University of Virginia Library

Search this document 


expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
collapse section 
collapse section2. 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 

expand section 

Accounts of Mrs. Aphra Behn have been appearing in print for nearly three hundred years, but a life that would meet the standards of modern scholarship is yet to be written. So scanty is reliable information concerning "the incomparable Astrea" that her biographers may be pardoned for having used every record they could find — whether fact, fiction, or with the two inextricably mixed. The most important single "document" available to them is the "Life and Memoirs . . . by One of the Fair Sex" which was prefixed to the early editions of her collected fiction. It was written shortly after her death; it was accepted as more or less accurate biography until the twentieth century; and before the recent publication of Mrs. Behn's authentic letters from Flanders[1] there was no other substantial body of material to work from. Yet the "Life and Memoirs" has not been made to yield as much as it might. While modern scholars have cast varying degrees of doubt from slight to total on its reliability, they are generally agreed that the fictional element in it is sizable, that Charles Gildon, sometimes called "Mrs. Behn's literary executor," had a good deal to do with the piece, and that romanticized autobiographical material, whether from Aphra Behn's lips or her pen, is probably present.[2] Yet their analyses have all rested on two basic though unstated assumptions: that Gildon, who wrote the dedicatory epistle to Mrs. Behn's collected Histories and Novels, no doubt wrote or at least compiled and set down on paper the "Life and Memoirs," a continuous biographical account, at one sitting, so to speak, and that it first appeared in the earliest or 1696 edition of the Histories and Novels, being transmitted to subsequent editions unchanged except for the correction of punctuation, spelling, and typographical errors.[3]

The first assumption does not fit the facts; the second is not true. They have been made because the early editions of the Histories and Novels


Page 228
have never been carefully examined, doubtless because of their rarity, while Mrs. Behn's major biographers, though using various editions, have read the "Life and Memoirs" in a corrected final version which first appeared in 1705, and which differs considerably from earlier ones.[4] A study of internal evidence — the contents of the early texts compared — and of external evidence — the chronology of other information in print on Mrs. Behn — produces a very different account of the authorship and composition of her first biography.

Three distinct versions of the "Life and Memoirs" are identifiable. For the sake of brevity I shall designate these and the texts I have examined by symbols as follows:

  • LA—
  • the first version, appearing in the two issues of the 1696 edition of the Histories and Novels (Wing B1711), occupying eighteen unnumbered pages (sigs. A7-b7v). I have used the Yale copy, "Printed for S. Briscoe . . . and Sold by Richard Wellington," checked against the Yale, Bodleian, and British Museum copies of the issue with Briscoe's name only.
  • LB—
  • the enlarged version (pp. 1-60) in the two issues of the 1698 "Third Edition with large Additions. Printed for Samuel Briscoe" (Wing B1712). The Yale copy is identical (except for Wellington's name on the title-page) with the Yale and Bodleian copies of the issue printed for Briscoe and Wellington. Its text of the "Life and Memoirs" is also that of the reset fourth edition (pp. i-lvi) in issues of 1699 (University of Texas copy; Wing B1713) and 1700 (William Andrews Clark Memorial Library copy; Wing B1714) printed for Wellington and sold by R. Tuckyr. The title-pages of these copies are identical except for the date, as are their signatures and pagination.
  • LC—
  • the version (pp. 1-51) in the fifth edition of 1705, printed for Richard Wellington, unchanged in subsequent editions. It corrects spelling, contractions, and minor slips in LB. I have used the British Museum copy, checked for content against the Yale copy and later editions.[5]

Before examining the differences in the three texts, we must consider a characteristic of LC, the version hitherto used by Mrs. Behn's biographers, that has never before been clearly seen: it is extremely uneven in texture. LC consists of fifty-eight paragraphs, if we allow the heroine's "Love Letters to a Gentleman" and the letters from her Dutch and English suitors to consist of a single paragraph each. On the basis of mode of narration, style,


