I ran across a hard-cover version of this on the clearance table of a local book store, and decided that a speculative fiction novel about Shakespeare’s daughter by a woman who is an English professor who teaches about Shakespeare might be an illuminating view of the bard. Particularly since I’ve read quite a few of his plays and enjoyed the multi-layered language he used but never had any real sense of the time and place that generated those works.
Naturally, this book would also touch on the strange dichotomy of being a female in an age and area where that was commonly a hindrance to any career achievement–saving, of course, the queen, who herself was not keen on changing that status quo for her subjects. As the flap text in my edition reads:
Growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon, Judith and her twin borther, Hamnet, see little of their father. His visits are infrequent, and they know him only as “the scribbling one.” Bit by bit, however, he begins to share with them his poetry of star-crossed lovers, a jailed English king, a murderous moneylender, a fairy queen. By the edge of the River Avon, the twins devise games based on their father’s wondrous poetry to entertain each other whenever he is away.
The way Judith is written in this story, she has inherited a full measure of her father’s imagination. But where it earns him his living, it gets her in trouble. In fact, it loses her her twin.
I lowered my hand. “And now,” I said, “we must join the river god in his element.”
“What be that?” asked Hamnet.
I did not truly know, but I thought it should have something to do with water, and so I told Hamnet we must duck our heads three times beneath the surface. “One,” I said, and we ducked. “Two,” I said, and we ducked again. But when I came to the surface the second time I did not see Hamnet’s head.
Instead I felt his legs scrape against mine as the current carried him downriver.
From beginning with hero worship and moving to a desperate hatred of how her father portrays her mourning of her brother, Judith’s journey reflects the extreme of what a parent-child relationship can be. And it gives a broad-strokes view of what life was like for common English women in Shakespearean times. The whole idea that it was against the law for women to become actors, and what that meant for intelligent, imaginative women becomes the focus of the second half of the book.
I enjoyed the book for exactly that perspective: A woman who has researched that period extensively and is sharing some of that perspective through an accessible story–even if some historical purists argue that actual documents paint Shakespeare’s daughter as both illiterate and simple. This is fiction, after all, and I trust the emotionally evocative journey to adulthood as much as the stage dressing discussions that lend a clear background to the tale. So I can happily recommend this book to anyone without even a basic background in Shakespeare’s plays or writing, since his words are ably introduced as part of the framework of the story. Better, I can recommend this to anyone else who wondered about Shakespeare’s designation of his “second-best” bed to his wife in his will, and considered that he might not be as enlightened an individual in his daily life as he conveys in his work.