REVIEW: Aphra Behn: A Secret Life, Janet Todd

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn; for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds,’ said Virginia Woolf. 
Yet that tomb, in Westminster Abbey, records one of the few uncontested facts about this Restoration playwright, poet of the erotic and bisexual, political propagandist, novelist and spy: the date of her death, 16 April 1689. For the rest secrecy and duplicity are almost the key to her life; she loved codes, making and breaking them, and writing her life becomes a decoding of a passionate but playful woman. In this revised biography, Janet Todd draws on documents she has rediscovered in the Dutch archives, and on Behn’s own writings, to tell a story of court, diplomatic and sexual intrigue, and of the rise from humble origins of the first woman to earn her living as a professional writer. Aphra Behn’s first notable employment was as a Royal spy in Holland. It was not until she was in her thirties that she published the first of the nineteen plays and other works which established her fame (though not riches) among her ‘good, sweet, honey-candied readers’. Many of her works were openly erotic, indeed as frank as anything by her friends Wycherley and Rochester. Some also offered an inside view of court and political intrigues, and Todd reveals the historical scandals and legal cases behind some of Behn’s most famous ‘fictions’.
With Aphra Behn being one of the first ever women to earn a living from writing, you would think that information about her would be more widely available. This is far from the case. A lot of the facts known about the 17th century playwright are basic and huge parts of her life (her early years, and period of marriage and the fate of her husband, for instance) are shrouded in a veil of mystery that we will never tear away. This means that a lot of Janet Todd’s 600-page account of the dramatist’s life airs strongly on the side of speculative non-fiction - sentences such as “it is safe to assume...”, “Aphra would probably have then…” and “Behn may have been aware of…” appear frequently in the text and now it is hard for me to decide, as a reader, if a good proportion of the information I have just learned is anywhere close to the truth. 
I suppose that one positive of the sparse information in regards the book’s subject matter, is that it allows for Janet Todd to explore the social and political context of Aphra Behn’s life and the Restoration Era. Colonialism, the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the nature of Charles II’s reign, and the larger upheaval surrounding the monarchy are all topics that are explored in depth and ones that I found incredibly fascinating. Finding wider reading on those topics are now my next self-ascribed task.
But in regards to the subject of the biography: from Aphra Behn’s (possible) failed diversion into espionage, to her battle against the criticism from men about her plays being too bawdy or too immoral, a portrait is painted of an ambitious, witty, talented, complex woman who has managed to transcend the ages thanks to her immaculate prose. Playing with gender, sexual desire, politics and age, which were all subjects incredibly scandalous to be discussing in the 1600s, especially by a woman; it is clear to see the battle Aphra Behn faced and how she placed some of the first stones on the path towards the frank female freedom that we take for granted today.
As Virginia Woolf once wrote, “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds…” and honestly, I think it takes a while for it to sink it just how true that statement rings.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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