Shee Spy

Michael Dobson

  • 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’.)

After this paradoxically well-documented secret excursion, however (the letters Behn wrote under cover as agent 160, code-named Astrea, constitute the bulk of her surviving correspondence), the life pretty much disappears, and there remain only the traces of a prolific literary career. This begins with the première of The Forc’d Marriage at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1670 and ends with the ambivalent epitaph inscribed on Behn’s tomb in 1689: ‘Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be/Defence enough against Mortality.’ From the intervening 19 years there survive sundry records of her plays’ fortunes in the theatre, and, of course, her writings themselves: 19 plays, poems of all sorts, prefaces, dedications, translations, short stories and a shocking three-part roman à clef with every claim to be considered the first major novel in English, Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister. About the only things these works have in common are that they were written in the first instance to please paying audiences rather than to lay bare Behn’s soul, adopting a scintillating array of dramatic and rhetorical personae in order to do so, and that most of them suggest considerable scepticism about the very notion of the consistent inner self pursued by modern biography. Outside this inconveniently unconfessional corpus there are a few comments about Behn from contemporaries, but these, unhelpfully, tend to consist of the sort of generic male jokes about women who publish, especially women who publish about sex, still heard today. Todd accordingly has no choice but to offer a Life which admits its heavy dependence on some determinedly ingenious exercises in biographical reading. ‘The story of Aphra Behn,’ she laments, ‘must be constructed from the works, for there is almost nowhere else to search.’

It’s just as well for her biographers, then, that Behn lived in such a colourful and otherwise well-documented period. Failing much direct testimony about her life, one can at least hope to fill up a book with her times, a procedure to which Angeline Goreau’s Reconstructing Aphra (1980) more or less confessed in its subtitle, ‘A Social Biography of Aphra Behn’. Around her own attempts to prise a reluctant author from between the lines of Behn’s successive books, Todd too produces what is in effect a biography of the Restoration itself, with an inferred Aphra as a sort of spirit of the age. It’s unfortunate, though, that despite her extensive work on Behn over the last decade, Todd still seems more in tune with the earnest world of Godwin and Wollstonecraft (the subject of much of her earlier work) than with that of Wycherley and the Duchess of Cleveland. Nothing could be less cavalier than the way in which The Secret Life of Aphra Behn trots out the usual anecdotes about the usual suspects, or the way in which Todd justifies doing so by hypothesising at length about how Behn would ‘probably’ have become acquainted with the celebrities they depict. The scholarly methods appropriate to the conscientious exhumation of neglected women writers of the early 19th century are liable to look a little out of place when applied to their mercurial and notorious predecessor.

Todd’s rather laborious parade of familiar historical vignettes begins when, in default of any trustworthy account of Behn’s adolescence, she has to retell the misadventures of that ineffective resistance group, the Sealed Knot, during the Interregnum, on the dubious grounds that the teenage Aphra ‘could easily’ have gained her first experiences of espionage through liaising between Royalists on the Continent and in Kent. All the other 1660-and-All-That favourites dutifully follow. Charles II recounts the story of his concealment in the oak tree (Behn ‘probably’ reported in person to him on her return from South America, though he ‘probably’ didn’t take much interest despite her probable charm). The Earl of Rochester tutors and seduces the actress Elizabeth Barry, poses as a mountebank and repents on his deathbed (without Behn’s verifiable friendship with this illustrious rake, Todd’s biography would be considerably shorter). Nell Gwyn, ‘probably’ introduced to Behn by Thomas Otway, calls herself ‘the Protestant whore’. Even Samuel Pepys’s report of the King’s spaniel making a mess in a boat gets in, on the grounds that Behn too sometimes ‘commented on the ordinariness of royalty for all its pomp’. It’s all done quite competently, but sooner or later Todd’s assertions about what Behn ‘could have’ or ‘must have’ felt about any given detail of 17th-century social history are bound to inspire resistance. At the close of Behn’s presumed visit to Surinam, for example, we learn that ‘her heart must have sunk as she saw the salted tortoises loaded onto the ship, a staple at sea despite the unpleasant taste.’ Must it? She might have absolutely loved the things, and imported them specially to serve at all her dinner parties for the rest of her life.

