The Carefully Curated Life of Aphra Behn | Herstory #2

aphra behn1 636x310 The Carefully Curated Life of Aphra Behn | Herstory #2

Aphra Behn
– Sir Peter Lely (ca. 1670, oil on canvas)

Let me with Sappho and Orinda be
O ever sacred nymph adorned by thee;
and give my verses immortality
– Aphra Behn, in her translation of Book VI of De Plantis (London, 1689)

It might be said that Aphra Behn, England’s first professional woman of letters, could give Shakespeare a run for his money; like him, Behn’s early life is a void from which, against all the odds, she contrived to place herself within the pantheon of English literature.

Behn’s life before 1666 is, in essence, non-existent; was she born as Johnson, Amis or Cooper? In Canterbury or Wye? She was likely born into the chaotic Interregnum and found fame in the Restoration, “a period badly documented and given to covering traces”1; her truancy from the records is not surprising. Women were easily felled from the pages of history, especially those without title or nobility, and Early Modern illiteracy rates, high printing costs and low levels of readership did little to inspire other material records; there is no marginalia for the female masses2. If Behn were indeed history’s most likely candidate, Eaffrey Johnson, born 14 December 1640 to a Kentish barber and a wetnurse3, her chances of being literate were as low as 10%4. As Eaffrey, Behn becomes not so much a reflection of Shakespeare as she does of Christopher Marlowe, another Kentish child who escaped the proletariat to find literary fame. Unlike Marlowe, Behn risked dropping out of our cultural conscience altogether. That she clawed her way out of anonymity is testament to the little girl from Kent who saw what the world offered and wanted more.

In the life of Behn this wide chasm of the unknown is, according to Janet Todd, “inevitably part fiction, part fact”5; but was this early obscurity later maintained? Behn’s oeuvre is all masks, “all perspectives to be changed like clothes”6. If missing records are a ‘luckey chance’ and if Behn, increasingly aware of her legacy as she aged, thought about her present in posterity…can it be that Behn applied this to her past too? With twenty years as Britain’s most prominent female writer, was Behn using her gendered, class-based absence from history to construct unlimited possibilities for her past – ones that could shape her literary future?

This question exists within at least two primary contexts; fiction and gender. Behn’s earliest posthumous biographies draw their facts almost exclusively from fictions; the secrets of her past were the only ones that witty, chatty Behn kept. Where the transposition of one to the other exists (her friend Charles Gildon lifted his posthumous History of the Life and Memoirs of Mrs Behn almost entirely from Ooronoko), for seventeenth-century audiences this inference of truth from narratives would not be odd; before the mid-eighteenth century “narrative came in two forms; referential truth telling and lying”7. Fiction could be recognised as non-literal truth but “without the intention to deceive”8. Enough may have been known of Behn’s pre-record life, and the mindset of her audience so fixed, that one assumed that the hints she presented were drawn from her history.

But how could Behn’s fiction reflect fact when the woman herself was a state dissembler? Behn finally appears in the records in 1666 as a spy for Charles II. There is contention that Behn had operated as such in the English colony of Surinam c.1663, but certainly during the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665-1667 she was recruited to engage William Scot, son of a regicide. William had been present in Surinam, possibly with Behn (possibly romantically), had absconded to Holland, and was now tangled up with Dutch-friendly treason. Behn’s experience in Holland would follow her for the rest of her life, both in the debt her unpaid wages plunged her into and the ciphers and codes she wrote in. “The habit persisted into her literary works, which also need decoding”9. Her codename, Astrea, would stick until the end. Even if Behn’s fiction was ‘referential to the truth’, it was not so in a way familiar to the seventeenth-century English public, who did not expect their writers to lie to them. Indeed, as attitudes to fiction developed, accusations of lying blighted Behn’s reception amongst critics well into the twentieth century10. Yet, “if she bared her ‘soul’ [in fiction], it was in code.”11

If Behn approached her fictions differently, her ‘gender’ also presented in ways unfamiliar to her public; though gender in its modern sense does not apply here. The mid- to late-1600s still viewed men and women in light of the one-sex/flesh model that had held for millennia. Women were homologous to men; that is, their reproductive organs were no more than physical inversions of the male. In this hierarchical model of the world, “women had no truly unique parts, only lesser ones”12; ensuring female inferiority. Though physicians like Regnier de Graaf were making contemporaneous scientific advances, it was not until the 1790s that a full female skeleton would appear in anatomy books13. Behn was fixed into a hierarchy that always made her second best.

She had no choice but to be aware of these restrictions on her. And yet. Perhaps her foray into espionage had loosened the constraints of Restoration femininity; perhaps it had started earlier, with the education denied to so many other girls. Behn was not afraid to step into the male world of the theatre with Dryden and the Earl of Rochester, and she was unafraid to be more than she was. In Behn’s work, “there was no panoply of feminine shame or modesty, no sense that she wrote because impelled to express her female predicament. She wrote because she was good at it and made money.”14 Throughout her career Behn’s ambition is plain, and it paid off in her success (she was second only to Dryden). Her Pindaric odes to potential patrons make no bones about that, and they aim high; at royalty.

