- The Secret Life of Aphra Behn by Janet Todd
Deutsch, 545 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 233 98991 9
Twenty years ago, when Maureen Duffy first published The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640-89, Behn was still known principally as the celebrated but largely unread founder of women’s writing, the figure who had been hymned but effectively dismissed by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929). ‘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,’ Woolf wrote, only to declare Behn’s actual writings to be so much cheerful hack-work, of interest only as the hack-work of a woman. Since Duffy set about contesting this verdict, however, things have changed, and the appearance of this vastly fatter life of Behn (together with the completion of Janet Todd’s seven-volume edition of The Works of Aphra Behn for Pickering and Chatto) confirms the scribbler’s accession to the status of a fully-fledged Author.
Todd’s labours complete a process of canonisation so dramatic that it has itself become an object of study (there is, for example, an Open University textbook called Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon). Within the academy, Behn’s work has been the subject of several international conferences, a substantial annotated bibliography of criticism, another biography (by Angeline Goreau) and a newly revised edition of Duffy’s, a Cambridge volume of Aphra Behn Studies (edited by Janet Todd) and a widely used Penguin anthology of selected writings (also edited by Todd). Oroonoko, Behn’s late novella about an enslaved African prince shipped to South America, is included in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, and is better known among contemporary American undergraduates than any other single piece of later 17th-century literature, not excluding Paradise Lost (the wonder is that it hasn’t already been filmed, with Emma Thompson as the narrator and Denzel Washington in the title-role). Meanwhile, Behn’s plays have attracted stars as expensive as Jeremy Irons and Christopher Reeve, and she herself, now conscripted to the cause of postcolonialism as well as that of feminism, has been the subject of a Canadian play (Beth Hirst’s A Woman’s Comedy, 1993) and a Scottish novel (Ross Laidlaw’s Aphra Behn: Dispatch’d from Athole, 1992). It’s not surprising that the inscriptions on her tomb in Westminster Abbey have been carefully polished in the expectation of ever more flower-strewing pilgrims: at this rate she is liable to find herself transferred from her inconspicuous position in the cloisters to the very centre of Poets’ Corner.
Unfortunately for Todd, the burgeoning Behn industry in which she has secured such a handsome place has created the demand for a monumental Life without actually turning up much more hard evidence for producing one than was available in the Seventies. And that isn’t very much: by comparison, Shakespeare looks positively forthcoming. Thanks to Duffy’s trawlings through parish archives and the jottings of an eccentric family friend called Colonel Colepeper, we can be fairly confident that Behn was the daughter of a Canterbury barber called Johnson, born on 14 December 1640 and christened Eaffrey. From here onwards, though, things get difficult. When we next hear of her, Eaffrey/Aphra is in her mid-twenties and calling herself Mrs Behn, though of Mr Behn we have only a report in the posthumous and unreliable ‘Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn’ that he was ‘a merchant of Dutch extraction’. (Whoever he was, he seems to have vanished entirely, leaving no children behind him, long before Behn had her first play produced.) Before 1666, Johnson/Behn may have visited the English colony at Surinam, the setting for Oroonoko, where she may have gathered political intelligence for Charles II’s government. During 1666 she certainly undertook such a mission to Antwerp, where she contacted a Cromwellian exile called William Scot, offering him a pardon in exchange for information on alleged Dutch plans to invade England with the help of other banished republicans. (Hence her routine description in literature textbooks as ‘playwright and spy’.)
Vol. 19 No. 11 · 5 June 1997
Michael Dobson’s predominantly unfavourable review of Janet Todd’s The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (LRB, 8 May) criticises it on a number of grounds: failure to capture the ‘raffish’ quality of the Restoration, excessive speculativeness and, worse, ignorance of Restoration drama. But the main charge is that Todd produces a thicker biography than Maureen Duffy’s without producing any more ‘hard evidence’: the most recent Behn discoveries that Dobson cites are Duffy’s ‘trawlings through parish records’. He makes no mention of Todd’s own archival discoveries, nor of her exercises in scholarly deduction. Todd has uncovered previously unknown records in the Hague which substantially increase our knowledge of Behn’s work as a secret agent in Holland and Belgium: her material on Behn’s relationship with William Corney, and on the double-dealing of William Scot, for example, is new. To suggest that Shakespeare offers more purchase to the biographer than Behn does is preposterous. Todd has also discovered important new material on the historical background of The Fair Jilt, has examined with new detail and care the authenticity of the works posthumously attributed to Behn, and meticulously traced the network of literary friendships and relationships in which Behn participated. This biography is not a litany of the ‘probably’ and the ‘possibly’.
The most damaging criticism is that of unfamiliarity with Restoration drama. ‘It used to be,’ Dobson writes, ‘that people who worked extensively on the Restoration theatre did so without paying proper attention to Behn; now it seems that people pay attention to Behn who would never otherwise go near the Restoration theatre.’ As a general statement about Behn scholarship, this is true enough. But no one who has dutifully read Edward Howard, Neville Payne and Edward Ravenscroft can be called inattentive to the Restoration repertory. The basis for the charge is Todd’s inattention to Thomas Durfey. In a critical study of Restoration drama, Behn and Durfey would, of course, have to be compared. But Dobson does not indicate any significant biographical relationship between the two.
Vol. 19 No. 13 · 3 July 1997
I am puzzled as to why Derek Hughes (Letters, 5 June)should be so indignantly determined to misconstrue my comments about the style and emphasis of Janet Todd’s eminently scholarly biography of Aphra Behn as allegations of ignorance. I thought I had made it clear that my reservations are, if anything, of exactly the opposite tendency, to the effect that Todd spends too much time conscientiously counting the trees (whether newly-discovered or hypothetical) to convince me that she has much of a feel for this particular wood.
What is especially puzzling is that at the same time Hughes seems to want to exaggerate the ease of the feat which Todd has attempted. I don’t think it at all ‘preposterous’ to compare Behn unfavourably with Shakespeare as a potential subject for biography. Despite the best efforts of the lunatic fringe, we are far more certain that the author of the Shakespeare canon was the firstborn son of John and Mary Shakespeare of Stratford baptised on 26 April 1564 than we are ever likely to be about whether Aphra Behn was the Eaffrey Johnson born at Harbledown on 14 December 1640, and not only do we know when and whom Shakespeare married and how many children he had but we can even see each one’s share of his estate in his will. Whatever Hughes may think, biographers usually care quite a lot about matters like date and place of birth, antecedents, marriage, children and testaments, and with these sorted out the biographer of Shakespeare surely has a substantial head start over the biographer of Behn, for whom all of them, as Todd’s Introduction acknowledges, must inevitably remain in the realm of the probable and the possible.
There’s nothing ill-informed about Todd’s various attempts to compensate for this disadvantage by her readings of Behn’s work and its contexts, quite the contrary: but there’s something about her tone that seems so out of sympathy with her subject – something so apparently unresponsive to what makes Behn’s plays exciting and distinctive as plays – that her erudition is inclined to lapse into exhaustive mugging up. I am sorry that Hughes doesn’t seem to share my sense of the difference.