The treatment of the salted tortoises is characteristic of The Secret Life of Aphra Behn as a whole, not so much because it is necessarily suppositious, but because, in the absence of any definite information as to what Behn might have felt, Todd opts for something mundane, uncomfortable and full of regret. The remarkable feat this biography achieves – given that its raw materials are the raffish and volatile world of late Stuart London, some thoroughly racy contemporary rumours, the traces of a sideline in espionage and a dazzling body of writings overflowing with disguise, wit and tight breeches – is that it produces a remorselessly unglamorous Aphra Behn. Licensed by the shortage of documentation to imagine any Astrea she finds plausible, Todd gives us a struggling and rather worthy Grub Street professional with a chronic drinking habit and stress-related gout. This Behn is someone pitifully loyal to the Stuart monarchy for thirty years who nonetheless dies without ever attaining reliable patronage, a woman who doggedly turns out comedy after comedy without ever having much fun herself. Rather than a Modesty Blaise in the manner of Sir Peter Lely, a swaggering hedonist from the swinging 1660s, this is an Aphra for the soberly whiggish Nineties.

The depressing thing is that Todd is often thoroughly convincing. On Behn’s reputation as a spy, for example, despite the publisher’s promise of ‘a compelling, readable and fast-paced story of politics, sex and intrigue’, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn pours three meticulous chapters of cold water. Sent to Flanders in 1666 to interview the prevaricating double-agent Scot, she is fobbed off with hearsay at a few inconclusive meetings and eventually placed under house-arrest at the inn where she is staying, not through sinister enemy intervention but because she is unable to pay the bill. The desperate coded despatches she sends back to Whitehall contain no reliable information whatsoever about Dutch naval preparations (which might have prevented the dreadful English defeat in the Medway) but consist instead of increasingly desperate claims for travel expenses, as heartfelt as anything in her plays. ‘I am wors than dead till I am out of this expensiue hous wheare I vow to god I do not rest with continuall thoughts of my debts,’ writes the King’s ‘afflicted servant Astrea’. She is eventually answered with the news that London has burned down, and when her mission collapses in ignominious failure, her cover completely blown, the ‘shee spy’ is able to get home only by writing an even more eloquent begging letter to a passing English aristocrat, Lord Arlington.

In Todd’s reading, furthermore, Behn is no more successful as a lover than as a spy. Her liaisons are presented as unappealing (Todd, alive to any suggestion of ill-health, is almost prepared to take literally Wycherley’s poem ‘To the Sappho of the Age, suppos’d to Ly-ln of a Love-Distemper, or a play’, with its predictable jokes about the female playwright being clapped). Following Duffy, Todd identifies the androgynously beautiful ‘Amyntas’ of the love poems as a debauched law student called Jeffrey Boys (with whom Behn, cheerily, seems to have had a bet that she wouldn’t live for more than another six months): he apparently left Behn for a younger woman. Still less satisfactory is her more lengthy relationship with the man whom Todd (again following Duffy) identifies as ‘Lycidus’, Jack Hoyle, who instead seems to have left her for a series of younger men. Hoyle is the only man ever reported to have kept Behn (so notorious was he that the information is drawn from a sermon), and it is hard to imagine how she could have made a worse choice for a partner. Sullen, arrogant and violent (he stabbed someone to death as a student, and himself eventually died in a duel), he was a taciturn lawyer to Behn’s theatrical volubility, a Hobbesian republican to her devout monarchism, and someone whose proclivity towards sodomy with male youths (for which he was later prosecuted) may, according to Todd, help explain one recurrent motif in Behn’s work: ‘She clearly did have sexual problems with Hoyle, which may or may not have been associated with his bisexuality. There are simply too many descriptions both of male impotence and of male retreat from sex for there not to have been some autobiographical resonance, and Hoyle was Aphra Behn’s main lover.’

‘The Disappointment’, Behn’s tour de force of comic poetry, freely adapted from Ovid’s description of impotence in the Amores, may be less a hilarious attempt to outdo Rochester’s ‘Imperfect Enjoyment’ at its own indecent game than the rueful confession of a would-be voluptuary who had found herself sharing her bed with a sulkily detumescent barrister. ‘As Behn expresses it candidly, “The Nymph’s Resentment none but I/Can well Imagine or Condole” ... Presumably Behn knew this scenario well.’ It’s a poor look-out for a woman whose name would remain a byword for libertinism for half a century or more after her death.

