Rosalyn Steele, our Sales Director for Library and Academic Markets (and active Dewy Diva), Katerina Ortakova (our digital sales and marketing summer intern) and I, Deanna McFadden, (the resident Associate Director of Digital Product Development) all read Richard B. Wright’s Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard over the summer and spent a few weeks talking about it via email.
I’m hoping that the two of you had time to finish the book over the last little while. I guess I just wanted to get the conversation started and see what you both thought. For me, I found the novel to be an extremely quick read. Sitting down up north a couple of weekends ago, I didn’t put it down until I was finished (which meant slightly sunburned shoulders). The bits of the novel that I liked best would have to be the historical detail — there’s a fine line between books that are about history and then novels that finely weave the history throughout for a more realistic experience. I didn’t feel like the necessities were forced, the little things that made the context of the novel feel authentic, what they were eating, how they were speaking. I mean, I know it would be impossible to write a novel in the English from Shakespeare’s actual time, that concessions needed to be made, but I did enjoy how the novel felt very much of the time.
What did you both think?
Yes, I have to agree that it was a quick read. The language and style was pleasant to read but it didn’t leave me feeling like I hadn’t gotten what I wanted out of reading a book.
The story is so wonderful, I particularly enjoyed the way love was woven into the story with Linny and her mother, and Linny’s uncle towards his sister and Linny, and the romantic love Linny’s mother experienced, and Linny with Scarfe, and between Charlotte and Linny, and Marion with her ballet teacher. I’m sure there are many more examples of a variety of types of love. And I thought that even though the setting is sometimes bleak with the rain, and the plague, and the hardship Linny and the other characters go through, the loving relationships add some lightness to the story.
Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you! It is a really busy time of year for me so I had to read Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard in stolen moments. And I’m glad I did — it was fantastic. I had my nose buried in the book at every opportunity, and kept getting so engrossed in the story that it was becoming a hazard. I burned an omelet one morning because I completely forgot about it and another morning was late leaving for work because the “I’ll just read one chapter over breakfast” turned into five.
I think we are all in agreement that is a quick read — Richard B. Wright certainly has a talent for pacing! I very much enjoyed how the plot alternated between Cromwellian England in 1658 as the elderly Aerlene/Linny tells her story to Charlotte Easton, the revelation of how Aerlene’s parents met in London in 1587, and the story of Aerlene’s time in London nearly 15 years later as she searches for the father she has never met. I find that this style of writing really engages me.
I, too, enjoyed the history in the book and appreciated that it is conveyed through the details in the story instead of devolving into dry history lecture (as some overlong historical novels tend to do). Whether it was a description of the food the characters were eating, references to the death of Charlotte’s brother in one of the biggest battles of the English Civil War, or Shakespeare’s mention of a Dutch ship carrying the plague to London (the same outbreak that would later kill Linny’s aunt and cousin), there is enough detail to satisfy those who know the time period well, but not too much to interrupt the flow of the story.
The Shakespeare fan in me loved the little tantalizing glimpses into the life of the bard and how these relationships might have influenced his work. The characters were surprisingly earthy. One of my favourite lines from the book is the one that Aerlene’s mother Elizabeth says as she starts off the story of how she met William Shakespeare: “From the beginning I had terrible judgment in men.” You just KNOW she is going to have a fascinating story to tell. And Aerlene seems to be heading in the same direction from her blossoming romance with her uncle’s apprentice to her infatuation with ‘bad boy’ Scarfe. Shakespeare’s plays are full of characters falling in love, mostly with the wrong people, and you do get the sense from this book that he was writing from observation of real people’s behavior.
Now it’s my turn to apologize, it’s taken me ages to get back to you both.
I love the idea of reading in stolen moments. It makes it that much more urgent, and those are my favourite kinds of books, the ones that you rip any moment from your life, forgo love, family, ahem, television, to sit there and just read. My reading experience of Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard seems even indulgent — sitting up north on a free afternoon and being so completely engrossed that I didn’t even look up from my galley until I was finished.
You make such an important point — that it’s really lovely when the historical detail feels organic and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story. There’s such a delicate balance between wanting to get it right in spirit and in tone but not wanting the story to drag, either. I think, like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard uses history as a way to tell a story and doesn’t assume just because of the history there is a story (if that makes any sense). And there are ways, too, that Wright just seems at the height of his powers. He writes so convincingly from a woman’s point of view, even one from the 16th century. This book, in a way, called to mind Clara Callan, there are elements of almost an epistolary format in this book, and maybe I’m totally wrong about that, maybe it’s more of a story being told within a story, but that very idea of taking aspects of your life and preserving them by writing them down whether it’s in a letter or being told to a third person, that really make his novels sing for me.
Romantic love is such a fascinating topic – especially when imagining it in the context of Shakespeare. So much of what came from the Bard all of those years ago has embedded its way into the very fabric of our lives. Whether it’s the idea of star-crossed lovers or the confines of a particularly bad marriage; a fallen woman or a young girl (epitomizing spring perhaps) entering into marriage; or even the understanding that the season of your life, as an aging woman, has definitely entered into its winter phase, I love how Wright brings these Shakespearean themes into the novel – he makes them real and imbues them with a different kind of richness than you’d see in a play.
What did you both think of the religious overtones — the Puritan aspects to the novel?
Having just read Wright’s “Notes On Writing Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard“, I appreciate his writing and his creation of the story even more. Wright says that he came up with the idea for this novel with an image, an image of an old lady sitting by the window. As he continues to describe growing this image into an idea and then a novel, I am astounded at how accurately and perfectly he creates the image in my mind. I think it is this precision that really makes the novel shine.
As to your question about religious overtones and Puritan aspects of the novel, I think they work so well because not only do they help to build and create the feeling of Elizabethian England but the religious idividuals such as Aerlene’s aunt and her sister work well as a foil for Aerlene’s nature-loving and even nature-worshipping mother. They help to explain the innocense of Aerlene’s mother’s love for William Shakespeare and the other men in her life.
In his essay, Wright also discusses his negotiation of ensuring that the language was true and original without sounding “quaint and artificial” and I think as Rosalyn pointed out, he does this so well. He creates the England of 400 years ago in a way that today’s reader can relate to, using ever enduring feelings and emotions and ideas that stand the test of time, just like William Shakespeare.
I found the two main female characters, Aerlene and Elizabeth, to be quite free spirited , at least compared to what I perceive the behavior of girls to have been during Elizabethan times. I agree with Kat’s statement above about how the Puritan beliefs of their family members were a foil against which the girls rebelled. The ‘sins’ that they committed gave them the freedom to leave their small community and seek out their own paths in London.
I found it refreshing that Aerlene wasn’t searching for her father to take advantage of his fame or money- just to meet him and to have him know who she was so she could move on with her life.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book — it was engrossing, moving, has characters that stick with you, and offers an intriguing take on the inspiration for Shakespeare’s plays. If I had to assign a rating to this book, I’d give it an 8.5/10.
I’d agree, 8.5 out of 10 is the perfect grade for the novel. It’s funny, “freedom” seems to be a big theme in literature this fall (speaking of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, natch) and I think that Wright explores it thoroughly too by contrasting the religious fervor of the Puritans, their quest for “freedom” in a new world and Aerlene and Elizabeth’s own need to be as fully realized as their society would allow. Regardless, like both of you, I truly enjoyed this book and think it’ll appeal to a broad selection of readers: historical fiction lovers, literary fiction devotees and those in between just craving a good story with fascinating characters.
Now it’s your turn to form your own opinions on Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard! Let us know what you think.
Deanna, Katerina & Rosalyn