Recusant, ostler, wetnurse, bard… How to untangle William Shakespeare.

Mansfield Park 2Some 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’.

Jane Austen - 03

Jane Austen – gagged by her time

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.


No oil painting. William Shakespeare

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….


Horse and Ostler (Morland)

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.

Anne Hathaway

Hardly homely Hathaway

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)


How to celebrate New Year: with physics and hot chocolate.

Anno 1676 1 January


London coffee house, 1674

‘On the first day of this month, I met Mr Hooke at Child’s coffee house in St Paul’s Churchyard after he had addressed the new Philosophical club within the Royal Society. We stayed until 11 pm, eating meat and drinking chocolate.’ John Aubrey My Own Life by Ruth Scurr.

I challenge anyone to find a better way of spending New Year’s Day. It has everything: a lecture from one of the founding fathers of modern physics, an evening spent in conversation with the great man, sustenance – how well-cooked isn’t mentioned, but the dinner sounds solid enough – accompanied by, oh joy, a steady supply of hot chocolate. Somehow this last detail sharpens the immediacy of the scene (though that may say more about the place of chocolate in my own life than in John Aubrey’s or Robert Hooke’s).

I belong to a very small book group. There are three of us. So disorganised are we that managing four meetings a year is good going; agreeing on a book to read, a bonus; and the possibility that at least two thirds of the group will have read the book by the time the meeting takes place, a positive miracle. john-aubrey-my-own-lifeShocking, such lack of discipline, and of course we could do better; yet even such unpromising circumstances have led us to read books we wouldn’t have otherwise done, surely the ultimate achievement of any book group. And in 2016, John Aubrey My Own Life by Ruth Scurr became one of these.

I was daunted at first by the book’s length (just shy of 500 pages, yes I’m a wuss). Nor do I read many biographies (why not? Or as John Aubrey would put it, Quaere). But this isn’t a biography as the word is normally understood. How do you write the life of a man who dedicated himself to recording details and anecdotes of the lives of others, surveying the counties of Surrey and Wiltshire, noting architectural styles, inscriptions on buildings, place names, items of natural curiosity, folklore, ancient manuscripts, all with a passion to preserve things that would otherwise be irretrievably lost? Engaging, self-effacing, easily distracted and financially chaotic, Aubrey saw his role as enabling the talents of brilliant contemporaries to find expression, quoting the Roman poet Horace: ‘I perform the function of a whetstone, which can make the iron sharp, though is itself unable to cut.’


John Aubrey

Friend and supporter to so many scientists, architects, doctors, antiquarians and other prominent contemporaries, a writer who compiled reams of notes on all subjects that fascinated him, yet succeeded in publishing only one, relatively minor, work in his lifetime (Miscellanies; A Collection of Hermetick Philosophy 1696), Aubrey as a subject might, Ruth Scurr feared, ‘vanish inside a conventional biography.’ If only he, like Pepys and Evelyn, had kept a diary…

And there Scurr found her answer. Using Aubrey’s own few pages of autobiographical writing combined with the immense amount of correspondence with his contemporaries, she has constructed his life in diary form. She invents nothing: if there’s no evidence for where he is or what he thinks in one particular period, then those months are thinner than others for which there is much more. Some 35 pages of Endnotes cite sources for the diary entries, proving how scrupulously Scurr adheres to Aubrey’s voice alone, resisting all temptation to embroider or speculate. As a result, John Aubrey leaps from the page, his charming, inquisitive, modest, intelligent, forgiving and, at times, infuriating personality growing organically as the book progresses. Other well-known historical figures are fleshed out along the way: the hard-headed Elias Ashmole, bequeathing his antiquarian collection to Oxford on condition the University built a museum to house it; or a surprisingly devious Antony Wood, borrowing manuscripts from Aubrey which he ‘forgets’ to return for months despite his friend’s pleas. One of my favourite characters is Mr Wylde, if only because, according to the ‘diary’, his main role in Aubrey’s life seems to have been to go to coffee houses with him and annoy Mr Hooke with assertions such as ‘the blood of a black cat can cure chilblains.’

We owe much to John Aubrey. Today he’s most famous for his collection of short biographies of such 17th century figures as Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, John Dee, Thomas Browne and others in Brief Lives. Yet his passion for preserving the past led him, while still an impecunious student at Oxford, to commission a drawing of the ruins of Osney Abbey: a vital record, since what remained of the buildings collapsed only a few years later.



He discovered a series of holes at Stonehenge, now named after him, and fought to prevent the megaliths at Avebury from being chipped at by the locals for building material. His suggestion that druids built Stonehenge, while making the date too recent by thousands of years, brought him still nearer the truth than contemporary beliefs that the stone monument was the work of the Danes or – as asserted by Inigo Jones – the Romans. (For a clever, well-written and amusing discussion of theories about the monument down the centuries, see Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill.)

And I needn’t have let the book’s length daunt me. The diary device allows information about these achievements and much more to flow easily across the pages, interspersed with such gems as ‘Jane Smyth, who is somewhat better, and I met Mr Hooke this evening at Cardinal’s Tavern in Lombard Street. We drank until past midnight and Mr Hooke vomited up wine’ (12 March, 1677).hot-chocolate

Note to Mr Hooke: next time, stick to hot chocolate.