by Janet Todd
The 17th century dramatist, Aphra Behn, is a notoriously tricky subject for biographers to tackle. For such a gregarious and ostensibly dissolute figure, facts about her are rudimentary and her background is almost impenetrable – but that hasn’t stopped the British scholar Janet Todd from achieving a phenomenal feat with her freshly revised life history of the dynamic playwright.
Behn is celebrated for being one of the first English women to earn a living from her pen. She courageously shattered many cultural conventions of her day, while in some ways remaining in step with her times. She was a major influence on female writers for years to come, but her prosopography is murky, which to some extent was intentional on her part.
“Aphra Behn is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks and intrigue, and her work delivers different images and sometimes contradictory views.” – Janet Todd
Believed to have been born around 1640, Aphra Behn rose from obscurity to work as a secret agent in Antwerp for the newly returned English King. She lived through a time of immense political upheaval, when the decadent Charles II and his court returned from exile, ushering in a new era both in fashion and the arts.
Todd’s research into the period is breathtaking, and the limited knowledge we possess about Behn is used to create a stout and thoroughly detailed biography, which reveals much about the people with whom she associated and the places she frequented in Restoration London. Inevitably, there is speculation over the man she married, her intimate friendships and bisexuality – though, there is a wealth of information pertaining to her plays and poetry – however, this volume is as close as we are likely to get to the woman behind the mask.
A gripping portrait of an enigmatic character.