Historia (Magazine of the Historical Writers’ Association) Aphra Behn review

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd

There is nothing Janet Todd doesn’t know about the Restoration playwright, Aphra Behn; her acclaimed 1996 biography is testimony to this. Twenty years on she has returned to this work, updating it with subtle textual revisions and a new introduction: Aphra Behn: A Secret Life is the result. In the years separating these editions historical biography has undergone a transformation, opening up to, what Todd terms as ‘speculative and experimental modes’. This is what seems to have spurred her to revisit her earlier text…

It is true that in the last twenty years Behn has firmly claimed her place in the history of English Literature and her literary output has undergone detailed analysis across many academic disciplines. But, as Todd points out, Behn has never become the household name she deserves to be, as the first woman to properly earn her living by the pen. This revised biography seems to be driven by a continuing desire to bring Behn to a wider audience.

Todd’s passion for her subject bubbles up through the text. She sees Behn as a woman of many masks and identities, an apt characterisation given the preoccupation with masquerade in Behn’s period and milieu. Todd pieces together the playwright’s obscure beginnings in Kent, her time in the South American settlement of Surinam and her early career as a royalist spy in the Netherlands, seeking to peel away the masks and find the woman beneath.

What is beyond doubt is that Behn mixed with the most fascinating of company from both the low and high life. She met Charles II and his brother and heir James, while royal mistress Nell Gwynn and celebrated author Dryden were amongst the famed and infamous who inhabited her world. She had a close relationship with the libertine Earl of Rochester. She was also highly political with resolutely royalist beliefs, which she forwarded in her work, something Todd points out as contradictory to her position as a renegade to convention, being a woman without a man, who earned her own living and lived a sexually liberated lifestyle unbound by the morals of the day.

There is no doubt that Aphra Behn: A Secret Life is a significant and absorbing work about an important figure and one that is packed full of enthralling detail. Todd’s rigorous scholarship underpins her lively conjecture and, despite the paucity of established fact, this is a fascinating read that brings the Restoration period in all its bawdy glory and political complexity into vivid life.

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life is out on 1st June 2017 from Fentum Press.

Read the full review here.


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