Aphra Behn: A Secret Life

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life

by Janet Todd

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Overview

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd

The life, work and history of Aphra Behn: seventeenth ­century dramatist, poet of the erotic and bisexual, novelist, political propagandist, spy.

Praise for the first hardback edition:

“Fascinating scholarship. Todd conveys Behn's vivacious character and the mores of the time.” —the New York Times

“Ground-breaking—it reads quickly and lightly. Even Todd’s throwaway lines are steeped in learning and observation.” —Ruth Perry, MIT, Women’s Review of Books

“A major biography; of interest to everyone who cares about women as writers.” — Times Higher Education Supplement

“Fascinating, a page-turner and a delight, an astonishingly thorough book.” —Emma Donoghue

“All women together ought to let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn. . . . For it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” —Virginia Woolf

Aphra Behn, a spy in the Netherlands and the Americas, was the first professional woman writer. The most prolific dramatist of her age, innovative novelist, translator, lyrical and erotic poet, she expresses a frank sexuality addressing impotence, orgasm and bisexuality, whilst serving as political propagandist for the monarch.

This revised biography of the extraordinary, ground-breaking writer, who is emblematic of the Restoration period, a time of masks and self-fashioning, is set in conflict-ridden England, Europe, and in the mismanaged slave colonies, following the Puritan republic in 1660.

Janet Todd, novelist and internationally renowned scholar, was President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and a Professor at Rutgers, NJ. An expert on women’s writing and feminism, she has published on many writers, including Jane Austen, the Shelley Circle, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Aphra Behn.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781909572065
Publisher: Fentum Press
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Edition description: Revised Edition, Fully Revised with a New Introduction
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 1,267,152
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Janet Todd was born in Wales and grew up in Britain, Bermuda and Sri Lanka. She has worked in Ghana, Puerto Rico, India, Scotland and England. In the US, at the University of Florida and Douglass College, Rutgers, she began the first journal devoted to women’s writing. She has published on the novel and memoir and written biographies of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughters Fanny and Mary Shelley, and the Irish Lady Mount Cashell. A Professor Emerita at the University of Aberdeen and Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, Janet Todd is a former President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, where she established the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. She has published two novels: Lady Susan Plays the Game and A Man of Genius. She lives in Cambridge and Venice.

