Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd illuminates the life of a fascinating 17th-century woman
Janet Todd’s masterly biography of the first professional lady of letters has been reissued by Fentum Press 21 years after it originally appeared. In the intervening years Behn has become a regular feature of many English degrees. I asked the author how she feels Aphra Behn’s critical reputation has changed and one of the things Janet Todd is wary of is that on many English courses Behn is often examined without sufficient reference to her cultural and historical context. “She is securely taught in many universities now, in women’s and post-colonial studies and where Restoration literature is a course within an English degree. Only in the last is she put firmly within her historical and literary context. Critical work has tended to concentrate on The Rover and Oroonoko, discussing issues of interest to us now and often finding modern ideas of gender, race and class in her work rather than teasing out her meanings within her historical frame.”
Literary biographies are a fascinating read because they give us a new insight into the author’s works; in this case however Todd uses Behn’s works to open a window onto her life. Documentary evidence for Behn is scant but Todd’s research is painstaking.
Born Aphra Johnson in Kent in 1640, very little is known of her early years but Todd teases out family connections to Thomas Colepeper and through him to Lord Strangford and Lady Sunderland, which may account for Behn’s literary education. Certainly she was fluent in French and well versed in the classics.
She served as a spy for the court of Charles II in the 1660s through her connection to Thomas Killigrew: spy master, theatre manager and dramatist, but Todd is meticulous in putting together the puzzle of Behn’s activities throughout these years. She gives us a clearer picture of an adventurous young woman with an eye for detail and a fascination for learning and culture who had enough daring, wit and courage to take the risks necessary for the life of a spy and of course in pursuit of payment as well as excitement. Behn’s most famous novel and certainly the one that is most popular on undergraduate courses, Oroonko contains such a wealth of detail of the colony of Surinam and its inhabitants that she must have visited. Todd puts together the connections that took her there and the timeline of her travels. Using the settings of her fictional works, Todd is able to piece together an astounding tale of a woman who acted as an English agent in a variety of European cities. However spying was not a lucrative profession and Behn soon fell into debt. She returned to London to petition the King for payment to clear the debts she had incurred in his service but with payment not forthcoming she was arrested and spent time in debtor’s prison.
Determined to earn her living by her pen, she worked as a scribe for both The King’s Company and The Duke’s Company, she translated works from French and began to write her own poetry, plays and prose. She had a number of her plays performed throughout the 1670s and 1680s including The Forc’d Marriage and The Rover and they helped to cement her reputation as a wit. Behn used her plays as a channel to attack those whose politics she disagreed with, often lampooning public figures, but they also display her interest in women’s lives and the obstacles they face, in love, marriage and the games that men and women play. In the 1680s Behn began to publish prose pieces and Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister is one of the earliest novels in English. Behn wrote a great deal of erotic fiction and her open and unembarrassed attitude to sex and the female body made her unpopular in the prudish Victorian era. Her reputation was rebuilt by a number of scholars in the 20th century and certainly Janet Todd’s is the most detailed and informative biography we have. I asked Todd if she would change anything were she writing the book today.
“I would apologise less for being speculative than I did then. I made it clear where I was speculating and I grounded my theories on what was already known but I would now make more positive claims for what I was doing. Biography-writing has developed in recent years … When revising the book, I wondered about cutting some historical context, but decided against it. Behn’s life is so rich, so multifaceted and embedded in other lives, that I think she needs to live in quite a fat book.”
Aphra Behn is acknowledged as an important part of the Restoration literary scene but Todd believes that her contribution to the creation of the novel is yet to be widely accepted. “I believe she should be held in as much critical esteem as an innovator and pioneer—but there is a long way to go …” but Todd is confident that scholarly study of Behn is improving. “A recent large British grant supporting study by a group of academics on Aphra Behn is likely to produce detailed scholarly work, especially about sources and historical links. This in turn will undoubtedly lead to further and more illuminating critical assessments. But not yet. For the present I must admit that Aphra Behn hasn’t become quite as famous as I expected. Maybe in another 25 years.”
Aphra Behn lived a life as full, as exciting, and in many ways as scandalous as any heroine, and whether you are in search of a biography of a fascinating woman or one of a hugely influential writer or seek a window onto the political, literary and cultural landscape of Restoration England you will find all three in this page-turning book.
This article was first published by the Historical Novel Society