It was not until the early twentieth century that things began to change. The Bloomsbury members, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf were the leading exponents in a revival of the Restoration writer. The prime emphasis in Woolf and Sackville-West's work was on Behn's status as the first professional woman writer. Her life continued to eclipse her work because of a critical eagerness to adopt her professionalism as a symbol of early feminism. Vita Sackville-West's short biography of Behn, called Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astraea, appeared in 1927. Rather than lament the absence of knowledge of her subject's early life, Sackville-West invents it, envisaging her being carried through Kentish hop fields, or bantering in her doorway with impoverished Grub Street hacks. For Sackville-West, Behn is a novelist who would have been greater had she abandoned the models of French romance that she copied from Madame de Scudery, and attempted to use her homely idiom to produce fiction closer to the contemporary realism of Daniel Defoe. The emphasis in the account of her work is not so much what she did achieve, but what she might have done.
Behn was a playwright, poet, translator; she was a woman in a world of men, a staunch Royalist, a spy, and a scarlet woman condemned for loose morals. She was also the first woman in England to identify herself as a professional writer. She wrote to the occasion, and she wrote to make money. There has been a consistent tendency to see Aphra Behn as a personal phenomenon, rather than as the author of a series of works that are interesting in their own right. It's important to state at the start that even now we know almost nothing for certain about Behn's life.
But this 'historicising' of Behn once again operates as part of a wider set of concerns. In the 1990s criticism of Behn's work was collected into two collections of essays, one edited by Heidi Hutner and the other by Janet Todd. Broadly speaking, the Hutner book is critical and theoretical, and includes the work of North American critics. In contrast, the essays in Todd's collection, mainly by British academics, tend to set works in their historical and theatrical context, emphasizing Behn's use of contemporary political rhetoric, or staging devices.
A later biography of Behn Behn was Janet Todd's 1996 book, entitled The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. By the mid-90s, feminist criticism had moved beyond the need to posit an absolute identification between the gender politics of early women writers, and those of the feminist scholars that were writing about them. Todd says in her introduction that her version of Behn may be too political for some. Here she means not political in terms of the libertarianism that Woodcock believed that he shared with Behn, or the gender wars with which Goreau identified, but political in terms of Behn's own involvement in contemporary politics. Todd places great emphasis on Behn's early spying activities, and on the networks of Tory intrigue to which Behn was connected.
This seems to identify the narrator with Aphra Behn, who had produced two stories of nuns in The Fair Jilt and The History of the Nun. But these stories were published after Oroonoko, in 1688 and 1689. So perhaps here the connection between narrator and author works as a sort of advertisement for her next pieces of prose fiction.
The essays collected here on Behn's drama, prose and poetry represent a range of contemporary critical views, some placing Behn within the history of her times and others illuminating her through modern critical theory and debates on gender and race, Janet Todd provides a stimulating introduction mapping Behn's literary reception, situating the work of the critics in a broad literary and cultural context and portraying Behn as a newly politicised figure at the close of the twentieth century."--BOOK JACKET.