Shakespeare's Mistress by Karen Harper

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Shakespeare's Mistress by Karen Harper

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: An interesting idea that is based in a factual historic document, but let down by a very 'shaky' execution.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 448 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Ebury Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780091940423

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The conceit of Shakespeare's Mistress is that Shakespeare was married to Anne Whateley the day before he was married to Anne Hathaway, and Anne W remained the love of his life, with an affair (if you can have an affair with your 'wife') continued in London where the same Anne was also the famed dark lady of his sonnets. There is some basis for this theory in that the parish records do show a mysterious entry into the register for just such a contract the day before the Hathaway marriage but although the author claims this is 'faction', it's very much at the fiction end of that scale and is really a 'what if?' piece.

It starts off reasonably well - well it starts off on a bad foot in fact because the book is written as a first person narrative by Anne W and she displays an idiosyncratic misunderstanding of the term 'comedy' when related to Elizabethan drama in the prologue, but putting that aside, the early part in Stratford is entertaining enough in a sort of Tudor romance kind of way. A couple of allusions are rather laid on with a trowel, like the death of a mutual friend in what is clearly the forerunner to the Ophelia drowning in Hamlet scene, although also idiosyncratically it owes more to the Millais painting than the play itself, but it sweeps along in an enjoyable enough manner if you don't take it too seriously.

Then Anne W heads off to London and, rather like Anne H would have felt, I wished she hadn't. The book then starts down a long and slippery slope to ridicule. If that sounds a bit strong, then mayhap you're right. OK - now hopefully some of you have just gone 'mayhap? Who uses that word?' That's part of the problem. Karen Harper does.

To my mind, if you are going to write historic fiction, you need to take some decisions before you set off about how you are going to handle language. I'm certainly not suggesting it has to be full of 'foresooths' and 'yea verilies'. But you cannot mix and match like this. For the most part the text is all very modern and readable but Harper is obsessed with certain Elizabethan words and phrases - notably swearing in the form of God's teeth (or 's teeth) and variations thereof, and also the rather more understandable obsession with the word 'tussie-mussies'. To illustrate how ridiculous this gets, I need to get a bit pedantic for a bit. She has Kit Marlowe (contemporary of the Bard) say at one point 'they know I'm an iconoclast - hell's teeth all playwrights are at heart'. Kit Marlowe died in 1593. The first recorded use of the word 'iconoclast' is 1641 and even then it didn't mean what we use it today to mean and how it is used here. If you use modern meanings then fine, but don't sprinkle arcane Elizabethan swear words after it - it looks (and is) ridiculous.

If that's a little too pedantic for you (and I'd understand if it was) then how about this. A quick school room quiz: in Romeo and Juliet what does the word 'wherefore' mean in the context of 'wherefore art thou Romeo?' Anyone? If you said 'why' then collect a star. If you said 'where' go and stand in the corner where you will not be alone. Already there is Karen Harper (who I hasten to add is a former teacher of Shakespeare and claims three decades of study of Elizabethan England) and, if this book is to be believed, also there is a certain William Shakespeare who she quotes using it in the meaning of 'where'! Now, I confess to being something of a Bardoholic, but the meaning of 'wherefore' in this context is not a little known fact and certainly something you would expect someone with three decades of study to know.

I could go on, but frankly once you suggest Shakespeare doesn't know the meaning of his own words, there's little point.

I won't get into the other factual problems and illogicalities which are too many to mention. Just one example - it is suggested that the reason the Bard had dark skinned women in his plays who liked to dress up as boys is a reflection of Anne W's colouring and penchant for dressing as boys to get out of scrapes when the glaringly obvious (though I acknowledge unprovable) explanation is that the boys he had to use as women weren't allowed on the stage is why he chose this colouring and got humour out of the dressing up stuff. The claim that this is a 'what if' fiction rather than any claim to historical accuracy doesn't excuse this in my book.

The rest of the plot takes the few known things in the Bard's life and ensures that plucky little Anne W is plonked at the centre of everything. Shakespeare's son's death? Yup, Anne W told him about that. The building of the Globe theatre? Yeah, Anne W helped carry the wood. Shakespeare's daughter's marriage to Dr Hall - of course, Anne W introduced them. The Bard's patronage by Henry Wriothesley (to whom the sonnets were dedicated) - oh, Anne W introduced them, don't you know?

The book put me in mind of a reference I once saw for an employee that said 'her staff follow her loyally, but more out of morbid curiosity than any sense of leadership'. That's what kept me reading. As light Tudor romance goes, there is something of a narrative arc here - but it's Shakespeare's own life, not Anne W's and there's little in terms of sense of time or place. It's all Tudor London though rose-tinted glasses. The idea is intriguing (hence two stars) but the execution is simply dreadful. I urge you to avoid this.

You will learn more about Shakespeare in Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal or for a more scholarly approach, try Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness. If you want strong Tudor fiction (and who doesn't?) then there's a huge choice from the slightly heavier going Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel to The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir. We also have a review of Harper's The Queen's Governess.

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