Richard B. Wright’s Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard
Phyllis Bruce – Harper Collins, 2010

I was so annoyed with myself as a reader for not properly appreciating Richard Wright’s October; I knew it was very well-done and it was simply my preternatural attachment to his earlier novel, Clara Callan, that interfered with my properly appreciating it.

I was in that I-don’t-care-what-it-is-if-it’s-not-Clara-Callan phase and nothing could permeate that fog of resistance. I wasn’t signing up if Clara wasn’t attending.

Perhaps enough books have fallen between then and now. Or perhaps it’s simply that the story of Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard took hold of me with a simliar intensity. For whatever reason, I loved this novel. It is definitely not Clara Callan. But I don’t mind. The story of Aerlene Ward (Linny) and her Mam was more than enough to satisfy, on its own terms, not Clara Callan’s, nobody else’s.

Aerlene was not always aware that she was Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard. Her mother told her when Linny was old enough:

Your twelfth birthday is only a fortnight off,” she said, “so there is no good reason now to wait, for truly I cannot keep this to myself another minute.” And with that she withdrew from beneath her apron a copy of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. I read those very words on the title page.
“A Storybook, then?” I asked. “Or poems?”
“A playbook,” said Mam, “already enacted in a London playhouse. The bookseller told me it’s only lately printed. And this play was written by your father, Aerlene.”

For those readers who are troubled by the idea of fictionalizing biography, for whom reading American Wife was as disturbing as it was fascinating, the question of whether Shakespeare fathered a illegitimate child (or, children) might fall into the category of “better left unsaid”.  But even some of those readers will find their doubts and uncertainties resolved by the narrative’s approach.

It’s clear throughout the telling that Aerlene recognizes that her story (which as she relays it to Charlotte, her amanuensis, is also very much Linny’s mother’s, Elizabeth’s, story) is of her personal experience. Charlotte, young mistress of the house, and obviously extremely fond of Linny, poses all the questions and doubts that a reader might have.

Primarily, how can Linny, at 70, relay entire conversations from years past? How can she depend upon memories across so many intervening years? And not only her own memories, but the memories of her mother, shared with Linny when barely twelve, across even more years and experience? This is something Charlotte ponders and likely most readers, even those immediately engaged by the bare outline of Linny’s tale, consider this as well.

As Linny explains to Charlotte: “that is an uncommonly literal reading of events and, if I may say so, does a disservice to your intelligence. In relating anything we only approach the truth; we are never exactly there. Moreover, does not another truth besides the factual lurk in any account of events? A truth perhaps far more important?”

Regular readers of historical fiction have already reconciled themselves to the legitimacy of dialogue in a historical novel, but even this is addressed in Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard. Not in Linny’s recounting, but in her mother’s voice. Likely Linny, too, wondered at her mother’s recreation of the first meeting of Elizabeth and Shakespeare.

“She thought further on it and said, ‘We must have talked that first time about how we came to London, because that’s what you did if you were newcomers to the city.'”

It’s clearly and admittedly a reconstruction, but one rooted in a quest for realism. “I will try to reconstruct this as best I can.”

Linny accepts the “truth besides the factual” that lurks in Elizabeth’s tale and I’ve accepted Linny’s truth, one “perhaps far more important”, in Richard B. Wright’s latest novel.

But, it’s true, I have what some might consider an exceedingly tolerant approach to invention.

“I am trying to recall details of my time with Robert Scarfe, but such details have lain dormant in my memory for a good long while. I have hopes that some may yet return. And if not?” I added looking at Charlotte?
“Why, then you’ll just have to invent them, Linny.” She smiled.
“Just so,” I said.

That doesn’t bother me a bit; I signed up to read a novel. But if readers are itchy about fictionalized biography, this novel may not satisfy them in the same way it did me. (If that’s you, you’re probably not still reading this anyway!)

However, also true is that I have a distant and respectful-but-not-adoring relationship with Shakespeare’s drama, so readers who are passionate about the issues of his pen (and, simultaneously, comfortable with the proposed existence of Linny, his illegitimate issue) may be doubly satisfied, may more quickly identify links in Elizabeth’s experience as glimpses into the playwright’s work, his experiences filtered through his quill, just as Linny’s are filtered through Charlotte’s.

And ultimately this is not Shakespeare’s tale: it is Linny’s and, through her eyes, Elizabeth’s. Not Mr. Shakespeare but Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard. It’s a derogatory term and, as you’d expect, there is a certain sadness in their experiences, sometimes outright sorrow and other times a subtle sense of loss. But that’s not all. Linny, as you know (if you have read this far), has her own ideas about what makes a good story.

“I lightened the darkness of some of the plays because, like my mother, Charlotte could not abide sorrowful endings: so in the old King’s tale of woe, the hangman’s knot is imperfect and Cordelia survives. “Look, look,” cries Lear, “she lives.” And so she did, at least in the nursery of Easton House before the eyes of a ten-year-old girl. The same happy fate awaits the voluptuous Cleopatra, when / Charmian plucks the asp from the Queen’s breast with news that Antony is still alive, and the famous lovers are reunited. Desdemona awakens to embrace and forgive Othello. I could not bring myself to tamper with Hamlet’s story, even for a child’s amusement, and so I kept it to myself. Perhaps even to this day, Charlotte believes these great tragedies ended happily.”

So, yes, it’s possible that Linny’s tale is not only filtered through memory, but altered by the art of a storyteller. That’s what I signed up for. (And yes, I also signed up to read IFOA authors: Richard B. Wright is amongst them!)

And you?