It’s now the stuff of legend that until Clara Callan bagged him both the Giller and Governor General’s Award in 2001, Richard Wright had been thanklessly producing magnificent but unheralded novels for decades. Wright’s fans, now legion, know his confounding ability to write across a wide variety of genres, genders, and eras, and to do so convincingly, yet Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard, arguably Wright’s farthest flung experiment yet, may be the final proof that he is indeed CanLit’s answer to Meryl Streep.
This is Wright’s 12th novel and also his first set before the 20th century—well before the 20th century, in fact: starting in Elizabethan London and ending shortly after the death of Cromwell.
The deathbed-within-a-deathbed tale begins with the final days of 70-year-old Aerlene Ward, long-time housekeeper and nursemaid to the wealthy Easton family of Oxfordshire. When Aerlene was 12, her dying mother, Elizabeth, tells her that Aerlene is Shakespeare’s illegitimate daughter. Nearly blind from cataracts, Aerlene will now reveal her long-kept secret by dictating her story to the Eastons’ daughter, Charlotte.
“From the beginning,” Aerlene’s mother told her, “I had terrible judgment in men.” And so it is that when young Elizabeth meets the not-yet-famous bard, he is merely the third in a series of unsuccessful hook-ups, the first having been with a “dissolute, shiftless, untrustworthy” widower that ended when the latter was killed in a drunken brawl two weeks after Elizabeth married him. Pregnant at the time, she loses the baby shortly afterward: “But never was a miscarriage greeted with more rejoicing in a Christian household.”
Elizabeth returns to live with her poor but kind-hearted brother, Jack, and his flinty, pious wife, Sarah. A few years later, however, Elizabeth once again brings shame on the household when she seduces a much younger a farm labourer assumed to be simple-minded because he is mute. When the ensuing scandal threatens to impact Jack’s drapery business, Sarah convinces him to send Elizabeth to London to live with her sister, Eliza, and Eliza’s Huguenot husband, Philip, who runs a millinery shop.
Elizabeth learns to negotiate her way through London’s pox-infested streets and soon meets Mary Pinder, a cross-dressing prostitute who introduces her to Will Shakespeare, a bright but lowly apprentice player. At the theatre, it is Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great that has the city “by the short hairs.” Elizabeth and Will meet at public houses, stroll the streets and lie together in Finsbury Fields. Will strikes Elizabeth as cautious, curious, death-obsessed, and deeply jealous of Marlowe’s success.
Aerlene becomes pregnant, but her brief hope of marrying Will is dashed when she discovers, vexingly, that he already has a wife and children. Once again, she must endure an ignominious return to her brother’s home in Oxfordshire. She does not tell Shakespeare about the pregnancy.
Aerlene’s own story picks up after her mother’s death and follows an almost completely parallel trajectory, starting with her own expulsion from Jack and Sarah’s workshop—in this case for kissing a clubfooted co-worker. Aerlene dreams of one day meeting her now-famous father and finally gets a chance after a failed attempt to put her into service with a local family results in her being sent London to work, just as her mother did, with Philip and Eliza.
With its female narrators, travels between country and city, unwanted pregnancies and hybridized dialogue combining period elements with modern syntax, Wright’s book feels like a combination of Clara Callan and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. And in many ways it shares many of the best qualities of both novels. If any criticism had to be leveled (and it doesn’t have to be) it would be for ease with which it’s possible to confuse mother and daughter’s—“Lizzy” and “Linny’s”—very similar stories.
Putting words in Shakespeare’s mouth may seem like the ultimate act of literary hubris, but with characteristic subtlety Wright plays it so that the bard functions more as a means for us to reflect on the novel’s real interest: its female protagonists. Elizabeth’s judgment of Will’s early talents, for example, is inescapably clouded by her low opinion of herself: “I think I lacked the imagination to foresee your father’s success. . . I could not see him writing anything to equal Marlowe’s play. Perhaps it was that I could not imagine myself being that close to a man who could ever accomplish such things.”
Wright never comes off as a virtuoso eager to show off his range, but rather as a writer of insatiable curiosity and intelligence who just happens to have perfect pitch for dialogue and nuance. They’re qualities that have made Wright one of Canada’s greatest literary talents and Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard yet another total delight to read.