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.

William-Shakespeare

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….

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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)

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How not to be boys and girls

No more boys and girls - BBC 2

Dr Javid Abdelmoneim with pupils from Lanesend School, Isle of Wight

If you missed BBC 2’s fascinating class room experiment with 7 year-olds, No More Boys and Girls; can our kids go gender free?, catch it on iPlayer while you can. It’s a revelation, and not in a good way. By challenging some of the silly stereotypes that children of this age have, sadly, already taken on board, the idea was to show all of them, whatever sex, that with regard to what they want to do in life, the sky’s the limit. ‘Everyone can choose to be anything they want,’ cried one boy after discovering that, just as girls can become car mechanics and architects, so can boys go in for ballet and make-up artistry.  Hurrah!

Good news though this is, I can’t help asking – why is it news? How, in the name of our children’s health, did we get to the point where 7 year-olds – interviewed before the experiment – have already decided that ‘girls are good at being pretty’ and ‘boys are better at being in charge’?  Nearly 100 years after women won the vote and with rafts of Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination legislation on the statute book, sexist stereotypes are aliver and weller than they have ever been.  I’m so cross I don’t even care that those aren’t words.

Because while we can all be guilty of following – instead of questioning – traditional lines of thought, the real villains are those creating traditions that were never there before.  Yup, the manufacturing companies. The people who tell us not just that boys wear blue and girls wear pink (yawn, yawn), but that boys’ shoes are Leaders, tough enough to run around in, climb trees and yes, be in charge, whereas girls must wear flimsy Dolly Babes (thank you, Clarkes, who until now I held in high esteem).

The Amazing Boys' Colouring BookThe divide goes further: that great universal building toy, Lego (remember when it was just red and white bricks?) now comes in sets with names like ‘Andrea’s and Stephanie’s Beach Holiday,’ ‘Emma’s Ice Cream Van,’ and ‘Willy’s Butte Speed Training.’ Even such a basic activity as colouring isn’t immune, with The Amazing Boys’ Colouring Book (‘This exciting colouring book contains fantastic illustrations to inspire budding young artists to create their own masterpieces. The Gorgeous Girls' Colouring Book

From wacky robots and machines to exciting space scenes, medieval knights, massive monsters, motor cars and much, much more’)  paired with one for  Gorgeous Girls’ (From dolls’ houses, flowers, cupcakes and quilts, to exotic fruit, feathers and fairytale carriages, there’s something for every girl in this book’).

When challenged, the standard response from toy/clothes/shoes/book/household goods manufacturers is that they are giving customers what they want – an outrageous claim, since by creating gender-based products they are removing all choice of buying universal ones. Sneaky, too, since the real reason is screamingly obvious: profit. Divide the market and you double it.

Paw Patrol wellies

The Paw Patrol – but where is Skye?

Buy pink wellies for your daughter and your son will refuse to wear them, so you can’t pass them on and will have to shell out for new blue/black/grey/spiderman etc ones for him. Indeed, when it comes to merchandising, the manufacturers go further: Skye, the only female character from the popular series, Paw Patrol, is inexplicably absent from ‘boys’ wellies and china,

Skye

Skye – just not blue enough.

while with Peppa Pig, Peppa herself is reserved for ‘girls’ items and the poor lads have to make do with George.

As a children’s writer, I find this very depressing.We are told all the time that girls will read stories about boys, while boys won’t read ones about girls. From my talks to boys in all kinds of schools, I’m convinced this needn’t be the case; but if the message feeding through from infancy is that adventure, excitement, climbing trees, fighting monsters, building space rockets and flying to the moon are for boys only, who can blame them for assuming that a book with girl characters won’t have any of this kind of stuff?

Peppa pig

Rocket & dinosaurs for George; beads & mirror for Peppa

Both hero and opponent of my first book, Ante’s Inferno, were girls, with a boy being the other main character. My next title, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, was peopled almost exclusively by boys; while the cast of my current wip, The Call of a Sparrow, is nearly all girls. I don’t do this deliberately, it just happens. In all of the books, much is demanded of the main characters: bravery, quick-thinking, endurance, survival, a willingness to risk injury – even death – in pursuit of their cause. I hope this is what will count when arranging school visits, not the sex of my characters; but I know from bestselling writer Robin Stevens’ experience that I may have a fight on my hands. The author of the brilliant detective series for children beginning with Murder Most Unladylike, in which 12 year-olds Daisy and Hazel solve crimes, has had to stipulate that while she will happily visit single-sex and mixed schools alike, she will not speak to an audience of only girls in a mixed sex school.IMG_0093

Of course boys and girls are different. But not as different, not so divided on strict gender lines as our commercially-based society is teaching them today. Baby boys used to wear dresses, for heaven’s sake. In Elizabethan times, they wore dresses until the age of 7, when they were ‘breached’. By offering our children from babyhood onward this riot of supposed choice, all we are doing is building shades of the prison house around both sexes. Which is incredibly sad.

(From an article first posted on http://www.authorselectric.blogspot.uk)

PS  Some good news: the repercussions are beginning, with John Lewis leading the way. If only all the other manufacturers would follow suit…. John Lewis is removing gender labelling from boys’ and girls’ clothes.