The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

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The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Not a light read by any means, but a rich, authentic-feeling historical fiction of the lives of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Anne Hathaway et al. Intelligent and refreshingly different from most fiction on this subject.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: 9780755358229

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Books about Shakespeare vary hugely both in terms of approach and quality. Some focus on historical fact, while others play rather more loosely with the romance of his life. Fortunately for readers, Jude Morgan's books are rather more reliably excellent. What's more, he has a track record of fiction that concerns great writers, having previously tackled the Brontës (The Taste of Sorrow) and the romantic poets (Passion). So my expectations were already quite high coming into his The Secret Life of William Shakespeare - expectations that he has again surpassed.

There are two aspects to the book that make it so good: the style and the content. Of these, the style is the one that may put some people off. It's certainly not a light read. If you want a breezy Elizabethan tale, then this may not be for you. It's unashamedly literary and not always an easy read, but as with watching a Shakespeare play, after a short while what seems at first impenetrable soon fades and the rich language and style becomes a strength. It's worth noting that he uses the present tense for much of the book too.

Morgan has an ability to suggest the style of his subjects in his writing. His The Taste of Sorrow strongly suggests the writing style of the Brontë sisters who are its subject matter. Without taking anything away from that book, it's rather more difficult to achieve this with Shakespeare, but again he manages to do that. This means that when there is dialogue between say Shakespeare and Ben Jonson or Anne Hathaway, it at least seems as if this comes from the same mouth that wrote the plays, while at the same time making it intelligible to modern readers. It's skillfully done and very rewarding if you are prepared to put in some effort.

In terms of the content, the book's great strength is partly in what it doesn't do. I've read a great many books on Shakespeare - probably too many: I should get out more. But they generally fall into two camps. Either they pander to the view that we know so little about him, although in fact it's amazing how much we do know about a man of such humble background given the age. This is the problem. Writers often feel compelled to throw in the known 'facts' which leads to the same story just told differently. The other trend is for people to take events, or make them up, and link them to events in his plays in a way which suggests Shakespeare suffered from a stunning lack of imagination.

Morgan avoids both these traps and therefore is free to indulge in a fiction of his own making that is wholly believable. For example he has Anne popping down to London at times when most leave her festering away in Stratford. There's no evidence she did visit London but as far as I'm aware there's no evidence she didn't. So Morgan is able to use his imagination in a way that few do when it comes to Shakespeare. Most of all, it's wholly believable.

This is another of Morgan's strengths. He is a gritty writer. Too often historic fiction gets carried away with tales of court and the result is a rose tinted view of Elizabethan splendor. But life was tough. Shakespeare wasn't part of that nobility and plague, fires, and general living conditions were hard. Morgan's depiction at least feels much more authentic, although I'm not quite old enough to recall the late 1500s myself.

He presents a convincing characterisation of Mr and Mrs Shakespeare as well as of people like Ben Jonson and Kit Marlow. In fact Jonson is a critical part of the narrative. From a very different background, it is the more educated Jonson who is most astute in his analysis of Shakespeare as a man. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Will and Anne.

As long as you are prepared for a somewhat challenging and rich style, this is historical fiction of a very high order.

The Taste of Sorrow is similarly earthy and intelligent. For more highly intelligent historical literary fiction Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is a good choice.

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