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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn