Invitation to a Funeral Hardcover – 16 Nov 1995
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When first we meet Aphra Behn, she is waking with her head aching and mouth dry from a night's revelry. The playwright is broke after her last play flopped, and her new play must run at least three days for her to make any money on it. To make matters worse, the Earl of Rochester managed to cast his mistress in the lead, despite her obvious lack of talent, as part of a bet that Aphra can turn her into London's best actress.
When a man who befriended her many years ago is found dead, she arranges for his funeral to repay an old debt. But her innocent act has drawn the attention of some mysterious figures, including the head of the king's secret service.
"Invitation to a Funeral" is full of Restoration figures, noble and common: King Charles II, his competing mistresses such as the actress Nell Gwyn and the Duchess of Portsmouth (nicknamed "Squintabella" by Nell), and the carousing Earl of Rochester. Those who know the era will recognize some of the incidents Brown uses for her own devices.
Aphra Behn stands out among the general run of amateur detectives for her refusal to act like one. She is not Jessica Fletcher teleported to the 17th century, just a single working girl trying to keep body and soul together while working in a profession which most people of the time considered one step removed from prostitution. What with shepherding her play to the stage, dealing with Rochester's mistress, running deeper into debt and avoiding her debtors (as well as an ex-lover attempting to win her back), she doesn't have time to play detective. How she manages to get into serious trouble anyway makes "Invitation to a Funeral" a pleasurable jaunt back to another historical era.
To help Elizabeth become a decent actress, Aphra decides to enlist the help of a friend, Nell Gwyn, former actress and orange-seller who is one of King Charles' mistresses. On the way to find Gwyn, they meet Elias Cavell, a beggar who knew Aphra when she was a young woman and who, along with his brother Matthew, performed a great kindness for her in Surinam. Upon going to visit Matthew, she finds him dead, and offers to repay his generosity by funding his funeral.
It's at the funeral that strange things start happening. Aphra is drugged, and her home is repeatedly broken into. There seem to be many people at the palace who are interested in Matthew Cavell, though what they could want with a former sailor is unknown. Who wants to do harm to Aphra? What does the court have to do with it? And what secret information about his brother did Elias Cavell possess that caused him to be murdered in Aphra's outhouse?
"Invitation to a Funeral" is the debut novel from Molly Brown, and while the cover touts it as one of the best historical novels of the year, it utterly fails to deliver. Several characters are delightful (Nell Gwyn is hilarious, as is her cantankerous mother) but others are not fleshed out. The plot is very convoluted and there are entirely too many players for a book that clocks in at less than 300 pages. The premise is intriguing, but it falls short in nearly every way.
A multitude of historic characters find their way into this story, which jumps around quite a bit. Background information by the author would have been very useful. Aphra Behn (1640-1690) was the first woman to make her living as a writer, in this story as a playwright. Because of her novel status, she was, as the book's dialogue correctly notes, the "scandal of London," considered an "immodest and immoral" person. Nell Gywn, who assumes an almost equal role to Behn in driving the plot, was celebrated for her superb performances and rise from bawdy houses to the king's bed. With the reopening of the theaters in Restoration England in 1660, both women could thrive.
Brown's story works as a slightly bawdy romp in the style of the plot of Behn's plays. But Behn is never shown actually writing, nor even thinking about the themes which inspired her. Rather, Brown uses her as a colorful character racing about London trying to solve this mystery while trying to piece together enough funds to keep herself from the horrors of debtors prison, where Behn indeed spent some time. The story does reveal the misfortunes of Behn's life, the tenuous position of unmarried women, the grasping for position among women at the permissive Restoration court, and, above all, the eye watering stench of unsanitary lower class London.
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