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

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works