Women Sleuths in
Historical Mysteries

England, 1676

©1996-2013
womeninworldhistory.com

Invitation to a Funeral

by Molly Brown

Funerals fill Aphra Behn’s life. First, she and her friend Nell Gywn, the celebrated actress and mistress of the Charles II, arrange the burial of two murdered brothers. Then, Nell holds a mock funeral as a jest to the falling court position of her rival, Louise de Keroualle. The murdered brothers, both known to Aphra in her earlier life, may been involved in plots against the king. With fears of a return of the “papist” Catholics to power, and thus a guaranteed resumption of civil war, Aphra must distance herself from her old friends while uncovering the source of their deaths.

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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Women in World History Curriculum