Some years ago, a friend defended a film version of Mansfield Park that portrayed sexual abuse within Fanny Price’s birth family by saying, ‘Oh come on, don’t think that kind of thing didn’t go on in the nineteenth century just as much as today.’ It didn’t matter that the film showed something that never appeared in the book; according to her, if Jane Austen could have written it in, she would have done, and that was good enough for my friend.
While this made no sense at all to me, what I found shocking was that my friend was by profession a historian; someone who deals in fact, not fiction. Yet here she was, happy to discard the integrity of a classic novel because it didn’t fit her historical view. Perhaps that was her point: Mansfield Park is fiction, not history, so it really doesn’t matter what you do with it. For her, ‘would have,’ in Jane Austen’s case, glided easily into ‘did’.
It is difficult for historians. Novelists can make up anything they like, but where evidence is missing, historians have to piece together what clues they have to build a credible picture. For no one is this truer than William Shakespeare, whose life I’m researching at the moment for a book idea (what else?). Between his birth in 1564 and his growing fame as a playwright and poet in 1590s London, only a few certain dates stand out, among which are his marriage, in 1582, to Anne Hathaway, and the baptism of his children in 1583 and 1585. It’s only fair that biographers should follow any lead that might account for his ‘lost’ years, including one that has him employed as schoolmaster in a leading Catholic recusant family in Lancashire; or the legend that a spot of deer-poaching caused him to fly Stratford to escape the wrath of landowner Sir Thomas Lucy.
But reading Anthony Holden’s biography William Shakespeare (1999) has brought the Mansfield Park conversation straight back to me. Not because of any suggestion of abusive family relationships here (phew), but because of Holden’s attitude towards his material. While he builds a good case for the 15 year-old Shakespeare’s being employed as tutor in the Hoghton family, he can’t prove it; yet after a few pages, ‘would have’ and ‘highly likely’ melt imperceptibly into ‘Shakespeare had clearly impressed his first employer.’ Guesses that begin ‘probably’ are asserted as facts a few pages later, while legends such as the deer-poaching one are discounted in one place and upheld in another. Lacking other evidence, Holden falls into the trap of taking clues from the works: Shakespeare shows knowledge of horses, so he must have earned his keep as an ostler; he writes tellingly about ‘the green-eyed monster’, therefore he, like Othello, must have suffered terrible jealousy. All of which shows a blithe misunderstanding of how the creative mind works. By this token, Lady Macbeth’s
I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me
arises from direct personal experience. Er….
Worst of all – and Holden isn’t alone here – comes the treatment of poor Anne Hathaway. We know nothing about her looks or her character, but the simple fact that she’d reached the advanced old age of 26 when 18 year-old Shakespeare impregnated her has branded her ‘on the shelf’, a desperate, ‘homely’ woman who may have set out deliberately to trap a young man into marriage.
Homely. Ye gods. Why is a 26 year-old woman automatically homely, while an 18 year-old boy isn’t spotty, sweaty and frankly, not much of an oil painting himself? Shakespeare can’t have loved Anne, runs the general opinion among biographers, or he’d have stayed in Stratford and never lived all those years in London. Yet there must have been attraction, at least to begin with, and the arrival of two more children some years later doesn’t speak of total aversion to this much, much older woman. And where else could an ambitious young actor and playwright earn a living if not in London? For all we know, he may have hot-footed it home to Stratford whenever time and funds permitted.
Untangling fact from fiction in this biography, trying to work out what is certain and what conjecture in Holden’s impressively rounded portrait of his subject, while dealing with the somewhat dated attitude to women displayed above, I have to keep reminding myself that I am a historical fiction writer reading the work of a historian.
Not the other way round.
Funny, that. Maybe the two disciplines are not so far apart after all.
(From an article first published on Authors Electric BlogSpot)