Restoration kerfuffle

Melanie McGrath finds the pleasure-seeking Aphra Behn strangely familiar; The Secret Life of Aphra Behn by Janet Todd, Deutsch, pounds 25

In these rumbling, sleaze-ridden, tabloid times it's a comfort to recall that scandal and surveillance are nothing new. The Restoration turned on hypocritical intrigues and petty insurrections. Public life existed for the performance of interests rather than as a platform for truths: it was a showy, burlesque world rather reminiscent of our own.

Janet Todd's brilliant biography of Aphra Behn, the poet, playwright and Royalist spy, is as much a guide to negotiating a safe passage through Restoration court intrigue as it is the story of a life.

So little is known of Behn's early years that any attempt to tell her tale becomes in itself some kind of detective work. Todd weaves a story together from what little evidence there is with precision, verve and confidence.

Behn was humbly born, but with aristocratic connections through her wet- nurse mother. When she was barely out of her teens, Aphra was dispatched to the swamps of Surinam to spy on English plantation owners. Another mission followed in Flanders, where, as agent 160, code-named "Astrea", she was sent to gather information for the English during the Dutch War. But her spying went badly - she was by all accounts a fairly inefficient secret agent - and was brought back to England out of favour and out of pocket.

Neither sufficiently beautiful nor well-enough bred to mix in court circles, Behn set about earning her living in the theatre. Feckless, sensual and expedient, she flourished in this transient, kaleidoscopic world. Having no patron and needing to earn her living, she wrote plays to entertain, knowing that nothing amused an audience punch-drunk on scandal, sleaze and sexual innuendo as much as more scandal, sleaze and sexual innuendo. And though avowedly Royalist and more cautiously pro-Catholic, she was not above dedicating her work to such Protestant favourites of the King as Nell Gwyn, in the hope of currying favour and, perhaps, a royal pension to boot.

But celebrity came more easily than riches and Behn had to fall back on hack work - translating and copying - to pay her bills. Since play- writing and poetry paid as patchily then as it does now, many of Behn's contemporaries - Thomas Otway, John Dryden, even the Earl of Rochester - found themselves short of ready money. For a time Behn was kept by John Hoyle, a bullying tyke later arraigned for buggering boys in his Temple chambers. Behn had no objection to Hoyle's bisexuality - or to any kind of sexuality come to that. While she loved men, she didn't take their sexual appetites particularly seriously; her comic verse is brimful of hapless impotents, their sapless organs shrivelled by the strength of female desire. She was altogether more suspicious of Protestant restraint than she was of libertine licentiousness. In an age where it was a small step for a woman from sex to syphilis, Behn's erotic imaginings concentrated on the murky business of sexual power and intrigue.

Under James II, Behn's work became more overtly propagandist. Her lightly- veiled critiques of the Monmouth clique put her at some personal risk but, in Todd's view, Behn's attachment to the Royalist cause had by then become not simply her ideology but an essential part of her being. The political and sexual machinations of the court gave Behn much of her material and sanctioned the gossipy theatrical culture which was her life.

It was inevitable that Aphra Behn should have become a symbol of both libertinism and liberty - that common-place cocktail of romanticisation and vilification which dogs many public women's lives. Virginia Woolf went so far as to say that Behn's professionalism "earned [women] the right to speak their minds." Todd makes no such mistake. While her interest in Behn is feminist, addressing Behn's fluid sense of female identity and sexuality, she avoids claiming Behn or her work as a prize for feminism.

Witty and pugnacious, Todd's book is as much a window on the public cacophony of the era as it is a portrait of a playwright. In public life it was an era not unlike our own. "It would be a long time before any woman would again feel able to accept so thoroughly the theatricality of her demeanour...Or to hate commerce and the feckless poor. Or to delight in and mock sex. Or openly to pursue pleasure and ease", writes Todd of Aphra Behn. The spectacle of Fergie comes unbidden to mind.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?