time. “The trauma of her childhood attracted Behn to the power and prestige of the Royal Court”, according to her writer friend Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea. Behn became attached to the court under the auspices of courtiers Thomas Culpeper and Thomas Killigrew.
Behn’s loyalty and love for the monarchy is evident through her onerous work as a spy and later as the sole woman writer on the Restoration theatre scene. Her Royalist sympathies are demonstrated through her play The Rover II, which is dedicated to the Catholic Duke of York after his exile a second time. But sources from within the Royal Court disclose the sad plight that the playwright met at the hands of the King and Court. A year’s petitioning of Charles for payment was unsuccessful. The Crown never paid her for her services or for her expenses whilst abroad.
The last days of the writer were spent in ill-health and penury. The London cost of living shocked her, and even after pawning her jewelry, the writer was sucked into the vortex of debt. Behn’s contemporaries in the literary world, including the Poet Laureate John Dryden, have lamented the pitiable death of this popular playwright.