Page 229
diction, imagery, and point of view, it is readily divisible into nine distinct units:
  • I. (paragraphs 1-5, pp. 1-4) The biographer, with frequent reference to herself as "I" and to her own opinions, takes "Astrea" (Mrs. Behn's designation throughout) from birth to her activities in Antwerp, mentioning her Surinam voyage, return to England, and marriage to Mr. Behn; at Antwerp Astrea turned the passions of a Dutch merchant to the service of her king. Both Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt are mentioned (pp. 2, 4); we learn that further details await us if we read them, and the further mention of "this Reprinting her incomparable Novels" (p. 1) adds to the reader's suspicion that advertising is one of the biographer's motivations here. Nearly all the factual assertions are derivable directly or by inference from these two novels.[6] The biographer, if closely acquainted with Mrs. Behn — "My intimate Acquaintance with the admirable Astrea, gave me, naturally, a very great esteem for her. . . . For my part, I knew her intimately" (pp. 1, 51) — is strangely reticent about her early life, and specific where the novels are specific. Astrea's schooling (considerable, from the evidence of her works), her married life, the fate of Mr. Behn, her introduction at court, are not to be found. The style is clumsy, full of danglers, sentence fragments, vague antecedents, sudden breaks; there are gushy, "feminine" outbursts, with long digressions on Astrea's charms of body and mind and denials that she had an intrigue (mentioned nowhere else) with Oroonoko (pp. 2-3).
  • II. (paragraphs 6-12, pp. 5-8) At Antwerp, in the "latter end of the Year 1666" Astrea is warned as proof of his devotion by Vander Albert, who "in her Husband's time, had been in love with her in England," that the Dutch are planning to invade the Thames and sink English ships. She informs London; her dispatches are bandied about and laughed at; she sees the disaster she had warned of come to pass. In this section "I" is used only once (in the middle of paragraph 8, p. 6), the style is nearly free of the illiteracies of Part I, suggesting a practised hand; the sentences are balanced; the writer does not gush and has a wry sense of humor. The texture is uniform throughout in density of detail, transitions from topic to topic are smooth, and there is a scene in which Vander Albert speaks. As well as a notably slower narrative pace in this part, there is a sharp break in continuity: paragraph 6 is a leisurely description of the effects of love in Dutchmen and of Vander Albert, amounting to a repetition of the sketchy material in paragraph 5. This section is clearly unified, different from Part I as prose yet overlapping it in content.
  • III. (paragraphs 13-20, pp. 8-13) In a narrative letter to "My Dear Friend," Astrea, after a few bitter reflections on her unjust treatment, neatly tells the tale of how Don Miguel and Don Lopez tricked their father the miser Ramirez (perhaps she reflected that Antwerp was in the Spanish


    Page 230
    Netherlands) into giving up his hoard so that they might marry. The story is a typical novella in the line of descent from Bandello; it might equally be a scenario for a comedy on this threadbare seventeenth-century theme, or one of Mrs. Behn's shorter novels with the conventional epistolary framework tacked on. The style is spare and spry, but sentimental and superfluous comment on love (pp. 9-10) marks its author as possibly a woman. The manner is not untypical of Mrs. Behn's prose in general:
    Your Remarks upon my politick Capacity, tho' they are sharp, touch me not, but recoil on those that have not made use of the Advantages they might have drawn from thence, and are doubly to blame. First in sending a Person, in whose Ability, Sense, and Veracity, they cou'd not confide; and next, not to understand when a Person indifferent tells 'em a probable Story, and which if it come to pass, wou'd sufficiently punish their Incredulity; and which, if followed, wou'd have put 'em on their Guard against a vigilant and industrious Foe, who watch'd e'ery Opportunity of returning the several Repulses, and Damages they had met with of late from them. (p. 8)
    The modulation later on from the first person to the third and back is handled smoothly; the whole section suggests a competent storyteller.
  • IV. (paragraphs 21-28, pp. 14-25) In a second letter to "Dear Friend" Astrea relates the ridiculous courtship of Van Bruin, a fat and conceited old Dutchman. The covering letter, though it has one or two "personal" reflections, is merely a setting for displaying four inserted letters — two clumsy imitations by Van Bruin of the manner of the fashionable French épistoliers, with two witty replies in which Astrea parodies his efforts, the entire courtship being conducted in the conventional though incongruous imagery of a naval battle. The whole section is a typical specimen of a fictional cliché of Mrs. Behn's era, the brief epistolary narrative with "characteristic" letters. Astrea's personal reflections are in the same style as in Part III; the biographer does not appear.
  • V. (paragraphs 29-31, pp. 25-27) Although Part IV has just ended with a scene involving Vander Albert (p. 24), this begins, "But now 'tis time to proceed to her Affairs, with Vander Albert, her other Dutch Lover. . . ." Two brief intrigue-stories are narrated almost in the manner of synopses. Albert is tricked into bedding with his deserted wife Catalina, thinking her to be Astrea; then an elderly female companion of Astrea's conveys him into our heroine's bed, but the stratagem is exploded. The biographer does not appear distinctly as narrator. The style is smooth and clear, the syntax never confused despite the extremely condensed narration. The two bed-tricks, one with the well-worn theme of All's Well That Ends Well, again suggest stage scenarios; the narration again is that of the Bandellian anecdote, compressed yet lively.
  • VI. (paragraph 32, pp. 27-28) Vander Albert dies suddenly "at Amsterdam of a Fever." Astrea returns to England "with Sir Bernard Gascoign, and others," the party sees the strange apparition of a floating


