Melanie McGrath finds the pleasure-seeking Aphra Behn strangely familiar; The Secret Life of Aphra Behn by Janet Todd, Deutsch, pounds 25
Saturday 02 November 1996
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.
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