The Secret Life Of Aphra Behn is not an entirely satisfactory work, but given its subject, perhaps it could not be. Behn herself is one of the literary world’s most elusive figures; a fact that Janet Todd acknowledges at the outset of her biography, admitting that much of it is necessarily speculative. Almost nothing is known for certain about Behn’s early life or her marriage, and the first section of Todd’s book often feels strained and unpersuasive as she tries to weave together a cogent story from thin and scattered threads. Todd accepts the reality of Behn’s journey to Surinam, upon which her novel Oroonoko is supposedly based, arguing reasonably that this tale contains local colour and terminology absent from Behn’s other works set outside of England, and which suggest first-hand knowledge.
Not surprisingly, Todd finds herself on surer ground after Behn, as she puts it, “entered recorded history”, which her trip to Antwerp as an agent of the government of Charles II. What is known of this episode is so chiefly through Behn’s surviving letters to England, complaining that her mission has forced her to run into debt and begging for relief, which was only grudgingly and inadequately forthcoming. Behn should have known better: the Stuarts never paid their bills. Back home after this largely abortive enterprise, Behn determined on a literary career, choosing for her milieu the theatres that were thriving in the early Restoration. Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was staged on 20th September, 1670.
Todd traces the history of Behn’s writing career, highlighting the literary influences, the ongoing financial crises, the personal relationships (mostly unhappy) and the royalist / Tory sympathies that shaped her career. The point is well-made that Behn herself had almost no female influences: one or two women before her had written and staged plays; Margaret Cavendish had published, and had been ridiculed and abused for it; while Katherine Phillips, “Orinda”, had warded off attack by expressing outrage (feigned or otherwise) that her private writings had fallen into the hands of a publisher. In the late 17th century, a career like Behn’s was unheard of.
The political and religious upheaval of the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis impacted negatively upon the theatre, and Behn turned increasingly to translation and to fiction to support herself. Although Behn herself most regarded her plays and poetry, it is as a prose writer that she had the most direct influence upon England’s literary course. Her remarkable Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister is a pivotal work in the development of the English novel, and one which was shamelessly plundered throughout the 18th century – usually by the same people given to abusing Behn sanctimoniously for her “immorality”. Shifting social mores would subsequently result in the burying of both the name and the works of Aphra Behn; Janet Todd’s book is only one aspect of the deserved ongoing rehabilitation of her reputation and standing, which began in the early 20th century with Virginia Woolf’s famous declaration that, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their mind.“