    Page 231
    pavilion at sea; a storm, shipwreck, and rescue follow. Sentence fragments, feminine flutters — in the description of the pavilion — and incoherence return to the style. The biographer says, "I have often heard [Astrea] assert, that the whole Company saw [the vision]."
  • VII. (paragraphs 33-47, pp. 28-38) This part is a lengthy tale, chiefly in the third person, of the complicated amatory misadventures of a foolish fop who eventually comes to plague Astrea with ridiculously affected letters, of which we see a specimen. The narrator undertakes to rid her of him, and is lustfully embraced at a tete-a-tete; some gentlemen break in by prearrangement and toss him in a blanket. The fop's early history (pp. 29-34) is given as from Astrea's lips, but the account is not made to resemble speech; it has the typical "portraits" and reflections on character which the Restoration novel copied from French romans and nouvelles. The style, figures of speech, and use of detail are uniform, but in no way resemble parts I and VI, or Van Bruin's letters; the narrative mode is that of the "sons of Ramirez" story. Though the tale is technically told by the biographer, "she" serves as a mere frame-device, and scarcely appears.
  • VIII. (paragraphs 48-57, pp. 38-50) "I have already mention'd Lysander, as a Lover she valu'd [Astrea has, in paragraph 45] . . . she having contributed her letters to him, to the last Impression . . . those . . . I have now inserted in their order." Then follow, with a separate heading, the eight "Love-Letters to a Gentleman. By Mrs. A. Behn. Printed from the Original Letters." It is true that these letters bear some resemblance to the famous Lettres portugaises, but they also have characteristics (frequent, clearly unstudied incoherence, abrupt changes of tone, unexplained specific references to times, places, and names) that the fictional letters of the period never have; there is thus good reason to believe them genuine. The subject's letters surely have a place in a biography, but the biographer speaks of Mrs. Behn's lover as Lysander, while all the letters except the first, which uses no name, are addressed to "Lycidas."
  • IX. (paragraphs 57-58, pp. 50-51) "Here I must draw to an end." The biographer vaguely mentions "considerable Trusts" reposed in Astrea, gives a vaguer account of her death and burial, and closes with a paragraph of eulogy: she surpassed the "Canting Tribe of Dissemblers." The style again resembles Part I, with loose sentences and shaky syntax.

This synopsis should demonstrate that LC is by no means a single connected document or the work of a single writer. The division into nine sections is perhaps debatable, but LC plainly contains at least four levels of style — the stumbling, semi-literate looseness of the "biographer's" passages; the vigorous, somewhat rhetorical, but idiomatic and uneven style of the "Love-Letters;" the hyperbolic flights of the parody letters; and the crisp, balanced, competent prose of Parts II-V, VII, and VIII. Moreover, fifty of the fifty-eight paragraphs bear far less resemblance to biography than to various popular forms of short fiction, varieties all to be found in Mrs.


