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Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd: A Book Review

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life
Author: Janet Todd
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: Bloomsbury Reader
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 544
Source: Netgalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: '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; 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; she had probably also spied in Surinam. 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'.

     My Review: Aphra Behn was an English playwright, novelist, and poet. She is known in history as the first woman to ever make her living as a professional writer. However, we know very little of the woman who shocked all of England with her scandalous plays. Mrs. Todd attempts to create a portrait of this controversial woman by showing her as a spy and a feminist. She proves that Aphra Behn is a woman worth remembering.

   Before I read this revised biography of Aphra Behn, I did not know much about her. The only thing I knew of her was that she wrote Oroonoko. Therefore, I was intrigued to read more about this little known figure. Because there are very few known facts about Aphra Behn’s life, there is much speculation about Aphra in A Secret Life. Mrs.Todd puts together the pieces of her cryptic life. Aphra Behn is shown to be the daughter of a barber. Her mother is the nanny for a noble family. Aphra grew up alongside the children of nobles and was given an education. Her connection to nobility allowed her to become an English spy in Surinam and Holland. Mrs. Todd relies on Aphra Behn’s own writings to prove her evidence as a spy. 

   Mrs. Todd also uses Aphra Behn’s writings to delve deep into Aphra’s personal life and beliefs. She tackles the subject on the many loves in Aphra’s life and whether she was married. Her life as a widow was what turned her to writing. Mrs. Todd also believed that Jack Hoyle was Aphra’s greatest love and muse. Mrs. Todd also portrays her as a champion for women’s rights. She believed that women should recieve an education. She was also an abolitionist. Thus, Mrs. Todd shows Aphra to be a woman ahead of her time.

     Overall, this biography is the closest we can ever come to knowing Aphra Behn. Her life was often in the shadows, and Mrs. Todd attempts to bring her out of the shadows. While there is little evidence to her speculations, Mrs. Todd does make a strong case. While we may never know who she truly was, it is clear that Aphra was a fascinating woman. Aphra deserves to be remembered for her accomplishments, and Mrs. Todd’s biography proves why Aphra continues to be studied in colleges.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



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