Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd

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Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Aphra Behn, the first Englishwoman to earn her living solely by writing, was a prolific dramatist of the Restoration era as well as an innovative writer of fiction and translator of science and French romance. Although much information about her life is still lacking, this is a very account of her (still remarkably secret) life and the culture of the age.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 608 Date: June 2017
Publisher: Fentum Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781909572065

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In view of her unique status, Aphra Behn seems to have been largely forgotten – if ever really acknowledged at all – by history. The preface states it loud and clear; she was the first Englishwoman to earn her living solely by writing, as the most prolific dramatist of her time as well as an innovative writer of fiction, poetry and translator of science and French romance. It seems remarkable that the daughter of a barber and a wet-nurse should have achieved such status.

Aphra was born in 1640, shortly before one English revolution, and died in 1689, just after another. She was christened Eaffrey, and her father was a barber from Canterbury. The height of her career coincided with Restoration England, and in character and outlook she was a strange medley of opposites. While regarded as something of a feminist champion, a trailblazer and one who believed in equal pay for equal work, she was also a fervent royalist and believed that King Charles II had a divine right to rule. She was also an ardent supporter of and propagandist for his brother James II, and it may be as well that she did not long survive his deposition and replacement by his daughter and son-in-law William and Mary

Writing was not her only career. As a young adult she was sent to Surinam, on the coast of South America, to spy on English plantation owners, and then to Flanders with the task of gathering information for the English during the Dutch War. Not a very successful secret agent, she returned to England in dire financial straits and decided she had to earn her living through her writing. Plays and poetry flowed from her pen, but were not sufficient to earn a living. Dedication and a strong work ethic were her watchwords, and she also took to copying and translating in order to make ends meet. Aware of the importance of having friends in high places, her circle included the King's mistress Nell Gwyn, the Poet Laureate John Dryden and that enfant terrible of Restoration England, the Earl of Rochester.

Documentation of her life and certainty of the known facts is somewhat patchy at times - the subtitle 'A secret life' is well-merited, for much of it has indeed remained secret. A certain amount of the personal information is drawn from parish archives and the the perhaps not altogether reliable reminiscences of a close friend, Colonel Colepeper. The text runs to over four hundred pages, and it is inevitably in part a 'life and times' chronicle not just of the central character, but of the literary and artistic life of the nation during the reigns of King Charles and his brother. Most remarkably of all, Ms Todd tells us that her subject was married, but we do not know for certain the name or profession of her husband. All she can be reasonably sure of is that she seems to have married partly for money but he was not 'an adequate provider', and they do not seem to have had any children. Such is the paucity of solid information that at times the author has to fall back on detailed analysis of her prose, poetry and drama. Much is made of 'Oroonoko', her short novel about an enslaved African prince who was taken to South America, and which has become one of the best-known works of seventeenth-century English prose – although it must be said that there is not much competition for such a distinction. The cause of her death is likewise a mystery; we learn only that it was 'occasioned by an unskilful physician' – an open-ended verdict if ever there was one.

I found the book a very interesting read. It may not tell us as much about the still remarkably secret life of Aphra Behn, but as a portrait of the age in which she lived it succeeds admirably.

For those who would like to know more about her contemporary and friend, we recommend Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester by Alexander Larman; and for another portrait of the era, London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750 by Robert O Bucholz and Joseph P Ward will repay reading. We've also enjoyed A Man of Genius by Janet Todd.

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Buy Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd at Amazon.com.


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