Read an Excerpt


Aphra Behn: A Secret Life tells the story of one of the most extraordinary writers in English literature. Behn was fortunate in her historical moment: the Restoration, that naughty period following the end of the Puritan republic and re-establishment of monarchy in 1660. It delighted in masks and self-fashioning as many people remade their pasts to fit new allegiances. Aphra Behn was a woman who wore masks. My biography tries to get behind as many as possible.
She was the first English woman to earn her living solely by her pen. The most prolific dramatist of the Restoration, Behn was also an innovative writer of fiction and a translator of science and French romance. The novelist Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘All women together ought to let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn...For it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’ Minds and bodies. Behn was a lyrical and erotic poet, expressing a frank sexuality that addressed such subjects as male impotence, female orgasm, lesbianism, bisexuality and the indeterminacies of gender.
Despite Woolf’s generous assessment, no woman would have such freedom again for many centuries. In our frank and feminist times Behn can still astonish with her mocking treatment of sexual and social subjects such as amorphous desire, marriage and motherhood. During the two more respectable or prudish centuries that followed her death in 1689 women were afraid of her toxic image and mostly unwilling to emulate her sexual frankness. In her day, Behn had the reputation of a respected professional writer and also of a ‘punk-poetess’. For a long time after her death, she was allowed only to be the second.
Beyond her successes on the stage and in fiction, Aphra Behn was a royalist spy in the Netherlands and South America. She also served as a political propagandist for the courts of Charles II and his unpopular brother James II. Thus her life has to be deeply embedded in the tumultuous seventeenth century, in conflict-¬ridden England and Continental Europe and in the mismanaged slave colonies of the Americas. Her necessarily furtive activities, along with her prolific literary output of acknowledged and anonymous woks, make her a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess, an uneasy fit for any biographical narrative, speculative or factual. Aphra Behn is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks and intrigue, and her work delivers different images and sometimes contradictory views.
Much is secure about her professional career as dramatist, but there’s a relative paucity of absolute facts about Aphra Behn’s personal life. Coupled both with the sly suggestions she throws out and with her wonderfully inventive method of weaving experience and fancy with historical fact, this circumstance suggests that speculation and intuition are at times appropriate modes for her biographer. People of the Restoration made mirror and distorted mirror images of themselves. Fooling and deceit were art forms. So identifications in her life story are tentative, and the characters in her ‘true’ narratives and poems, relatives, friends and lovers, may be composite. I continue to see with varying degrees of clarity a ‘real’, marvellous woman, a protean author of protean works.
The Secret Life of Aphra Behn was originally published in 1996 following my edition of her complete works. In 2000 I made some corrections for the paperback and in a preface mentioned a few of the more unlikely suggestions about Aphra Behn’s identity. Now, twenty years on from the original publication, I find that much has been written about this wonderful writer, much that illuminates her rich oeuvre, but that nothing has significantly changed my overall picture of her and her tumultuous times.
I remain convinced that imagination may complement careful scholarship to illuminate an elusive subject and an exotically strange period. My recent experience as an author of an historical novel probably has a bearing on my present attitude to biography. The need to decide what to include from the culture of a necessarily alien past, to provide a context either for the historical subject or for the invented story, brings the novelist close to the biographer.
Readers of today are more at home with speculative and experimental modes than they were two decades ago. We live in an age of information glut and the biographer may be ‘novelist’ as well as historian, writing and welcoming something closer to fusion than was once acceptable. Lives can be brilliantly conveyed through words patched together from letters and comments, as if the author were writing his own diary, or the subject may be delivered less as a psychological whole than as a figment of the biographer’s informed imagination. Or again the biographer may be almost entirely hidden--or put upfront as questor of a strange life. The critic Frank Kermode once wrote, ‘It is not that we are connoisseurs of chaos, but that we are surrounded by it, and equipped for co-existence with it only by our fictive powers.’ If we want to live a while with Aphra Behn in the age of Charles II and Nell Gwyn, we have to use some imagination—and avoid imposing our present-day psychological and political views on a woman very much not of our time.
The extra twenty years of critical commentary since I wrote my biography tell me that, as an author, Aphra Behn is secure in the canon of English literature. She is taught in colleges and universities in English-speaking countries. Where Restoration drama is on the syllabus, she is there with the other great playwrights, William Wycherley and William Congreve. As author of some startling and innovative fictions, she enters as an originator or precursor of the modern English novel, along with Daniel Defoe and the trio of early women writers, Margaret Cavendish, Eliza Haywood and Delarivier Manley. Because of its setting in Surinam, her celebrated novella Oroonoko about a princely black slave is favoured in post-colonialist studies. Finally, in women’s studies courses, Behn is hailed as the first thoroughly professional woman writer, concerned with her craft, with details of publication, and with her status in the literary world.
For all this critical activity Aphra Behn is still not as high in appreciation and recognition as I believe she deserves to be--and as I expected her to be when I began thinking about her in the heady 1970s, that decade of rediscovery when so many past women writers were allowed out of the shadows. With her craft and experimental techniques, her exciting female perspective on everything from politics to domesticity and sex, I thought her on a level with Jane Austen in literary importance. I still do. And it’s hard to imagine a more striking and adventurous life --even if a good deal of the latter is and was intended to be secret!
Most of the articles and comments on Behn in the last two decades have been scholarly. They have responded to the changing fashions of the disciplines of English and Cultural Studies. Second-Wave feminist criticism that brought her to greater notice in the 1960s and 1970s is much concerned with the performative and with amorphous and polymorphous desire, while the emphasis in post-colonialist studies, that other growth area within the discipline, is overwhelmingly concerned with race and ethnicity. Aphra Behn as writer of sexually explicit poems and portrayer of England’s early colonies has much to say in both areas of study.
Some work useful for a biographer has concerned Behn as dramatist and poet. It throws new light on her stagecraft, her shifting and often prominent position in the theatrical marketplace, as well as on her complex interactions with male colleagues and competitors. In her theatrical dedications she uses flattery in ways that both amuse and dismay present critics and, in her plays, she portrays rakes and whores with the kind of ambiguity that can be disturbing—as well as funny. Behn was fascinated by rank, by the notion of nobility, its honour and the manifold ways in which it could be dishonoured. She returned to the topic over and over again in her drama, investigating the allure and vulnerabilities of personal and political authority. Recent critics have applauded her lively enthusiasm for sexual games and her irreverence about the masculinity that dominated the age and which she expresses so well in her plays and in her frank and risqué poems. If she astonishes readers less about sex than she did a century ago, she can still shock with her treatment of subjects such as rape and the seductions of power. In many areas of gender relationships, then, her drama, fiction and poetry are still capable of destabilising our own assumptions. So too can her utopian moral and political schemes, where desire and reality coalesce or clash, and where the body is left to subvert the mind.
However interesting and disturbing so many of her works can appear, overwhelmingly comment has settled on a single one, Oroonoko. This is usually delivered not in its historical or literary context but in terms of modern ideas of race, ethnicity and gender. Sometimes the novella is coupled with Behn’s posthumously produced play, her ‘American’ work, The Widdow Ranter, set in the English colony of Virginia. In both novella and drama, interpretations clash.
For some contemporary readers The Widdow Ranter seems to advocate republican values against a stuffy, hierarchical and anachronistic world order that cannot easily adapt to a changed environment; the play discovers a superior cultural space that expresses America and a non-European future of freedom. For others, the work is staunchly and overtly monarchical, revealing the chaos of democracy that emerges when the ‘people’ are given power and allowed to decide; we may relish the Falstaffian carnival element of the play, but it remains a portrait of misrule in a disordered colony requiring noble English governance to restore order and prosperity.
Oroonoko provokes even greater interpretative divisions, especially in its depiction of slavery. This is an overwhelming interest of our own age and, inevitably, as with sex and gender, we look through our modern assumptions at a work written before the secure establishment of the dreadful trade of African and American slavery. Some readers find Oroonoko a roundly aristocratic text stressing nobility and rank beyond anything else. Nobility can be found in anyone regardless of the colour of their skin. Conversely, the ignoble of whatever ethnicity deserve slavery. Ignoring the hero’s own involvement in the trade in slaves, other readers see an abolitionist work and they apply to this fiction of fluidity in types and ethnic groups such modern terms as ‘miscegenation’ and ‘imperialism’. When Oroonoko and The Widdow Ranter are brought together, critics find themselves more in agreement: for Behn may appear to combine humanism with an enthusiasm for noble honour, a comic understanding of life with a less characteristic tragic one.
If Aphra Behn’s depiction of gender and race can be assimilated to our modern ideas or at least celebrated for its difference, her politics, when separated from the moral and social results of Restoration government, often remain troublesome. Many critics worry over the apparent conflict between her feminist understanding and her staunch Tory royalist stance. Recent work has looked at her attitude to the various plots of the age, the Popish Plot and the Meal-Tub Plot and her mockery of fake kings like the would-be king Monmouth. The work sheds light on some of the difficulties in interpretation. In her plays and stories readers have found conflicting messages. Some see occasional critiques of the royal brothers Charles II and James II, others simply an exaggerated loyalty against apparent odds and the currents of history. Perhaps, as contemporary readers, we find splits between desire and hierarchy, between women and dominating monarchy, and between hedonism and loyalty where she and her age found no necessary distinctions. Behn lived through a time of immense political upheaval and perhaps we are wrong to look for consistency. The Vicar of Bray is not the only person who had to move with changes in regimes.
Her literary milieu was quite different from our own.