The familiar objection to this, of course, is that while it may or may not be plausible as biography, it doesn’t make for a very lively or interesting reading of the poem. Sadly, the accounts of Behn’s works throughout The Secret Life aren’t much more inspiring than the accounts of her milieu, their capacity to delight, puzzle and shock largely overlooked in the continuing quest for Behn’s personal opinions and personal circumstances. Read as autobiography, most of Behn’s works are merely frustrating, and Todd isn’t very good at providing instead a series of attractive critical introductions to them. Her section on the later instalments of Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister, for example, interesting as the novel’s relation to the historical ill-doings of Lord and Lady Grey, Lady Henrietta Berkeley et al may be, gets hopelessly sidetracked in speculations about the covert political schemes of Lord Sunderland. Similarly, Todd’s account of Oroonoko devotes far too much time to qualifying the novella’s fictive claims to be a first-person memoir, and relating the fall of its slave prince to Behn’s Royalism, instead of suggesting why either the story or its elusive writer might still matter.

There’s surprisingly little discussion of the different literary contexts within which Behn worked, or about why her contribution to them was unique. There’s a brief account of Katherine Philips, the ‘matchless Orinda’, whose amateur translations of Corneille in the early 1660s preceded Behn’s plays as the first female-authored drama to be staged in England, but very little sense of the feminocentric tradition of 17th-century courtly romance without which Behn’s career would have been impossible. It used to be 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. It is symptomatic in this respect that Thomas d’Urfey – the dramatist and poet of the 1670s and 1680s whose career most closely parallels and illuminates Behn’s – is hardly mentioned in this book. A fellow High Tory, pillager of old Fletcher plays and self-proclaimed devotee of Honoré d’Urfé (in whose honour he affected the apostrophe in his surname, much as Behn nicknamed herself after the heroine of his L’Astrée), d’Urfey attempted exactly the same political and literary moves as Behn during the troubled years of the Popish Plot and Monmouth’s rebellion, and indeed in the 18th century his name was often paired with hers whenever people looked back in horror to the licentious and plagiaristic days of Restoration comedy. (Dr Johnson’s famous Drury Lane prologue, for example, indulges an appalled speculation that it might all happen again, ‘Perhaps if skill could distant times explore,/New Behns, new D’Urfeys, yet remain in store’, a couplet which Todd amazingly quotes in a footnote as evidence that Johnson admired Behn’s plays.) But d’Urfey is only mentioned here once, and the questions of what difference it made that Behn was a Tory woman, and why it was only in the 1670s that our first professional woman playwright was able to appear (although London had supported a far larger and more socially diverse population of playwrights sixty years earlier), remain largely unexplored.

However, if The Secret Life of Aphra Behn gives us only an incomplete picture of Behn as an artist and a distinctly downbeat one of Behn as a spy and a mistress, it succeeds extremely well in giving a convincing picture of her as a working writer. The most sympathetic and compelling passages of the book deal with the mature Behn of the later 1680s, and suggest very vividly what sort of life she must have been living in her late forties, as she tried desperately to make ends meet at a time when the opportunity to make a quick killing with a successful play had all but disappeared. By now Behn’s health and fortunes were failing to the extent that she was prepared to write a commendatory poem to Thomas Tryon’s vegetarian temperance tract The Way to Health, Long Life and Happiness (1685) – alas, no more salted tortoises – and it is likely that she subsequently had to fall back on the lowest of all forms of literary labour, transcribing manuscript lampoons. Todd is prepared to accept as hers the compilation of lampoons preserved in the Bodleian as ‘Astrea’s Booke for Songs & Satyr’s’, with its punning subtitle ‘Bhen’s and Bacon’ (beans and bacon were regarded as laxative, as well as cheap staples), and on the strength of its contents draws an unhappy picture of Behn, compelled to accept money to transcribe Whig propaganda designed to weaken James II’s hold over his subjects’ loyalties but unable to resist scrawling angry marginalia refuting some of its wilder claims. Despite this grudging acceptance of the enemy’s pay, Todd is reluctant to believe that Behn made much effort to secure potential literary patrons among Dutch William’s supporters in the days leading up to the coup of 1688. As she points out, Behn’s last poem, a congratulatory ode on Queen Mary’s arrival in England, praises Mary chiefly for resembling the father she had effectively deposed, and doesn’t mention William at all. Todd’s Behn may be an incorrigible Tory hack, but she is one who is allowed to preserve some self-respect. It is almost a relief at the end of the book when she dies five days after William and Mary’s coronation, spared some of the humiliating compromises to which Tory colleagues on Grub Street, such as d’Urfey, were finally reduced.