Page 232
Behn's published prose works.[7] The fictional passages, unified in style, are also unbroken in texture. While a versatile writer could have assumed such a variety of styles in writing the life of Mrs. Behn, who would have taken the trouble, and why? We must conclude that LC is a patchwork, and try to determine the order of appearance of its parts, their origin, and their authorship.

The early editions of Mrs. Behn's fiction have never been described in print; and the facts of their publication and contents must be recapitulated here. We should remember that only three of these brief novels were published in her lifetime, and no second editions were called for. Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt, and Agnes de Castro appeared in 1688, all published by Will. Canning; and it was doubtless a desire to get rid of unsold copies that made him issue them bound together in the same year as Three Histories.[8] (Though The History of the Nun and The Lucky Mistake are dated 1689, Mrs. Behn wrote dedications for both, and so must have managed to sell them before her death; the former bears a license granted October 22, 1688.) Her novels received no further attention for several years. In November, 1695, however, Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko was produced with great success, and it is thought that the play's fame induced the booksellers to try the profits of a revival of the novels.[9] Richard Wellington's advertisement of the Histories and Novels appears in the Term Catalogues for May, 1696, and two issues of the first edition are dated in that year. Samuel Briscoe, though he did not advertise, seems to have been the proprietor of copy, since both issues are "Printed for S. Briscoe." The Wellington issue, which adds "and Sold by Richard Wellington," is otherwise identical except that it has an engraving of Mrs. Behn after the portrait by Riley, facing the title-page; and the sales arrangement was evidently amicable, since early in 1697 Briscoe was advertising Wellington's playbooks together with the Histories and Novels "with her Picture."[10]

The 1696 Histories and Novels seems to have been put together in haste, with Oroonoko dominating the production plans. Discrepancies in pagination and signatures suggest that several different printers worked simultaneously on the copy.[11] There is no dedication to the volume as a whole, its


Page 233
place being taken by Mrs. Behn's original dedication of Oroonoko to Lord Maitland, and since Agnes de Castro and The Fair Jilt also appear with their original dedications we may conjecture that the volume was set up in type directly and unimaginatively from copies of the first editions. The "novels" had all appeared in print before; besides the three mentioned there are only The Lover's Watch and The Lady's Looking-Glass (translations from the French which had appeared in 1685), and The Lucky Mistake (1689). For our purposes, however, the most interesting item is the life — LA. This comes between the dedication of Oroonoko and the novel itself, is unpaged, and surprisingly takes up only eighteen pages in large italic type (sigs. A7-b7v) as against the fifty-one in smaller type of the life printed in 1705 — LC. Part of the discrepancy is accounted for by the fact that the eight "Love-Letters to a Gentleman," in "their proper place" on pp. 38-50 of LC, appear without prefatory material at the end of the 1696 volume. (They are described as "Never before Printed" on the book's title-page.)

LA offers further surprises. Whereas LC is headed "The History of the Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn. Written by one of the Fair Sex," LA reads, "Memoirs on the Life of Mrs. Behn. Written by a Gentlewoman of her Acquaintance." The first seven paragraphs are identical in wording with the same material in LC, as is the first sentence of the eighth, ending with "she [Astrea] put him [Vander Albert] to that use, which made her very serviceable to the King." But instead of going on with the story of the Dutch Thames plot, LA proceeds, "The Particulars of which, are not proper to insert in this Essay; I shall only proceed to the Conclusion of her Affair with the Dutch-Man, which was pleasant enough, and by which means she might preserve her Honour, without injuring her Gratitude. . . ." (sigs. b3v-b4). This passage may be compared with paragraph 29 of LC (p. 25), which begins "But now 'tis time to proceed to her Affairs, with Vander Albert, her other Dutch Lover, which was pleasant enough, and in which she contriv'd to preserve her Honour, without injuring her Gratitude. . . ."—although Vander Albert has been on stage, so to speak, in paragraph 28. The story goes on from the tale of Catalina to the arrival in England precisely as in paragraphs 29-32 of LC. It continues:

