There is nothing Janet Todd doesn’t know about the Restoration playwright, Aphra Behn; her acclaimed 1996 biography is testimony to this. Twenty years on she has returned to this work, updating it with subtle textual revisions and a new introduction: Aphra Behn: A Secret Life is the result. In the years separating these editions historical biography has undergone a transformation, opening up to, what Todd terms as ‘speculative and experimental modes’. This is what seems to have spurred her to revisit her earlier text.
Despite Behn’s prolific literary output and unprecedented recognition for a female writer of the period, very little is known about the facts of her life. Todd unashamedly indulges in this spirit of ‘speculative’ approach to lend colourful context to her forensically detailed analysis of the author’s work. It is a sad truth that while the plays of Behn’s male contemporaries such as Dryden, Congreve and Wycherly found their place in the literary canon, Behn’s work drifted around the margins for centuries. She was latterly revived by the work of feminist academics in the wake of Virginia Woolf’s famed pronouncement that all women were indebted to Behn, ‘as it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’
It is true that in the last twenty years Behn has firmly claimed her place in the history of English Literature and her literary output has undergone detailed analysis across many academic disciplines. But, as Todd points out, Behn has never become the household name she deserves to be, as the first woman to properly earn her living by the pen. This revised biography seems to be driven by a continuing desire to bring Behn to a wider audience. Todd is not attempting to seek acclaim for an inferior writer simply for the fact she was female. Indeed, Aphra Behn was a writer of uncommon skill and wit who was greatly celebrated in her time alongside her male counterparts, and her themes of gender, race and class remain pertinent to this day. Her success was remarkable too for the fact that she was from an ordinary family and not one of the educated aristocrats who wrote for private circulation. Behn can also can claim to have been one of the earliest English novelists with Oroonoko, published in 1688, coming some thirty years before Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, considered by many as the first English novel.
Todd’s passion for her subject bubbles up through the text. She sees Behn as a woman of many masks and identities, an apt characterisation given the preoccupation with masquerade in Behn’s period and milieu. Todd pieces together the playwright’s obscure beginnings in Kent, her time in the South American settlement of Surinam and her early career as a royalist spy in the Netherlands, seeking to peel away the masks and find the woman beneath. The problem with writing about an individual whose activities are designed to be secret is that there are few hard facts on which Todd can hang her story and so she leans heavily on supposition. This makes for a narrative that at times lacks drive and definition, relying on suggestions that Behn might have done such-and-such or she may have met so-and-so and revealing the impossibility of ever fully unmasking her subject. This is not the fault of the biographer but rather her desire to avoid misleading the reader with definitive statements where facts are elusive.
Todd talks in her introduction about how her recent experience of writing two historical novels has opened her up to the possibilities of this speculative approach and one can’t help wondering why she didn’t choose to revisit Behn’s story through the prism of fiction. Todd relies heavily on the material of Behn’s own fictional output to piece together the facts of her life. There is a great deal to go on: at least nineteen plays, as well as her novels, stories and collections of poetry, which Todd plunders exhaustively. But this is always a problematic approach as, tempting though it is to infer that Behn’s inspiration was drawn from her own life experience, it is impossible to extrapolate any firm truth from a fictional landscape.
What is beyond doubt is that Behn mixed with the most fascinating of company from both the low and high life. She met Charles II and his brother and heir James, while royal mistress Nell Gwynn and celebrated author Dryden were amongst the famed and infamous who inhabited her world. She had a close relationship with the libertine Earl of Rochester. She was also highly political with resolutely royalist beliefs, which she forwarded in her work, something Todd points out as contradictory to her position as a renegade to convention, being a woman without a man, who earned her own living and lived a sexually liberated lifestyle unbound by the morals of the day.
There is no doubt that Aphra Behn: A Secret Life is a significant and absorbing work about an important figure and one that is packed full of enthralling detail. Todd’s rigorous scholarship underpins her lively conjecture and, despite the paucity of established fact, this is a fascinating read that brings the Restoration period in all its bawdy glory and political complexity into vivid life.
Aphra Behn: A Secret Life is out on 1st June 2017 from Fentum Press.