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The Secret Life of Aphra Behn by Janet Todd. Book Review

December 27, 2017

The Secret Life of Aphra Behn book cover

Aphra Behn was a spy, novelist, playwright and poet who lived in Restoration times. Her work, like her life, was packed with intrigue, very risqué and often fraught with coming up against the law and the establishment. Always short of money, yet she moved within the circles of nobility and some of the foremost literary figures of her day. Even by today’s standards, Aphra Behn would have been seen as remarkable, but given she was a woman living in the time of the Restoration then she could only be described as extraoridinary.

This book took a while to finish, not because it was too dry and academic (it was in fact a smooth read and highly engaging), but more because biographer Janet Todd has packed in as much into the book as Aphra Behn did into her life and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

There is no doubt this is a scholarly book by someone with an in-depth knowledge of Behn’s work and an appreciation of the way in which she manoeuvred her way up from her humble beginnings through to the highest levels of Restoration society.

The Secret Life of Aphra Behn constantly intrigues and entertains, not only because of the fascinating story of this woman, but also because of her biographer’s attention to detail and the insights into how to piece together the life of someone who might at times have slipped under the radar of historical documentation. This is particularly true of Behn’s early life. The way in which Todd assembles Behn’s developing career makes for a fascinating account of how to undertake historical research by considering the individual’s life in a historical and social context.

This makes this book not only a valuable resource for writers wanting inspiration of a lively and unusual character for any genre, but also a dissertation in how to do historical research through an indirect approach, picking up clues from the subject of the biography through their professional output (in Behn’s case, plays, novels and poetry) and social knowledge of that historical period, linked to relevant documentation. In this way Todd crafts a riveting tale of a rambunctious opportunist as well as a scholarly biography.

Highlights are an account of Behn’s spying activities and how she managed to maintain a toehold within the world of playwriting. Spying then it seemed was a very precarious affair, not only because of getting caught, but also because, despite working for the government, they might not be inclined to support your endeavours when you got out there. This often resulted in the spy running out of money due to lack of funding. Maintaining your position as a profitable playwright was equally as precarious, requiring a full understanding of the politics of the times. Someone you courted as a patron might be out of favour a few months later or worse, the play you wrote might touch the wrong political nerve in the eyes of your sponsors and public. The expression “I’ll make sure you’ll never work here again” was all too common in the arena of Restoration arts.

Behn certainly lived life to the full and very much on the edge, at a time where women had few rights. As her biographer, Todd, has managed to draw out fascinating insights of a larger than life character and place her work within the context of the contribution it made to those who came after her.

The Secret Life of Aphra Behn was courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley.

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