Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard

Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard - Richard B. Wright I was so annoyed with myself as a reader for not properly appreciating Richard Wright's October; I knew it was very well-done and it was simply my preternatural attachment to his earlier novel, Clara Callan, that interfered with my properly appreciating it. I was in that I-don't-care-what-it-is-if-it's-not-Clara-Callan phase and nothing could permeate that fog of resistance. I wasn't signing up if Clara wasn't attending.

Perhaps enough books have fallen between then and now. Or perhaps it's simply that the story of Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard took hold of me with a simliar intensity. For whatever reason, I loved this novel. It is definitely not Clara Callan. But I don't mind. The story of Aerlene Ward (Linny) and her Mam was more than enough to satisfy, on its own terms, not Clara Callan's, nobody else's.

Aerlene was not always aware that she was Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard. Her mother told her when Linny was nearly twelve. For those readers who are troubled by the idea of fictionalizing biography, for whom reading Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife was as disturbing as it was fascinating, the question of whether Shakespeare fathered a illegitimate child (or, children) might fall into the category of "better left unsaid". But even some of those readers will find their doubts and uncertainties resolved by the narrative's approach.

It's clear throughout the telling that Aerlene recognizes that her story (which as she relays it to Charlotte, her amanuensis, is also very much Linny's mother's, Elizabeth's, story) is of her personal experience. Charlotte, young mistress of the house, and obviously extremely fond of Linny, poses all the questions and doubts that a reader might have.

Primarily, how can Linny, at 70, relay entire conversations, depend upon memories across so many intervening years? And not only her own memories, but the memories of her mother, shared with Linny when barely twelve, across even more years and experience? This is something Charlotte ponders and likely most readers, even those immediately engaged by the bare outline of Linny's tale, consider this as well.

As Linny explains to Charlotte: "that is an uncommonly literal reading of events and, if I may say so, does a disservice to your intelligence. In relating anything we only approach the truth; we are never exactly there. Moreover, does not another truth besides the factual lurk in any account of events? A truth perhaps far more important?"

It's clearly a reconstruction, but one rooted in a quest for realism. "I will try to reconstruct this as best I can." Linny accepts the "truth besides the factual" that lurks in Elizabeth's tale and I've accepted Linny's truth, one "perhaps far more important", in Richard B. Wright's latest novel.

But, it's true, I have what some might consider an exceedingly tolerant approach to invention; I signed up to read a novel, not a biography. And, ultimately this is not Shakespeare's tale: it is Linny's and, through her eyes, Elizabeth's.

It's not Mr. Shakespeare's tale; it's Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard's tale. It's a derogatory term and, as you'd expect, there is a certain sadness in their experiences, sometimes outright sorrow and other times a subtle sense of loss. But that's not all. Linny, as you know (if you have read this far), has her own ideas about what makes a good story, even altering the endings of some of her father's plays when she recounts them to listeners.

So, yes, it's possible that Linny's tale is not only filtered through memory, but altered by the art of a storyteller. That's what I signed up for.

(If you're interested, you can read a longer review of this novel at BIP, here.)