The Rest of her Life was entirely dedicated to Pleasure and Poetry; the success in which, gain'd her the Acquaintance and Friendship of the most sensible Men of the Age.
Here therefore I must draw to an End. . . . (sig. b6v)
This represents the first three and one-half lines of paragraph 33 of LC (p. 28) and the first words of paragraph 57 (p. 50), except that "therefore" is omitted in LC. From this point the two accounts of Astrea's end are identical,


Page 234
save for one startling discrepancy. Where LC says (p. 50) "her Death, occasion'd by an unskilful Physician, on the 16th of April, 1689" (the date on her tombstone, assumed to be correct), LA has "about March or April 1686" (sigs. b6v-b7). Unless we suppose that the printer inverted the last digit of "1689" the Gentlewoman of Mrs. Behn's Acquaintance who "knew her intimately" was three years off in the date of her death; and even if the error in the year is typographical, the biographer certainly was not hovering about her friend's deathbed.

LA, then, is a document of fourteen paragraphs to LC's fifty-eight. It omits the Thames plot, the sons of Ramirez, the Van Bruin courtship, the English fop, and the amour with Lysander/Lycidas and its eight love-letters (though these are at the end of the volume). But when it tallies with LC the correspondence is exact except for errors in spelling and typography and the erroneous death-date, all corrected in LC. Moreover, except for the minor changes in wording already noted, it consists almost exactly of Parts I, II, V, VI, and IX of the stylistic division made above, the principal discrepancy being that the last four and one-half paragraphs of II (the Thames plot) are omitted. I and IX are alike in style and are marked by the presence of the "biographer," while II, which repeats material in I, and V-VI are in a different style and suggest fiction.

The 1696 Histories and Novels must have sold well. On February 3, 1696/97 The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker was entered in the Stationers' Register for Samuel Lowndes, evidently to safeguard his right to the copy, and a rare because ineffective procedure by this time;[12] and in November 1697 Wellington advertised "All the Histories and Novels . . . The Third Edition, with Large Additions." This edition appeared, probably in the first half of 1698,[13] in two issues printed for Briscoe as the 1696 edition had, identical except that one adds Wellington's name on the title-page; both now have the facing portrait of Mrs. Behn. Several peculiarities are worth noting. Except for Oroonoko the novels have separate title-pages indicating that they were printed for Briscoe in 1697, and each is separately paged, so that Briscoe may have planned or tried to sell them as separate volumes; or, since the book is divided into four units by typography,[14] four different printers may have worked on it at once. The title-page advertises

The History of the LIFE and MEMOIRS of Mrs. BEHN. Never before Printed. By one of the Fair Sex. Intermix'd with Pleasant Love-Letters that pass'd betwixt


Page 235
her and Minheer Van Bruin, a Dutch Merchant; with her Character of the Country and Lover; And her Love-Letters to a Gentleman in England.
The epistle dedicatory, signed by Charles Gildon, speaks of "Considerable Additions to her Life" (sig. A5). The additions consist of Parts III, IV, VII, and VIII, so that LB is verbally almost identical with LC. Most of LA's errors in spelling and typography have now been corrected, apparently by the printer, and a few single words added or deleted; but the date of Mrs. Behn's death (p. 59) has not yet been corrected.

Since no volume designated as being of a second edition has survived, we may wonder whether the "third" edition of 1698 ought to be called the second. In any case, the fourth edition (in issues of 1699 and 1700) sold by Wellington and R. Tuckyr, is identical in contents with the third just described, though it has been reset, and it lacks the portrait. Most of the novels have title-pages indicating that they were printed for Wellington in 1699. Wellington's fifth edition of 1705, "Corrected from the many Errors of former Impressions," contains the third version of her life — LC, with the text again reset and the date of Mrs. Behn's death finally corrected (p. 50). LC continued to be reprinted by various booksellers as Mrs. Behn's posthumous popularity grew, in 1718, 1722, 1735, 1751, and so on until the 1871 London facsimile, but it retained no traces of its adventures in the hands of Wellington and of Briscoe (who had nothing further to do with this particular collection of novels after 1698).

