Book #37, Grace Tiffany, Will
Another Shakespearean fictional biography. There's definitely a mini-Renaissance of the damned things underway--to which, of course, I am doing my best to contribute.
This is not a bad book, and the writing, overall, is rather pleasing. I am in particular enamored of this paragraph, which I found rather well-done:
In the year 1600, eighteen died of the smallpox in Stratford, and twelve of consumption. Fifteen women perished in childbirth, and nineteen of both sexes were done in by typhus, scurvy, vomiting, or distraction. Twenty-four bled to death. One died of fright, and three from grief. The other forty-two lay down and did not get up anymore because they were tired. Of these last, John Shakespeare was one.
But I'm going to fuss at it, for a bunch of reasons, several of which are probably linked to the writer's irresistible urge to rewrite the prose of another.
Unfortunately, I felt that the characters were somewhat shallowly drawn and a bit one-note, and she's doing the whole somewhat predictable Emilia Lanyer/Henry Wriothesly thing, and... I dunno. In parts, it reads like historical fanfiction; I'm not sure I would have gotten the good of it, in other words, if I didn't know the story all ready and have that grounding and background. The writer is connecting the dots between well-known bits of speculation or (occasionally) historical fact, but the narrative doesn't strive for enough beyond that, and some bits are truly random. Such as the sort of occasionally-mentioned Elizabethan serial killer turning out to be Edward de Vere (who in the real world had been dead since 1604, but never mind that), although the subplot is handled entirely off stage, and I'm not sure what it's there for, other than... well, I'm not sure what it's there for.
Also, Shakespeare's confrontation with Bacon, in which Bacon keeps dozing off? Just odd.
I was actually less frustrated by anachronisms than I feared, although. No coach from London to Stratford in 1590. I'm willing to let the chronometer go, I guess; they were in use on the continent by 1500 or so. Also, Tiffany has the absolutely terrible habit of rabbiting on for about a page and a half about a character we've previously been introduced to, upon their reappearance, without telling us who she's talking about. Which distracts me from actually paying attention to the narrative, because I'm busy looking for the Distinguishing Characteristic that will tell me who this woman or that man might be. It's either meant to build tension or it's intended as reinforcement for the themes of malleable identity informing the book, but either way it was coy and it annoyed me.
Another thing. ...it just doesn't feel Elizabethan. It's very low-mud, for one thing. Also, I'm not sure I'm willing to buy Shakespeare as a republican, and a secret anti-monarchist. cryptoCatholic, you might get by me. But....
She did make me like Southampton, though, which is pretty impressive, as he's rather one of the villains of my book. And you get to disliking people, when you write them one way or another. But I liked this fellow, all sly wit and easy forgiveness. Her Jonson, Alleyn, and Kyd are more or less caricatures, however, and I kept thinking her Marlowe has promise, but, yanno, he doesn't last long.
There's also an issue of the conflicts in this book being muffled, sometimes gravely so. Which I do think is an actual flaw of the book, rather than the baggage I'm bringing to it. There's a lot of potential for drama in this story; and it's all underplayed. (for example, if you're going to go to the trouble of setting up a frustrated homoeroticism between Shakespeare and Southampton (some of the best scenes in the book are the internalizations here, BTW) and have Wriothesly-as-drag-queen (which I thought was just wonderful) I would suggest that it is a mistake to (a) not have Wriothesly using Will's affections later, just prior to the Essex revolt, and (b) to dismiss any relationship between Wriothesly and any purported dark ladies as just a big misunderstanding.)
In fact, a lot of the conflicts in this book are summarily executed by a sort of random forgiveness. And I wanted more, I think. More depth, more of a narrative and thematic thread binding the story together, more passion. The last line with its transformation is wonderful, but she never makes me believe that the transformation is necessary. I don't buy the alienation and obsession that would make it necessary; perhaps because I am told it frequently enough, but I don't feel it.
And that might be part of the problem with writing Artistically Tortured Will. History, what little we have, gives us a shrewd and reasonably well-adjusted individual. The antithesis of this romantic notion that great artists must be greatly troubled. Will Shakespeare seems to have been a hard-working fellow with an eye out for the main chance, who made a lot of money (not writing plays, but owning playhouses and making similar investments) and cheated a bit on his taxes. It's hard to reinvent him for the post-Byron tastes of a modern audience; we're better off with Marlowe or Jonson or Kyd. Oh, and by all accounts he was a pretty good actor, not the lousy one portrayed here.
I think this is the thing, actually, that truepenny was talking about with regard to the autodidact vs. the university wit over on glass_cats recently. Dr. Tiffany is a professor of Shakespeare, and her book, in fact, reads in one regard much like other Elizabethan novels I've read by academics. Not that they're bad, but... the characters interact like academics interact, not like writers interact. Which isn't a very specific critique, but it's something I've noticed. Also, they invariably dismiss Ned Alleyn as a pompous windbag and a bad actor, ignoring the fact that he was the theatrical draw of his age.
Gratuitous use of an intriguing Elizabethan color name noted in this work: "goose-turd green." No Dead Spaniard; perhaps the fad has passed. (Mine, FWIW, are Isabella and inciannomati) It's de rigeur; every author working in the 1500s must mention at least one odd color name.