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Books: Impotence in Arcadia

THE SECRET LIFE OF APHRA BEHN by Janet Todd, Deutsch pounds 25
Virginia Woolf claimed that: "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn", the first woman to earn a living by her pen. That tomb, in Westminster Abbey, records one of the very few unambiguous facts we have about this famously risque Restoration playwright, poet, translator and novelist: the date of her death, 16 April 1689.

A figure as shadowy as Aphra Behn poses special problems for the biographer. "Women are excluded from most institutions that keep records," complains Janet Todd. "The lists of country gentlemen do not include Aphra Behn, nor do the rolls of Oxford and Cambridge or of the Inns of Court and the Middle Temple ... Without a great public school or college, even a church or chapel fellowship, there is little chance that something startling will be found in an attic." But then, this is also true of Shakespeare.

The events of her first 27 years are "not securely known", with no place and date of birth, or even name, but Todd locates a possible candidate in Eaffrey Johnson of Canterbury, born in December 1640, the daughter of a barber and a wet-nurse. The name, with variants Affara, Afra and Affry, was not uncommon in Kent. If this Eaffrey is our Aphra, she "possibly" visited Penshurst, with her foster-brother Thomas Colepeper, a kinsman of the Sidneys whom he "is likely" to have visited. This links her not only with the poetic tradition of Sir Philip but also with the literary women of the family: the Countess of Pembroke to whom the Arcadia was dedicated, and Lady Mary Wroth, dedicatee of The Alchemist. More practically for Todd, early access to the great Penshurst library would explain the older Behn's unusual grasp of history, philosophy, comparative religion and European literature.

Todd draws careful attention to points of dubiety in the life, but then takes the ambiguous pencilled lines of hearsay and works them up into exuberant oil sketches. No evidence exists for Behn's visit to Surinam as a young woman, though it would explain the convincing setting of her slave-story Oroonoko. But Todd creates an exciting narrative plausibly linking Behn to key characters in the South American colony. One of these is William Scot, a spy and fugitive, and another distant relative of Thomas Colepeper. On her return to Surinam (if, indeed, she ever went away), Behn was dispatched to enemy Holland to honey-trap Scot into becoming an English informant against the Dutch. She missed the Great Fire, being stationed, penniless, at Antwerp, wondering why money from London wasn't coming through.

This episode, with its well-authenticated letters, brings Behn into slightly sharper focus, albeit as a gullible bungler who was being manipulated by both sides. At such times, Todd's guesses are rewarding, but they can also lead her into tortuous suppositions: "if she did go to prison, she probably managed to stay there for the minimum time...".

A brief meeting with Charles II left her a confirmed monarchist and Tory, despite her unpleasant memories of Government service. Even her narrative Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister ("If one is searching for 'the first novel'," says Todd, "it is hard to see why Robinson Crusoe or Pamela should be preferred to this") adapts the real-life scandal of political renegade and coat-changer Lord Grey, who eloped with his sister- in-law Lady Henrietta Berkeley.

Then suddenly Behn springs up before us like Venus in her cockleshell, with a lubricious wink. Her poem "Our Cabal" - its title a reference to the governing clique surrounding Lord Arlington - displays Behn's own fast set, lolling at a picnic to celebrate the newly restored May Day holiday. The group included "Amoret" (possibly Elizabeth Barry, shortly to become famous as the actress-lover of Rochester), "Amytas" (Behn's lover Jeffrey Boys) and "Lycidus". This last was John Hoyle, a coldly handsome lawyer who had stabbed a man to death in a brawl while still a student at Gray's Inn, and who became Behn's sexual obsession. Ominously, he is portrayed exchanging passionate glances with another young man.

Hoyle was probably the subject of "The Disappointment", an explicit, mocking poem in which the shepherd lover in a lush Arcadian grove with his nymph abruptly loses his erection, and the exquisitely bitter short lyric, "Love in fantastic triumph sat", which wittily exposes his sadism and her infatuation. Hoyle, it seems, could neither love her nor leave her alone. Years later he was arrested for repeated buggery in his Temple chambers with the 17-year-old Benjamin Bourne, who as a boy had "probably" run messages between the mismatched lovers.

All her life, Behn composed panegyrics to notable figures, praising King Charles and later championing the unpopular James II. One of her plays, The Rover, was taken up by James on his accession, and played at court, but like his brother he proved a stingy patron. She also translated fluently, if not always elegantly, from from the French and contributed to Dryden's volume of translations from Ovid's Heroides. Her "version" earned his generous praise: "I was desir'd to say that the Authour who is of the Fair Sex, understood not Latine. But if she does not, I am afraid she has given us occasion to be asham'd who do."

For all her facility, Behn cannot have found it easy to make ends meet. In 1687 a chronicler noted that it was "too publickly known that Mr Hoyle 10 or 12 yeares since kept Mrs Beane-". Maybe a little judicious whoring also supplemented her income. Todd quotes pitiful letters to publishers, evidently composed in poverty. Behn liked a drink, and was often ill. Her sudden death seems merciful: James was deposed, the Stuart cause lost, and she was unwilling, or unable, to trim her patched political coat with new colours.

In illuminating Behn, however fitfully, Todd has shone her searchlight into a pit of chancers and poetasters: like Behn's friend, the witty, drunken Nat Lee, equally poor but less resilient. He went mad and was sent to Bedlam for the usual course of beating and starvation. Wycherley quipped: "You, but because you starved, fell mad before, / Now starving does your wits to you restore."