Having established that LA contains only half of the sections in LB/LC and a third of their text, we are in a better position to investigate the derivation of statements in the "Life and Memoirs" to determine their authorship and perhaps their reliability. A useful method is to consider the chronology of published statements about Mrs. Behn. Although she must have had a circle of friends in her last years, no detailed account by anyone whom we can prove to have known her well has survived. Prologues, lampoons, and such topical verse refer to poverty, "a Sciatica," pox, and liaisons with various men; the first two afflictions are confirmed by a letter and a dedication of hers, but the latter accusations may be the distortions of malice.[15] Biographical dictionaries reveal almost nothing. In Edward Phillips' Theatrum Poetarum (1675, p. 255) nothing is said of her life, and she does not appear at all in William Winstanley's Lives of the Most Famous English Poets (1687). The careful Gerard Langbaine, writing only two years after her death, seems to have thought that her name was Astrea, and his one piece of specific information — that she wrote for bread — came from the preface to Sir Patient Fancy. It is probable that his knowledge of Mrs. Behn was derived entirely from her books.[16] The dedication to her posthumous The Widdow-Ranter by her "known friend" George Jenkins gives no facts; that of Southerne's Oroonoko (sig. A2v) in effect


Page 236
disavows a close relationship with her: "I remember what I have heard from a Friend of hers, that she always told [Oroonoko's] Story, more feelingly, than she writ it." More significantly, Gildon's Miscellany Poems Upon Several Occasions (1692) and Chorus Poetarum (1694) which print four new poems of hers, and his Miscellaneous Letters and Essays (1694), consisting partly of letters to ladies on subjects of feminine interest, say nothing whatever of her life. Thus from Mrs. Behn's death until 1696 nothing about her which a biographer could use had appeared in print.

Specific statements were forthcoming in LA, and in another work of the same year, "An Account of the Life of the Incomparable Mrs. Aphra Behn," prefixed to her posthumous play The Younger Brother, which Gildon prepared for the stage and the press. This document has not been studied in detail, but its contents are important in determining Gildon's relationship to the "Life and Memoirs" in any or all of its stages of growth. As nearly as we can tell, Gildon wrote his "Account" at about the same time as the appearance of LA, or more probably afterwards.[17] Gildon does not sign the "Account" as he does the play's dedication, but the concluding remarks (sig. A5) about the brutal treatment The Younger Brother met with on its first night are enough to identify him, for no one else had occasion to care about the play's fate. Since Gildon troubles to write a life at all, and since he supposes that "a short Account of her Life will be a very grateful present to the Ingenious" (sig. A4), we may assume that he is going to tell us all he knows that is of interest; it is remarkable that in a biography taking up two and one-half quarto pages he tells us so little. If facts are separated from flummery, Gildon's biography yields the following statements; and if these are checked against LA, Oroonoko (which was in the 1696 volume), and Mrs. Behn's own letters, we reach interesting conclusions.

  • 1. The lady's maiden name (her first name is not once mentioned) was Johnson; her father was a gentleman of a good family in Canterbury, where she spent her childhood, a precocious poetic genius. [This information is in LA (sigs. A7v-A8).]
  • 2. She went to Surinam with her father, mother, brother, and sisters, while "very Young." [This is in LA (ibid.) which mentions only "Children;" but Oroonoko mentions her mother, brother, and a sister (pp. 184, 185, 208).]
  • 3. In Surinam she "lost" her "Relations and Friends," and was "oblig'd" to return to England. [Both LA and Oroonoko kill off her father and his patron; but her letters from Flanders prove that her mother and brother were alive in 1666.[18]]

