In search of Eaffry Johnson
- Reconstructing Aphra by Angeline Goreau
Oxford, 339 pp, £8.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 19 822663 2
Angeline Goreau calls her chapter on the beginning of Aphra Behn’s life not ‘Birth’ but ‘“Birth” ’. She turns out, however, not to be disputing that Aphra Behn was born or even suggesting that she was from her mother’s womb untimely ripped. It’s merely that Ms Goreau is given to an illiterate use of inverted commas and is under the misapprehension that the time and place of her subject’s birth are unknown. Fluttering her inverted commas, she asserts that the ‘missing “birth” ’ is an impediment to what she calls, with a further flutter and the cosy nomenclature she observes throughout, the ‘search for Aphra’s “identity” ’.
Vol. 3 No. 4 · 5 March 1981
SIR: Brigid Brophy (LRB, 22 January) may be right that in finding an ‘Eaffry’ Johnson, baptised in 1640 at St Michael’s, Harbledown, near Canterbury, she became ‘the discoverer of the birth of Aphra Behn’; though it seems likely that of the two contemporary accounts which give Behn’s unmarried name as Johnson, the later is dependent on the earlier and therefore valueless as evidence, and there were anyway (as Maureen Duffy makes clear in her biography) not only a lot of Aphras and Johnsons around in Kent at the time, but even some Aphra Bean(e)s as well.
Ms Brophy vituperates against Behn’s most recent biographer, Angeline Goreau, for not mentioning the discovery. Goreau is furthermore ‘unable to read’, Brophy says, let alone ‘to decipher 17th-century clerical hands’ (a mystery in which she herself was initiated by Duffy). The point would be more telling if Brophy and Duffy had done their own transcribing correctly. As it happens, I’ve just been looking at the Harbledown baptismal registers. ‘Eaffry’ is actually (and very clearly) spelt ‘Eafry’.
Maureen Duffy writes: Jeremy Treglown is mistaken in saying that there are ‘two contemporary accounts which give Behn’s married name as Johnson’. There are at least three to my knowledge and there may be others as yet undiscovered. The one that pointed me to Canterbury, Col. Thomas Culpepper’s Adversaria Vol. II (Harl. MS 7588), is in his own hand and dependent on no other since he states that Aphra Behn was his ‘foster sister’ and her mother his (wet)nurse. In the words of a lost Restoration play: ‘A man may presume to know his own milk sister.’ As for Jeremy Treglown’s two little ‘ff’s’, our transcription confirms that there was only one in Eafry. I have it before me in Brigid Brophy’s very clear hand, and the earlier printed edition tells the same tale. What used to be called a printer’s devil no doubt inserted the second one which my eye let slip through the proof net. However, this is nit-picking. The point is that Culpepper, his connections, and those of her putative mother’s family, the Denhams of Bucks, Kent, Lincoln and Somerset (into whom I have since done considerable research), afford very strong circumstantial evidence that this is the right Aphra John-son/Behn, and provide a very plausible background for the genesis of our first woman not ashamed ‘to write for bread’. They include among her relatives Sir Thomas Gower, Buckingham and Anne Wharton, all of whom Aphra Behn was known to in her lifetime. It is surety right, as Brigid Brophy says, that a reader should have the chance to consider this evidence.