Books: Impotence in Arcadia - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

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."

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week