  • 237

    Page 237
  • 4. She then married Mr. Behn, "an Eminent Merchant." [This is in LA (sig. bv), though Gildon supplies "Eminent."]
  • 5. Her reputation for wit and secrecy caused her to be "employ'd by K. Charles the Second, in several Negotiations in Flauders. . . which she quitted with all the Applause Success cou'd gain a Beautiful Woman. . . . How grateful he [Charles] was, or whether her service made his satisfaction extend to a reward, I have forgot. But to that soft Court we owe her exerting her Poetical Genius. . . ." [This can all be derived from LA (sigs. bv-b3v); it is interesting that Gildon's memory fails him just where the thread of LA's narrative breaks. The Thames plot and Astrea's neglect by Whitehall do not appear until LB.]
  • 6. She was a model conversationalist, a woman of wit, judgment, and learning. [Thus LA (sig. b7).]
  • 7. Her last years found her poor, with "a tedious Sickness, and several years . . . Indisposition." [This is correct, and at wide variance with LA's "The Rest of her Life was entirely dedicated to Pleasure and Poetry" (sig. b6v).]
  • 8. She died "soon after the Revolution." [Though not precise, Gildon's information is more accurate by three years than LA's misdating.]
  • 9. She is buried "in the Cloysters of Westminster-Abby, under a plain Marble Stone, with two Wretched Verses for her Epitaph." [This reproduces LA almost verbatim (sig. b7); neither Gildon nor LA gives the text of the epitaph.]
  • 10. She wrote with great ease; Gildon saw her write Oroonoko while conversing with several people in the room. [This sounds authentic, and has been cited as evidence of Gildon's close connection with Mrs. Behn, but the end of her dedication of Oroonoko to Lord Maitland, on the page before LA (sig. A6) says, "'Twill be no Commendation to the Book, to assure your Lordship I writ it in a few Hours, though it may serve to Excuse some of its Faults of Connexion; for I never rested my Pen a Moment for Thought. . . ."]
  • 11. Gildon saw several pieces of hers in her own handwriting, among them The Younger Brother. [Gildon had already published four Behn poems for the first time in his two miscellanies.]

The evidence Gildon provides in his undisputed life of Mrs. Behn (if we grant that LA was published before it) indicates that he used LA and Oroonoko, but not very carefully, correcting them according to his own knowledge, which was limited entirely to her poverty and illness late in life and the approximate time of her death. A suspicion that he knew nothing independently of her early life is confirmed not only by his account's close correspondence with LA, but by his very vehemence:

I must not be particular in all the little Accidents of her Child-hood, for that wou'd be more than my Reader would Pardon, tho most Writers of Lives take care to omit not the least trivial actions of the very infancy of the Persons they


Page 238
wou'd Celebrate. . . . But one motive to that Impertinence I want, Prolixity; for I aim at as short a Relation as possible. (sig. A4)
Was Gildon chuckling as he wrote? The alternative explanation is that he composed LA afterwards with the facts somewhat modified, but simultaneously knew and did not know when his intimate friend had died. When he came to revise Langbaine's English Dramatick Poets in 1698, he of course knew a good deal more. He gave Mrs. Behn the maiden name of Johnson and the birthplace of Canterbury, plus beauty in her youth, and stated that she was "employ'd by Charles II in the Discovery of the Dutch Intreagues, in the Dutch War. . . ." He also seems to have visited Westminster Abbey, for he corrects Langbaine's "Astrea" to "Aphara" and prints the "wretched verses" of the epitaph. He shows great solicitude for the unhappy fate of The Younger Brother, which was published "with her life added."[19]

It seems certain that Gildon did not pose as a Gentlewoman of Mrs. Behn's Acquaintance and write LA; but could he have written or assembled LB? Gildon was something of a literary mimic, but none of the characteristic letters in his Post-Boy Rob'd of His Mail (1692-93) resemble any of the new material in LB either in style or content.[20] Again, this competent writer, taking pride in his work and overfond (at least in the 1690's) of studding it with classical allusions and sententiae, is an odd candidate for the authorship of Parts II, III, IV, and VII. Why would he write in such a variety of styles and modes, weaving unrelated materials into four short stories in only the first of which Astrea figures prominently? And why, since he advertised his "Account" in his revision of Langbaine, did he not mention this longer and more spectacular "life" if it were his? Gildon had the abilities to supply the new parts in LB, but it is hard to see how he could have done so. On the other hand, if it was Gildon who merely fitted the new parts into LA, he was not earning his money. In the epistle dedicatory which precedes LB Gildon includes his favorite (or only) anecdotes — Mrs. Behn's poverty and his seeing her write Oroonoko (sig. A4v) — although they would have been valuable additions to the "Life and Memoirs;" and the overlappings and discrepancies we have noted above indicate that whoever fitted the new material into LA to make LB did his work with the absolute minimum of care and thought. It is more charitable to conclude that Gildon's sole contribution to the 1698 Histories and Novels (he was also compiling a miscellany of letters for Briscoe at the time)[21] was a suitably literate epistle dedicatory, bristling with Latin tags (eight) and references to the poets and patrons of antiquity (fourteen).

