KAREN BROOKS The Escapades of Tribulation Johnson. Reviewed by Ann Skea
The latest novel from Karen Brooks brings Restoration London to life, particularly the world of its theatres and playwright Aphra Behn.
Papa always said I was unnatural – that I’d too much to say for myself. He said a great many other things besides, all of which included the prefix un: ungrateful, ungodly, unguarded, unlike other girls.
Girls in 1679 were expected to defer to their ‘fathers, brothers, other men, God’. ‘Yes sir. No sir. As you wish, sir,’ was, Tribulation Johnson says, the ‘unspoken law’. It was the same when those girls became older women and, especially, wives.
It is lucky for Tribulation that, at the age of 17, after a disastrous failure (or refusal) to control her tongue, she is banished from her father’s house in the village of Chartham and sent to live in London as a ‘companion’ to her widowed cousin.
It is especially lucky that her cousin happens to be Aphra Behn, who is already notorious for her own outspokenness and is known to make her living from her writing. Tribulation’s father, desperate to get rid of her so that her older, widowed sister’s prospective second marriage can go ahead without hindrance, believes (mistakenly) that Mrs Behn lives with her mother and only writes ‘on men’s behalf’, or he never would have agreed to let her go there.
The opening sentence of the Prologue to this book – ‘The potshotten woman tangled in the sheets beside me looked and smelled like a corpse’ – almost put me off reading more, but it soon becomes apparent that this ‘foul-smelling’ woman had appeared sober and reliable when she met Tribulation’s father and he employed her to escort his daughter safely to London. Tribulation, typically, has other ideas and has planned ahead. She dons the clothes of a brother who had died fighting for the Royalist cause before she was born, pays off the woman with the money her father has given her for this purpose, and because she has learned that on stage ‘a woman can be whatever she wishes’ she daringly adopts the ‘breeches part’ and makes her way independently to London. Her arrival at Aphra’s house is a disaster, but Aphra takes her in and looks after her, and so begins ‘Act 1’ of her five-act drama.
Tribulation’s account of her ‘escapades’ is lively and detailed, and full of her hopes, joys, woes and ambitions. Her descriptions of life in Restoration London, and of London itself and its inhabitants, are vivid and fascinating and if occasionally her appreciation of the scene is a little flowery, she can be forgiven, for she is learning, under Aphra’s guidance, to be a writer.
Having spent her ‘entire life’ in Chartham, cared for after her mother’s death by her much older sister, and with no friends because of her stern and forbidding clergyman father, Tribulation finds London a source of wonder.
There were women in flounced dresses and velvet capes, wearing pattens over their pretty shoes. Their faces were artificially pale; some wore black patches on their cheeks and breasts. These included star shapes, a crescent moon and even a horse and carriage galloping across a generous décolletage. The poor beasties forever plunging into a fleshy canyon.
The men, too, are ‘ostentatiously garbed’ and wear ‘towering periwigs’ and high heels. Aphra’s conversation amazes her, peppered as it is with casual references to White Hall (‘where the King lives?’), New Exchange and St James’s Park, and with the names of famous people. ‘Mrs Behn counted John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, among her dearest friends’; the King’s favourite mistress, Nell Gwyn, is her ‘favoured companion’. All this makes Tribulation’s head ‘reel’.
When Tribulation tells Mrs Behn (who soon becomes just ‘Aphra’) that she would like to find some employment in order to supplement the allowance her father is paying for her upkeep, Aphra agrees to allow her to accompany her to the Dorset Garden Theatre, for which she writes her plays. She suggests that there might even be a small part for her in one.
We locked eyes, ‘Imagine what your father would say,’ she said with mock severity.
‘Aye,’ I said breaking into a grin. ‘I am.’
The Dorset Garden Theatre, owned by the King’s brother, the Duke of York, is one of the two permanent theatres in London. The other, owned by the King, is Drury Lane. Both are very popular and attract people from all walks of life. Peeping through the curtain when she first accompanies Aphra to the Dorset Garden, Tribulation sees men in huge wigs shaped like ‘devil’s horns’, women in hooped skirts:
The great and the small took their seats waving at those they knew, climbing over barriers to shift closer, offering powdered and pockmarked cheeks, wet lips and gloved hands to be kissed … Arguments broke out … Some slurped and burped down drinks … The noise grew….
Women carrying baskets of oranges … wove through the press of people, selling them. The women were squeezed, grabbed, forced onto laps; there were scuffles and shouts and much laughter.
‘Are they always like this?’ she asks Mrs Betterton, the theatre manager. ‘Oh no dear,’ says Mrs Betterton. ‘Usually they are much much worse.’
Weeks later, during a performance of a provocative play by Aphra, a fight breaks out – swords are drawn, the actors join in using stage props, and only when the man who began the argument gets on stage and orders ‘For the sake o’ God, peace,’ does it stop.
Much of what Tribulation relates is historically true. There was such a fight at the Dorset Garden Theatre; many of the actors she names really did act there and at Drury Lane; Aphra’s life was as she describes it; and, especially, the Titus Oates Popish Plot that threatened the assassination of the King and his replacement with a Catholic monarch did cause widespread suspicion of anyone who was known to favour Catholicism.
A second strand to Karen Brooks’ novel, which is introduced early, is largely fictional. Gabriel Freeman is a spy who has infiltrated the Dorset Garden company and been tasked with seeking out Catholic conspirators. He needs, in particular, to watch Aphra Behn, who has been a spy herself and once had a close relationship with William Scot, a fugitive regicide, and might still be in touch with him.
Inevitably, the two strands of the novel intertwine and Tribulation becomes involved in Gabriel’s dark, secret world. Ultimately, too, she discovers secrets about her own family and the reason she was christened ‘Tribulation’.
Meanwhile her own writing career, guided by Aphra, burgeons. Her pamphlets discussing current issues, and hawked around London by the Mercury women, along with newssheets and tracts, become topics for discussion but, because she writes anonymously, often signing herself ‘One of the Fair Sex’, her work is attributed to men.
So, too, are Aphra’s controversial writings. When Tribulation and Aphra collaborate on a play based on a recent notorious marriage – The Revenge or, A Match in Newgate – Tribulation notes that the dialogue was so ‘bold, quite libertine, and didn’t hesitate to be brutal’, that Aphra made the decision ‘not to claim authorship – for either of us’.
It was performed in late June; as word flew around there was a production so salacious even the author hadn’t put his name to it, crowds flocked to see it.
The historical The Revenge or, A Match in Newgate was performed at the Dorset Gardens in 1680, and is still sometimes attributed to Thomas Betterton, who was an actor and theatre manager at that time. There are also other plays written by Aphra or with a Prologue written by her, which have anonymous authors.
Both Tribulation and Aphra are delightful characters, and both are determined to change the way women are seen (or are required to not be seen) in their society. Karen Brooks, in her Author’s Note, outlines the known details of Aphra’s life, and declares her long love of her and her work. She frequently heads her chapters with quotations from Aphra’s writings and she quotes Virginia Woolf’s acknowledgement of Aphra’s role in earning women ‘the right to speak their minds’. For that, Woolf wrote, ‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn’. Karen Brooks has done better. She has revived Aphra and her words while weaving a fictional tale into the facts of her life, at the same time offering a fascinating picture of the way theatres functioned in Restoration England and of Aphra’s huge role in their popularity.
Karen Brooks The Escapades of Tribulation Johnson HarperCollins 2023 PB 560pp $32.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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