Aphra Johnson is one of England’s foremost literary ladies. She wrote plays and poems and even a book on botany but I first heard of her because she was an early novelist and spent a grim week wading through her novel Oroonoko – though to be fair Eighteenth Century Studies was by far the grimmest of the courses I followed many moons ago at university and I didn’t know the extent that she was drawing on her experiences and coming to think of it she had nothing to do with the eighteenth century!
Her own life story reads like an adventure novel. She was born near Canterbury in 1640 at Wye. Some accounts identify her father as a barber from Canterbury others identify her father as John Amis – there being a world of difference in the status of the two men.
What we can be sure of is that at that time that area was full of Huguenot refugees and Dutch emigrees. The Huguenots were famously silk weavers but the Dutch left a legacy of linen thread making – meaning that the fields of Kent weren’t necessarily full of hops but flax.
At some point Aphra travelled to Dutch Guiana or Surinam as it was then known in the company of her parents- her father had been made lieutenant-general of the colony but he died en route.
During the two years she was in Surinam, Aphra became friends with William Scot, the son of a convicted and executed regicide. It is possible that they became lovers but the evidence is sketchy.
When she returned to London in approximately 1664 she married a Dutch- or possibly German- merchant – or possibly sea captain- who seems to have promptly died of the plague leaving her somewhat financially challenged. It has also been suggested that for some reason Johan Behn may well have been a product of her imagination as no evidence of him can readily be found.
Fortunately her mother had a friend who was a groom of the king’s bedchamber called Sir Thomas Killigrew. He managed to get her an introduction at court. The next thing you know Aphra found herself working as a spy with Killigrew as her handler in Flanders and the Netherlands during the Anglo-Dutch wars (1652- 74). In part she was selected for the role because a certain William Scot was now in the Low Countries. One of Aphra’s jobs was to convince him to support Charles II – the man who’d signed the death warrant for his father. She was to offer him a pardon which proved lamentably slow in its arrival.
Before she returned home Aphra warned her London spymasters that the Dutch were planning an attack up the Thames. Her warnings were ignored and the fleet burned on the Medway raid that saw the flagship the Royal Charles captured.
Aphra should have checked Charles II’s record for paying his staff. Back in London, where she’d managed to miss the Great Fire, she found herself in debtors’ prison and never did get paid for her work. In order to extract herself from this rather unpleasant situation she picked up her quill and started writing. She became England’s leading female writer and earned a place in Westminster Abbey. The truth, is as they say, stranger than fiction.