Virginia Woolf said “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn...for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”. And so I went to Westminster Abbey.
But the Abbey information lady had no idea who she was. “Could you spell that please?” she asked. And “Who was he?” But when we found her, she got excited: “She was a spy!” Agent 160 was her spy name, in fact. But she wasn't listed as a writer. Which was odd. And she's not in Poets' Corner (why not?) but in the Cloister. And the inscription on her grave—"Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough againft Mortality"—seems a bit harsh. But her works do live on.
We don’t know much about her. Maybe spying made her secretive; maybe she liked inhabiting other roles, speaking other voices. She called herself a "playwright of many voices" and was evidently an inventive self-fashioner—and a dedicated libertine. Woolf called “shady and amorous”. Born in Kent in 1640, possibly a barber’s daughter, possibly a Catholic, she married at 24, but two years later she was single and spying for Charles II in Europe and in Surinam, where she met the African slave who inspired her great anti-slavery novel Oroonoko. Charles II didn't pay his spies promptly, and after she found herself in jail for debt, she gave up espionage and took up her pen, first as a hack and then in the theatre. Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was produced in 1671, when she was 31. Ten years later Nell Gwyn starred in her hit, The Rover. She died in 1689.
In a preface she wrote to The Lucky Chance, she wrote:
Had the Plays I have writ come forth under any Man's Name, and never known to have been mine; I appeal to all unbyast Judges of Sense, if they had not said that Person had made as many good Comedies, as any one Man that has writ in our Age; but a Devil on't the Woman damns the poet.... All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in... If I must not, because of my Sex, have this Freedom...I lay down my Quill.”
That was in 1686. According to Sphinx Theatre Company, three hundred years later, only 17 per cent of plays produced in the UK are by women. Which is why Agent 160’s so necessary.