In search of Eaffry Johnson

Brigid Brophy

  • 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” ’.

There are some questions unanswered in the life of Aphra Behn, including when and where she married the man whose surname she wrote under. Her birth, however, or even her ‘birth’, has not been missing since 1977 – except in the sense that applies to virtually all births in Britain before the early 19th century, since until then record was kept not of births as such but of infant baptisms. I found the record of Aphra Behn’s baptism in the course of playing amanuensis to Maureen Duffy, of whom I was at that time a colleague, in her research for her biography of Aphra Behn.

The terms of the problem were these. External evidence shows that Aphra Behn must have been born within a couple of years on either side of 1640. There are three biographical notes by contemporaries of hers. Two of them (and the third does not contradict) give her maiden name as Johnson. All place her family in Kent and two specifically in Canterbury or its immediate neighbourhood. Record of her baptism had been sought by scholars over the past hundred years but not found.

It was, accordingly, in records offices and archives connected with Kent that Maureen Duffy pursued an Aphra Johnson of appropriate date and that I learned, under her tuition, to decipher 17th-century clerical hands and to bless the modern scholars and genealogists who have in a few cases made typescript or printed copies of registers. I also, as a person who has difficulties in that line, envied the anarchy of 17th-century spelling, especially of proper names.

The villages round Canterbury yielded a surprising quantity of 17th-century infant Aphras, some of them in spellings as divergent as Afry, Aufrey and Alfery. Indeed, I came to suspect phonetic method in the seeming anarchy. The y at the end of many of the variants is presumably a phonetic rendering of the unstressed and indeterminate final vowel. As for the initial a, I think it unlikely that Aphra Behn and her contemporaries pronounced it as it is regularly pronounced now – namely, with the a of apple. My best guess is a long initial a, as in angel, but Ahphra and Awphra are possibilities too.

Just before archival closing time one wintry evening, Maureen Duffy took out copies of four sections of registers and allotted them at random, two apiece, to be combed through. In one of my ration I found the baptism, on 14 December 1640, of Eaffry Johnson at St Michael’s in Harbledown, a village half a mile outside Canterbury towards which I sometimes feel the fates nudging me, since I had already visited it in the course of Michael Levey’s research for his biography of Walter Pater, who used to walk from Harbledown to school in Canterbury.

The initial ea in Eaffrey was, I imagine, to be pronounced like the ea in Reagan and argues an Aphra with a long initial a. In a world where tea and pleasing were pronounced tay and plazing, ea might well be the phonetic symbol for a long a that sprang naturally to the registering cleric’s pen – which proved, when we checked with the register itself, which is still lodged at Harbledown, to be blessedly uncrabbed.

Thus I became by chance the discoverer of the birth of a writer whom I admire and had already celebrated in fiction by setting her name to the brassy student tune in Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture that seems to enunciate ‘Oh, Mrs Aphra Behn’ (or ‘Oh, Logan Pearsall Smith’ when you are in a different literary mood). Maureen Duffy traced Aphra-Eaffry Johnson’s parents, Elizabeth and Bartholomew (as the register spells him) Johnson, and much of their ancestry, and set out all the information, with proper scholarly caution and modesty as well as detail, in her Aphra Behn biography, The Passionate Shepherdess, which was published by Cape in November 1977 and presently appeared in the USA.

And what does Ms Goreau’s biography of three years later make of this? Nothing. She relates at length a wild goose chase of the 1880s after a Kentish Afara who turned out to be surnamed Amis and to have died in infancy anyway. But of Eaffry Johnson of Harbledown she says not a word. Indeed, she positively asserts that Aphra Behn’s birth is ‘missing’ and ‘her “facts” ’ lost.

Yet she has had Maureen Duffy’s book in her hands. She lists it in her bibliography, and in the notes to her ‘“Birth” ’ chapter which appear at the end of her volume she remarks: ‘Since this was written, a full-length biography of Aphra Behn by Maureen Duffy has been published. As will be seen in the following text, we disagree, occasionally to a considerable extent, on certain biographical details. Our approaches and points of view are also at variance and have led us to conclude two very different biographies of Aphra.’

‘Very different’ the two biographies indeed are. It is all the difference between a biography of Aphra Behn and a biography of Aphra. What is one to make of a biographer who apparently thinks her subject’s birth (or ‘birth’) a biographical ‘detail’? But then what is one to make of such mean-spirited treatment of another writer’s scholarship, let alone such ungenerosity towards fellow searchers for the facts? I daresay the jumbos are already discharging great posses of postgraduates at Heathrow who will set off in quest of facts they have been told are lost but who have been wilfully left in ignorance of the one plausible candidate for the role of the infant Aphra Behn who has ever been located and proposed. Eaffry Johnson is open to confirmation or demolition by further research – or indeed to supersession if anyone can find another Aphra baptism of the right date, surname and locality. But all those possibilities are closed to researchers from whom her very existence has been suppressed.

