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Aphra Behn the Unpaid Spy

Published 02 July 2013

Book with rabbit fur cover

Aphra Behn was one of the first women in England to earn a living through her writing.

Aphra Behn the Unpaid Spy

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was one of the first women in England to earn a living through her writing. In the late seventeenth century she wrote and published a vast quantity of literary works including drama, poetry and short stories. Special Collections recently acquired an edition of Aphra Behn's story, 'The Fair Jilt'.

Our copy of 'The Fair Jilt' has a distinctive and unusual binding of fur. A note on the rear flyleaf says that it is rabbit fur treated to look like ocelot. Although such bindings might not appeal to most people today, the fur is extremely tactile and makes the book stand out on the owner's shelves.

In 'The Fair Jilt' Behn tells the story of Miranda, a young woman who tries to control her own destiny by pursuing financial and sexual freedom. Through her heroine, Behn explores the problems faced by a seventeenth century woman who rebels against the constraints of marriage and tries to become actively involved in the world.

From the little we know about Behn, she lived a fairly independent life for a seventeenth century woman. Behn made a good living from writing drama. One of her letters to a bookseller survives. In it she complains about her penury, since she is no longer able to earn money through writing plays.

Behn is reputed to have visited an English sugar colony on the Suriname River in Venezuela in 1663. It is possible that her meeting with an African slave leader there inspired one of her most famous works, the story of Oronooko (1688), which tells of the capture, enslavement and rebellion of Oronooko, an African Prince.

From 1666-67 Behn was a spy for the government of Charles II. She worked in Antwerp under the alias Astrea trying to obtain information from William Scot. He was the son of Thomas Scot who had been executed in 1660 for signing the death warrant of Charles I. While spying Behn ran up debts of £150. It is unlikely the English government ever paid the debt, as Behn's friends paid her fare back to England where she ended up in a debtors' prison. An unknown benefactor paid the money for her release. After her adventure Behn returned to writing to make a living until her death in 1689.