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Aphra Behn: A Secret Life Paperback – 1 Jun 2017
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Shelf Awareness (07/21/2017): Aphra Behn was a 17th-century playwright, poet, translator, propagandist and spy, and one of the first English women successfully to support herself as a professional writer. She was an iconoclast who expressed many radical political, religious and sexual ideas through her work. Aphra Behn: A Secret Life is a revised and updated reissue of the 1996 biography by Janet Todd (A Man of Genius), the British scholar, biographer and novelist. Behn is a tricky subject for any biographer. Very little was written about her by anyone who knew her. As a professional artist, she intentionally invented and hid behind her public image. Todd calls her "a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess... not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks and intrigue." In addition, despite her many radical convictions, she was a strongly anti-democratic Royalist, and her ideas did not line up neatly with modern definitions of social liberalism or feminism. However, Todd thoroughly understands the particular cultural and political environment of the Restoration. She traces a convincing and entertaining path through the likely events of Behn's life in the vivid context of her times, examining the evidence and alternatives for every possibility and providing close readings of her works. Her approach creates an effective mixture of historical research, literary criticism and fiction that brings us as close as we may ever get to the truth of this enterprising and enigmatic literary figure. COPYRIGHT(2017) Shelf Awareness, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
About the Author
Janet Todd was born in Wales and grew up in Britain, Bermuda and Sri Lanka. She has worked in Ghana, Puerto Rico, India, Scotland and England. In the US, at the University of Florida and Douglass College, Rutgers, she began the first journal devoted to women s writing. She has published on the novel and memoir and written biographies of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughters Fanny and Mary Shelley, and the Irish Lady Mount Cashell. A Professor Emerita at the University of Aberdeen and Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, Janet Todd is a former President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, where she established the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. She has published two novels: Lady Susan Plays the Game and A Man of Genius. She lives in Cambridge and Venice."
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Todd had done a masterful job of mining the sources that we have and has been rummaging around the archives to offer the fullest portrait to date of Behn as both woman and writer. Attentive to her various liaisons, and studiously refusing to romanticize her femininity, this embraces the complexities of Behn: while refusing to be confined to a conventional female role, she believed in hereditary monarchy, the divine right of kings, and had little time for ideas of democracy or a parliamentary constitution.
Todd inevitably draws on Behn's writings but not in any simple linear fashion. Instead she draws out Behn's concerns with sexual and gender politics, and the way she uses humour and satire to articulate her agenda without compromising her essential need to entertain not least because, unlike Rochester, for example, she had neither money nor social status outside of her profession as author.
So a complicated woman - and a scholarly biography which does her justice.
The book’s greatest strength lies in being a thorough survey of Aphra Behn’s work. How Aphra Behn was a dramatist, poet, novelists linguist .also the seemingly paradoxical s position of being both socially conservative and ground breaking in her subversion of gender roles, her anti-religious views. Certainly highlights how Restoration drama and literature highlighted women’s sexual desire in a relatively explicit way. The author seems to have such a wide ranging knowledge of Restoration theatre , literature and politics. And most importantly, seems to have familiarised herself with the great extent of Aphra Behn’s work.The writer also attempts to establish what parts of Aphra Behn's work really represent her views, and which works were written out of economic or political necessity.
Masses of footnotes for those who want to up the source material. I would liked to have learned more about Aphra Behn’s fall from popularity and how she has been viewed in subsequent generations. The writer doesn’t really delve into the fact that arch traditionalist Reverend Montague Summers edited a six volume set of her work that appeared in 1915.
She was as fascinating a woman of the Restoration period as anyone could hope to find. She was a confident and highly intelligent woman at a time when such qualities were considered unseemly and unwomanly, and she was unbowed by any expectations regarding her status and the suitable behaviour of women. Her life was colourful and vivid; she lived to the full, and took little notice of convention and societal mores, at least where that convention was concerned with her place as a woman, though in other areas Behn was conservative, a Royalist who believed, for example, in the divine right of kings. Famously, Virginia Woolf said of her that ‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’
So it is somewhat frustrating that of such an important figure in both literary and feminist history, little evidence of her life, beyond her writing itself, survives – if it, indeed, ever existed at all – that would provide us with a full picture of Behn. What we have are scraps and mentions. Todd writes that Robert Gould wrote – derogatively – that she was a ‘Punk & Poetess’, and others – mostly male, as women did not often have a public voice – derided her for her openly frank poetry. The upshot of this was that she was not taken as seriously as her male contemporaries, and the reputation of Behn’s work suffered, languishing largely forgotten or ignored, for many years, until there was a resurgence of interest in the twentieth century.
Todd is one of the foremost – and likely the foremost Behn scholar, and this edition is an updated version of her book that was published originally in 1996. In the intervening twenty years, Todd has been engaged in research, but more than this, a creative shift has occurred in the field of academia in general, which has given Todd scope to present the work not simply as the known and concrete facts of Behn’s life, but to also present the much more exciting and dark side of history – that of guesswork, speculation, and leaps of faith.
However, Todd is, of course, a leading academic, and she has tempered her freedom of expression and creativity and presents a rounded and complete picture of Behn’s life, and one that has great and wide potential appeal, which may, if the wind is just right, blow the playwright into a more popular, widespread, and deserving appreciation of her works.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.
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