Aphra Behn: A Secret Life
Author: Janet Todd (Newnham 1961)
Publisher: Fentum Press
Author, spy, political propagandist, Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of English literature, a female polymath who rose from humble origins to come close to the heart of power. In this landmark biography, Janet Todd draws on contemporary documents and on Behn’s own writings to examine the history of the times and to tell the story of an independent woman in a harsh and glittering society, caught up in and exploiting the political, diplomatic and sexual intrigues of her time.
The first woman to earn her living entirely by her pen, Behn was the most prolific dramatist of her age, with a succession of popular plays including The Rover. She associated with powerful men such as the flamboyant Earl of Rochester and the poet laureate John Dryden and she wrote with a frankness rare in a woman author before modern times, addressing sexual and psychological subjects such as obsession, self-delusion, impotence, orgasm, and bisexuality. She was a translator of romances and scientific works, a lyrical and erotic poet and an innovative writer of fictions such as the startling slave novella Oroonoko.
Behn took risks – in life as well as literature: she spent time as a Royalist spy in the Netherlands and South America and in her last years she used her poetic skills to serve the Stuart kings, Charles II and James II. She died as their rule came to an end; she was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. Behn’s life is both hidden and displayed in her work: she fictionalised herself and the people around her, and she made rich literature from the plots and scandals that rocked the nation.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of conflict-ridden England, Continental Europe and the mismanaged slave colonies of the Americas, Aphra Behn: A Secret Life looks behind the many masks of an enigmatic woman who is emblematic of the Restoration period, itself a time of creativity, licence, intrigue and self-fashioning.