1st June 2017
£14.99 * PB * 608pp * 9781909572065 * Fentum Press
Janet Todd’s definitive biography of Aphra Behn, the Royalist spy and pioneering Restoration dramatist, novelist and poet of the erotic
Author, spy, political propagandist, Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of English literature, a female polymath who rose from humble origins to come close to the heart of power. In this landmark biography, Janet Todd draws on contemporary documents and on Behn’s own writings to examine the history of the times and to tell the story of an independent woman in a harsh and glittering society, caught up in and exploiting the political, diplomatic and sexual intrigues of her time.
The first woman to earn her living entirely by her pen, Behn was the most prolific dramatist of her age, with a succession of popular plays including The Rover. She associated with powerful men such as the flamboyant Earl of Rochester and the poet laureate John Dryden and she wrote with a frankness rare in a woman author before modern times, addressing sexual and psychological subjects such as obsession, self-delusion, impotence, orgasm, and bisexuality. She was a translator of romances and scientific works, a lyrical and erotic poet and an innovative writer of fictions such as the startling slave novella Oroonoko.
Behn took risks – in life as well as literature: she spent time as a Royalist spy in the Netherlands and South America and in her last years she used her poetic skills to serve the Stuart kings, Charles II and James II. She died as their rule came to an end; she was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. Behn’s life is both hidden and displayed in her work: she fictionalised herself and the people around her, and she made rich literature from the plots and scandals that rocked the nation.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of conflict-ridden England, Continental Europe and the mismanaged slave colonies of the Americas, Aphra Behn: A Secret Life looks behind the many masks of an enigmatic woman who is emblematic of the Restoration period, itself a time of creativity, licence, intrigue and self-fashioning.
Internationally renowned scholar Janet Todd is the biographer of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughters Fanny and Mary Shelley, and the Irish Lady Mount Cashell. A former President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, Janet Todd is a Professor Emerita at the University of Aberdeen and Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. She is an expert on women’s writing and feminism and is the author of two novels, Lady Susan Plays the Game and Man of Genius. She lives in Cambridge and Venice.
Praise for the book
‘A rip-roaring read.’
Michele Roberts, The Sunday Times
Antonia Fraser, The Times
‘Janet Todd is one of the foremost feminist literary historians writing in this country. She has devoted her literary career to recovering the lives and works of women writers overlooked and disparaged by generations of male literary scholars.’
Lisa Jardine, Independent on Sunday
‘Janet Todd guides us with unfailing buoyancy and a wit all her own through the intricacies of Restoration theatre and politics. [Behn’s] epitaph seems to suggest her wit is buried with her. Not at all; it is now wondrously resurrected.’
Michael Foot, Evening Standard
‘Thorough and stimulating… clear, readable prose… a fascinating study of the public face of Behn, of its shifting masks and modes.’
Maureen Duffy, Literary Review
‘A major new biography… Todd’s rich biography will be of interest to everyone who cares about the period or about women as writers.’
Jane Spencer, The Times Higher Education
‘Todd has documented so able the daring attempt of a woman to write, both for her daily bread and immortal fame.’
Ruth Perry, Women’s Review of Books
‘Todd has shown that even determined secrecy and a series of carefully shaped masks offer no protection against posterity. This is a much of Aphra Behn as we are ever likely to know.’
Brian Morton, Scotland on Sunday
‘Janet Todd’s brilliant biography of Aphra Behn weaves a story together with precision, verve and confidence. 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.’
Melanie McGrath, Independent