Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review: The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare by Arliss Ryan

In certain circles, there is some debate over who really authored Shakespeare's masterpieces. The contenders are quite a varied lot and I suspect that we'll never be able to say for certain that the glover's son from Stratford-upon-Avon was truly the author of these enduring works of theater, the inventor of marvelous words, and arguably the greatest writer in the English language. The historical record leaves tantalizing gaps in Shakespeare's life, thereby allowing for the possibility that someone else, having borrowed his name, wrote the plays attributed to him. What the historians rarely debate is the place and character of Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway in his life. She is widely considered to have been a less than pleasant soul who, as a much older woman, trapped Shakespeare into an unhappy marriage by falling pregnant. Arliss Ryan takes a quite different view of Hathaway in this imaginative novel, taking on the character of the woman as well as the authorship question all in one fell swoop.

Opening with the aged and dying Anne Hathaway being tended to by her young granddaughter and promising the girl the knowledge of who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays, the novel quickly slides back in time to Anne's childhood and young adulthood. Her second meeting with the teenaged Will Shakespeare and the conversation they have upon the banks of the river offer the first echoes of what will become some of the most famous lines in the English speaking world. And according to Anne, these lines come from her imagination, not his. By her account, their early marriage is a reasonably happy time; she loves her husband and he loves her. But he wants to become more than just a glover like his father and so he hies off to London leaving wife and family behind. Not content to wait years for his return, Anne eventually makes her way to London as well to search out Will. But once she has found him, she has to pretend she is merely his sister come to serve him rather than his wife. She enters the world of the theater through her sewing ability and eventually becomes as caught up in it as Shakespeare himself. As an intelligent and reasonably educated woman (in this fact novelization differs from accepted historical supposition), she eventually comes to help her beloved husband when he suffers from writer's block. And from there it is a short step to half and then full authorship of the most glorious and enduring of Shakespeare's plays, all without ever being able to acknowledge her contributions.

Narrated in Anne's voice, the novel is engrossing and eminently believable in terms of the authorship question. Ryan has drawn a good and full portrait of Elizabethan England, the London of that era, the roles and expectations for women, and allows her characters to know and interact with the major players in the theater of the time in ways that are easily convincing. The insights into the theater world of Elizabethan times is truly fascinating. The Hathaway of the novel, while not found in this incarnation in the historical record (actually, Hathaway is barely found in the historical record at all), is a wonderful creation. She is smart and resourceful, loyal and persevering. She could easily have been the playwright that we so revere today with Shakespeare himself only responsible for the beauty of the sonnets and poetry. Most decidedly a feminist rewriting, Ryan has crafted a well-written and interesting take on the question of authorship, intellectual property, love, and the the importance of acknowledging, rather than hiding, the source of amazing talent. Anne is the most fully constructed character here with all others, including Shakespeare himself, being much less dimensional. But it is, after all, Anne's story, her confession, her claiming, that is so gripping and intriguing. Historical fiction lovers will find this imagined life eminently appealing. And even if Anne Hathaway didn't write Shakespeare's plays, I am quite certain that her fictional character here is a grand stand-in for some other real life woman, brimming with talent and marginalized in her time, her achievements gone unnoticed or claimed by men.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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