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’.)

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