Table of Contents

About the Author & Author's Previous Works ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgements xxi

Introduction to the 1996 Version xxiii

1 Beginnings in Kent 1

2 Sir Thomas Colepeper and Lord Strangford 18

3 Voyage to Surinam 29

4 Colonial Politics: Willoughby and Byam 40

5 Surinam: African Slaves and Native Americans 51

6 Marriage and the Great Plague 63

7 On the King's Service 76

8 To Antwerp 85

9 Debts and Disappointment 100

10 In and Out of Prison 114

11 Theatrical Début: The Forc'd Marriage 134

12 The Amorous Prince and Covent Garden Drolery 146

13 The Dutch Lover and Theatrical Conflict 160

14 John Hoyle and Abdelazer 175

15 Poetry in a Theatrical World 194

16 The Rover and Thomaso 213

17 Sir Patient Fancy and City Whigs 227

18 The Popish Plot and The Feign'd Curtizans 240

19 Deaths of the Earl of Rochester and Viscount Stafford 255

20 The Second Part of The Rover and The Roundheads 274

21 Free-thinking in Politics and Religion 293

22 Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister 307

23 The Great Frost and Voyage to the Isle of Love 321

24 Death of Charles II and Coronation of James II 343

25 Farewell to the Theatre: The Luckey Chance and The Emperor of the Moon 361

26 Seneca Unmasqued and La Montre 381

27 Part III of Love-Letters and Court Poetry 401

28 A Discovery of New Worlds and Poems for James II 412

29 The Widdow Ranter and Oroonoko 428

30 End of Stuart Dynasty and Death of Aphra Behn 442

Notes 455

Chronological List of Behn's Works 545

Bibliography of Works Written Before 1800 549

Selected Works Published After 1800 558

Index 569

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Aphra Behn: A Secret Life 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
JBronder More than 1 year ago
Aphra Behn is the first woman to make her living as a writer of plays during the Restoration period. But the knowledge of her is very limited because over her years she had many versions of herself that she told from her parents, her name, and such. Janet Todd has done a great job of filling in the possibilities of Aphra’s life from what is known. But with intense review of her work, Janet Todd has done a great job of putting together a story about Aphra. Aphra was many things over her years and a study in complete opposites seemed to be the main thing. She wrote plays, translated books, was a spy, loved both men and women, and although she was famous she also wanted her privacy. But the thing I liked the best about her was that she didn’t knuckle down to the critics and the men that expected her to write a specific way just because she was a woman. Janet Todd does break down Alpha’s plays but I’m sorry to admit that I don’t mind reading things but when you start analyzing them like a high school English class my mind shuts off. I did think this was a well written story of Aphra Behn and it introduced me to an author that I had never heard of before. I received The Secret Life of Aphra Behn from the publisher for free. This has in no way influenced my opinion of this book.