If Gildon had nothing to do with the "Life and Memoirs," who wrote LA? If we dismiss parts II, V, and VI as clearly fictional, resembling many


Page 239
Restoration "novels," we are left with Parts I and IX, semi-literate in style and with the "biographer" clearly present, forming a single memoir of eight paragraphs consistent in texture and unbroken in content. Its early part is relatively circumstantial and adds several details to what can be derived from Oroonoko, suggesting the possibility of an oral source;[22] its latter part is extremely vague and inaccurate. At three points (sigs. b2, b3v, b6v) the "biographer" regrets that "she" must suppress or cannot "insert" material on Astrea's secret service in Antwerp — precisely what is found in Part II, which agrees in style and manner with the Catalina-old-woman-pavilion stories that did appear in LA. The "insertion" of these (but not of Part II) would account for the preponderance of Antwerp adventures and fiction in the oddly-proportioned LA, part of a volume which also printed the "Love-Letters" for the first time.

The only theory to account fully for the creation of LA-LC is this: a flimsy and brief account of Mrs. Behn, perhaps by a woman who had been acquainted with or heard tales of her, was expanded by its author or the bookseller, using two separate caches of papers which came to light in 1695/6 and 1697/8. The first contained the "Love-Letters" and Parts II, V, and VI; the second included the much longer and more artistically developed III, IV, and VII, together with the three short anecdotal novels which first appeared in the 1698 edition — The Nun, The Black Lady, and The King of Bantam. Parts II-VII were in all likelihood semi-autobiographical fictional sketches by Mrs. Behn herself.

It is not at all improbable that two separate collections of Behn manuscripts should have turned up in this manner. New plays, poems, and letters attributed to her appeared irregularly from 1690 to 1718, usually with good internal evidence or the printers' vouchers for their authenticity, as her posthumous fame grew and her plays and novels were reprinted for a wider public.[23] The success of the 1696 Histories and Novels would have induced Briscoe and Wellington to search out and pay for unpublished Behn works. (Briscoe published five of her novels for the first time in 1698-1700.)[24] Furthermore, it is probable that between 1682, when her profitable writing for the stage ceased almost entirely, for whatever cause,[25] and her


Page 240
death, Mrs. Behn wrote a good deal of short fiction which remained unpublished; at least two of her posthumous novels refer to Charles II as living.[26]

The publishing history of the "Life and Memoirs" makes it apparent that presuppositions which we would bring to a formal biography of the period are largely irrelevant to such an account, aimed at advertising and entertainment, produced for an audience which would not quibble at the dividing line between fact and fiction, and designed to insinuate the reader pleasantly into the collection of novels while diverting him with amorous adventures and clearing the authoress' reputation. Yet whatever the value of the "Life and Memoirs," so little material is available for a biographer of Aphra Behn that he has a particular responsibility for careful scrutiny and use of what there is, even if the result is only "to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." While our investigation does not dispel the obscurity surrounding much of Mrs. Behn's life, it sheds light on the sources, nature, and reliability of her first biography. We may conclude that Charles Gildon cannot be proved to have had anything to do with its composition. Whoever put together the 1696 text of the "Life and Memoirs," whether One of the Fair Sex, Briscoe, Wellington, or John Doe, knew almost nothing about Mrs. Behn that was not already in print.

Nearly all of the "Life and Memoirs" consists of novels and fragments of novels, very probably by Mrs. Behn, and some of her letters. Most of its specific statements which are not part of these fictions are derived from her published works, and perhaps (in one or two cases) from her own lips. Aphra Behn's first biographer was the incomparable Astrea herself.