Shakespeare's real sister

The Secret Life of Aphra Behn
February 14, 1997

The interest Aphra Behn arouses as one of the first professional women writers in England has been heightened by the obscurity of her early life. Twenty years ago, Maureen Duffy's The Passionate Shepherdess broke new ground with its research into Kentish records, offering an Aphra Behn born Eaffry Johnson in 1640. Recently alternative Behns have been postulated - the daughter of an illegitimate daughter of Lady Mary Sidney Wroth, or a courtesan from a foreign, perhaps American, land.

In this major new biography, Janet Todd sticks with Duffy's Behn, the daughter of a wet nurse and a barber: derived as she is from the most reliable of contemporary accounts, Anne Finch's and Thomas Colepeper's, she is certainly the safest bet. Todd agrees with Jane Jones, whose research has suggested Johan Behn as the shadowy husband. Aphra Johnson, it seems likely, married this seafarer soon after her return from Surinam, and was widowed, or permanently separated, about a year afterwards.

With these origins for Behn, her transformation into one of the most prominent Restoration playwrights is, for all the ambiguous status of the professional writer, a story of spectacular upward mobility. Despite what she was to call "the scanted Customs of the Nation,/ Permitting not the Female Sex to tread/The Mighty Paths of Learned Heroes Dead", Behn somehow gained a writer's education. Educated because she was bright and attractive enough for her betters to notice her, she lived to please and necessarily kept parts of her personality hidden from those whose favour she had to court. Secrecy is the key to Todd's Behn. Everyone has noted her 1660s spying mission in Antwerp - as Todd points out, it is her most certainly documented activity - but Todd has Behn involved in espionage in Holland in the 1650s; in Surinam, where a spying mission, not the fictional appointment of her father to a colonial post, took her with family in tow; and even during intervals in her later writing career.

Espionage explains not just Behn's travels but the facility for and fascination with self-disguise shown in so much of her writing. Spying may even have played a small part in Behn's original entry into the theatre. If she first knew Thomas Killigrew in Maastricht in the 1650s, and perhaps even acted as amanuensis on his sprawling MS volume of plays, he might in later years, not needing her in the King's Company, have been willing to help her by recommending her to the rival Duke's Company, where she became a leading playwright.

Despite the emphasis on secrecy, Todd has given us a fuller, more detailed Behn than any previous biographer. She may not bring us into intimacy with a woman who mocked introspection and used masks for living as well as for the theatre, but she does give us a remarkable insight into a professional writing life in the Restoration. To make the individual, who left so few records and generated so few anecdotes, stand out against that background, there is inevitable recourse to what she "must have" felt or thought of this and that. Lively vignettes like the one that has Behn, on her return from Surinam, entertaining Charles II with a first hearing of the story of the slave prince Oroonoko, "darker even than the 'black' Stuart king", are enjoyable flights of fancy; but Todd keeps her perhapses and her probablies nicely distinct, and the latter are carefully and plausibly built up.

As the editor of the recent seven-volume Complete Works of Behn, Todd is uniquely well-placed to use Behn's writing as a source of clues for her life, and she does this judiciously. Behn's possible involvement in continental espionage in the 1650s, for example, is supported by details in her plays suggesting uncommon knowledge of Flanders at the time. On Behn's emotional and sexual life, at least as hidden as her espionage, Todd also uses the evidence of the works, persuasively arguing that the recurrence of male sexual coldness in her writing suggests some of the difficulties of her relationship with John Hoyle, her one known lover.

With so little known for certain about Behn, she has been seen as a contradictory figure. Was she an Anglican? A Catholic, from her complimentary references to Catholicism in late dedications? An atheist, from her praise of Lucretius? An ardent Tory, or a time-serving hack? Todd emphasises the emergence of Behn's political position: in Surinam, her friends are parliamentarians and her own views are not known. She later became a royalist by conviction, strengthened by a personal loyalty to James. Not Catholic by birth or upbringing, she was entranced by Catholic ritual and politically sympathetic to the Catholic position, but these views sat alongside a sceptical mindset, suspicious of the priesthood, conspicuously lacking in piety, and intellectually drawn to materialism. Todd's Behn is a complex, multifaceted, changing, but finally coherent figure: a wide-ranging woman of letters whose achievements in social comedy and political fiction have lasting significance.

Todd gives particular prominence to Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, calling it Behn's masterpiece, a work of political propaganda that changed direction and became a great erotic novel. It is in fiction, rather than on stage, she points out, that Behn could best explore the questions of female subjectivity and sexuality that came to fascinate her. This emphasis perhaps leads Todd to give less due than they deserve to Behn's plays, with their constant theatrical experimentation and their abundant entertainment value both in Restoration times and, as several recent productions have demonstrated, in ours.

Todd's rich biography will be of interest to everyone who cares about the period or about women as writers. If Virginia Woolf, as Todd argues, overvalued the fact of Behn's writing at the expense of the work itself, here the balance is redressed. Todd's study gives us, in the most probable account we can expect, a witty and versatile contemporary of Dryden, Rochester and Wycherley: not Woolf's dream of Shakespeare's sister, but the reality of the Restoration writer.

Jane Spencer is senior lecturer in English literature, University of Exeter.

The Secret Life of Aphra Behn

Author - Janet Todd
ISBN - 0 233 98991 9
Publisher - Andre Deutsch
Price - £25.00
Pages - 545

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