The only excuse for Ms Goreau would be if she were unable to read, and of that there seems indeed some evidence. Aphra Behn is buried in the cloister at Westminster Abbey under a tombstone that bears a moving couplet probably composed by her lover:

Here lies a proof that wit can never be
Defence enough against mortality.

There is no need in this case to master the crabbed hands and dog Latin of parish registers. As Maureen Duffy’s book (which contains a photograph of the tombstone) notes, the inscription was re-cut in the 19th century. Even so, Ms Goreau proves unable to copy it out correctly or even to count the feet in a line. She quotes it with the ‘enough’ left out, thus making nonsense of the scansion and completing what is probably a unique double: she has written a biography that makes a hash of both the end and the beginning of its subject’s life.

The material she puts between these two bodged terminal points is apt: one part gush to two parts rubble or filler-in. Pages are padded with disquisitions on such matters as what might have been taught at the sort of school Aphra Behn might have attended had she attended a school, with statements on the level of the one that begins, ‘What can have been her thoughts as she watched ...’ and that ends with neither a question nor an exclamation-mark but just a full stop, and with passages like this one on Aphra Behn’s sojourn in Surinam: ‘But she was never afraid, she said. Never once hesitated; though her memory may have colored [sic] her original experience. She drank in every detail ...’

There is nothing resembling Maureen Duffy’s grasp (the result of deep study of the state papers, the point at which the amanuensis flinched) of the complex international, national and kinship politics that are so important in Aphra Behn’s life and work. There is not a touch of literary flair or appreciation. Ms Goreau gets the feel of Aphra Behn’s writing wrong every time. She is deaf to the baroque, of which Aphra Behn is a master. Yet when Aphra Behn adopts an unbuttoned and in the punning sense countrified tone –

A many kisses did he give
And I returned the same
Which made me willing to receive
That which I dare not name –

in one of the songs with which she aerates her plays as Dryden does his, Ms Goreau contrives to discern in it ‘the stiff form of pastoral convention’ – and she, I am afraid, is not punning.

Theorising is for Ms Goreau an opportunity to tie her discourse into knots. First she remarks that Aphra Behn wrote novels (which she calls ‘novels’) before Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, a work that Ms Goreau asserts is ‘generally termed the first novel’ – by, I must suppose, people who have not read La Princesse de Clèves or Don Quixote, let alone Genji or Daphnis and Chloe. Presently she notices that there were novels even before Aphra Behn. These, she decides, must be not novels but romances, and she tries to justify the distinction by some untenable theory-spinning that seeks to associate novels with ‘a “given” in the way people thought of themselves’. She shows no sign of knowing that the romance languages still call all novels romances, but something has made her uneasy with her previous theory, so she follows it with another in which the distinguishing mark of novels is naturalistic verisimilitude – without the smallest visible suspicion that she has thereby written off Ulysses, Tristram Shandy, The Holy Sinner, Candide, Gulliver’s Travels, Vainglory, Titus Groan and various other masterpieces of prose fiction as non-novels.

I feel secure in guessing that this foolish and ignorant book would never have seen print but for the hope that it could be sold to the most gullible section of the present-day book market, feminists, and perhaps get itself inscribed in the curriculum of some women’s studies course. A literary ear would have told Ms Goreau that Aphra Behn learned her baroque versification from Milton and much of her stagecraft and of her dialogue diction from Shakespeare, a dramatic ancestry that was audible in David Buxton’s 1978 production of The Rover at Colchester. Ms Goreau’s feminist dogma rests, however, on the manifestly false assumption, which is at the same time bitterly insulting to women, that no woman possesses imagination enough to identify herself with a man or literary talent enough to learn from one. ‘If Shakespeare could look back to Marlowe, Marlowe to Chaucer, or Chaucer to the literary forefathers whose tradition he grew out of, Mrs Behn imposed herself on history without precedent: she was the first woman to become a professional writer. Aphra had to invent herself.’

Ms Goreau’s ignorance of what Aphra Behn’s literary antecedents really were is perhaps explained by the gushing acknowledgments at the front of her book. After thanking ‘my editor ... whose critical eye steered me away from mistakes’, she says: ‘Finally, there is my mother, who gave me Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen to read when I was very young’. Perhaps Shakespeare and Milton were unmentionable.

The edition that appears under the Oxford imprint is in fact bodily the US one, US spelling, printing and all. Only in the blurb on the jacket is there room for manoeuvre, and the publishers take the opportunity to modify their author’s assertion that Aphra Behn was the first woman to become a professonal writer into the more cautious and defensible claim that she was the first English woman to do so. Otherwise they are stuck with the motes in the US editor’s ‘critical eye’ and her failures of steerage. In a footnote on page 171 Ms Goreau declares: ‘Solon and Lycurgus were both Greek philosophers.’ Well, no, actually. Neither of them was. It is quite easy to find out what they in fact were, but presumably Ms Goreau believes that a woman can’t ‘look back to’ or look something up in a reference book compiled by men. It’s sad to see such rubbish issue from the once scholarly if staid Oxford University Press. When, I wonder, is the Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis going to publish the philosophical works of Solon and Lycurgus?