There is another context paramount to reviewing the editing process Behn applied to her life – her politics. Behn was a vocal Tory, starkly defying the model of the liberal protofeminist. If her feminism existed, it was borne from a conflict of prescribed inferiority and knowing her own mind. Behn clearly spent her life escaping the masses she had been born into, putting them as far behind – and below her – as she could, both in her writing and through her support for Charles II and, later, James II. Her childhood was dominated by war and extremes of morality; it might be expected that a clever and witty child opposed those who had closed the theatres and dispatched the pomp theatricality of court (not to mention the King). Her complex self-identity was bound up not just in her femininity and class but in the evolution of her extremely visible Tory politics. Yet here too there were subverted truths; when poverty called, Behn went where the money was, and in 1685 the money was in Whig propaganda. The evidence for this lies in a manuscript, MS Firth c16, now in the Bodleian Library, entitled “Astrea’s Booke for Songs and Satyr’s”, with contributions in Behn’s hand. On the cover is scrawled ‘Bhen’s and bacon’, a possible play on a contemporary idiom. Many of the subjects lampooned within – Dryden, Roger L’Estrange, James II – were either within Behn’s circle or the subject of much of her public affections, highlighting once again that Behn cannot be pinned down, even in her own very public words. Yet, in the tightening spiral of Behn’s thoughts and loyalties, the hand thought to be hers added several angry pieces of marginalia decrying passages in the book. With Behn, one layer scratched away does nothing more than to reveal another.

Her chance for literary as well as commercial success might live or die in how she played out the contexts she lived within; for a seventeenth-century woman who wrote because she was good at it, her tool was fiction. The brother Behn took to Antwerp had disappeared from recorded history; her husband was likely dead; Scot, who had never really broken with the Dutch, was out of her life. The male stranglehold on Behn lay with her King and those who might fill her purse (or her heart) through plays and printing. What her theatrical circle knew of her past is murky; in 1699, Dryden’s comment to an aspiring poet that she was “too well-born” to fall into Behn’s style suggests that the Poet Laureate and their contemporaries had been aware not just of Behn’s unavoidable femaleness but also her lowly birth. But, as with much of Behn, who knew what is a hard mystery to solve; and as any spy operating in the Restoration would know, murmurs and hints stoked a fire far faster than cold facts.

Behn presents a remarkable self-knowledge throughout her writings. Aware always that she was a woman in a man’s world (“All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me … to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in”)15, she also understood that the economic landscape required her “defamation” as well as her success; presenting multiple dualities in her work – monarch and whore, poetess and prostitute, female and male – reflected and balanced the simultaneous need for rejection and approval that would allow her to be economically successful16. But Behn also recognised that the concept of dualities might feed into her biographic fantasies – simultaneously running with the truth told off-stage and the “truth” told on it. In the seventeenth century, where fiction was always referential to facts, Behn could construct multiple versions of her life which must, in the forms in which they were presented, all be true. This deluge of paradoxes could create a spiral, one in which Behn rejected the fixed identities of her low birth and ‘gender’, yet used both to construct multiple possible personae existing in the “wild space”17 fiction was beginning to explore. Behn claimed the male poetic persona in several works, filling that space with the masculine poetic ideal and the heroic tradition, where a spy like Astrea might exist; but also with her beloved Arcadia, the pastoral idyll where women were free of sexual and economic demands on their bodies and the shepherdess Astrea could also exist. And, perhaps, there was some last piece of affection for her low-born youth in there; the heroines of La Calprenède and de Scudéry’s great French romances, so often favoured by young and literate Royalist girls, would fit perfectly into Behn’s fantasy world. In the gaps between Behn’s multiple truths, “what can be seen of her is never what she is, but the theatrical inauthenticity of what can be seen implies the existence of some hidden woman directing the drama”18.

What Behn had learned, both from William Scot in Antwerp and from the public equation of poetess and whore, was that giving oneself away entirely would devalue her. Her construction of authorial personae served economic purpose but so to, and especially towards the end of her life, when she “[valued] Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero”19, her habit of mythologising her own biography might have left her with some comfort. Dying slowly and painfully, devoid of the court patronage she had always chased, and with another Stuart King, James II, in exile at the end of her life, the whispers she had left in her work might still promise a more extraordinary beginning than the one she knew to be true. Perhaps Behn hoped that these unsteady personae would achieve the impossible; the same chance for literary immortality as she saw for her male peers. And perhaps, finally, after centuries of being maligned by a patriarchal world, Behn’s wish is coming true. So many years later, we are still not sure of the woman behind the words; but we do know that, behind all the different Astreas, Behn has kept the promise of Aphra alive.

  1. See J. Todd, Introduction to The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), Kindle edition
  2. See H. B. Hackel, ”Boasting of silence’: women readers in a patriarchal state’, Reading, Society and Politics in Early Modern England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 107
  3. For discussions of Behn’s possible birth and parentage, see Maureen Duffy’s The Passionate Shepherdess (New York: Avon Books, 1979), Angeline Goreau’s Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn (New York: Dial Press, 1980), and Janet Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997)
  4. See D. Cressy, ‘Literacy’, Encyclopaedia of Literature and Criticism, ed. Martin Coyle, Peter Garside, Malcolm Kelsall, and Dr John Peck (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 844
  5. See J. Todd, Preface to The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), Kindle edition
  6. See Todd (1997), Introduction
  7. See C. Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. xvi
  8. See Gallagher (1995), pp. xvi
  9. See Todd (1997), Introduction
  10. See P. Salzman, Introduction to Oroonoko and Other Writings, ed. Paul Salzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. xi
  11. See Todd (1997), Introduction
  12. See Introduction to The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Lacquer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) pp. viii
  13. See T. Lacquer, ‘Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology’, The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Lacquer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) pp. 2-4
  14. See Todd (1997), Introduction
  15. See A. Behn, ‘The Lucky Chance’, Behn: Five Plays (London: Methuen Drama, 1990), pp. 7
  16. See Gallagher (1995), pp. 7
  17. See Gallagher (1995), pp. xvi
  18. See Gallagher (1995), pp. 17
  19. See Behn (1990), pp. 7