Honorary Wench Karen Harper is no stranger to Elizabethan England. Not only is she the author of the historical novel The Last Boleyn, but also of the Elizabeth I historical mystery series. Her new book, Mistress Shakespeare, will be released by Penguin/Putnam on February 5. Here she describes her inspiration: one of history’s most fascinating “what if’s?” Karen welcomes your questions and comments, too, and will give away an autographed copy of Mistress Shakespeare to one of those who post.
Despite William Shakespeare’s fame and popularity, many mysteries still surround his life. The biggest scholarly argument over the years has been whether he really wrote the plays. Those I consider to be Shakespeare snobs insist that a man from the ‘boondocks’ of rural Stratford who never went to university could not write those brilliant historicals, comedies and tragedies. (Hello, scholars! The man was a natural genius; it happens. American inventive genius Thomas Edison came out of little, obscure Milan, Ohio, where, like Will, he had to leave school early.)
A second conundrum in Will’s life concerns ‘the mystery years,’ years in his teens, pre-London, where it is uncertain what he was doing. Traveling as a player or soldier? Hiding out with a Catholic lord who had a great library? Working for his glove-making father or for a Stratford lawyer? Suffice it to say that an unknown period of time in a well-known person’s life works well for a historical novelist.
But the third mystery of Will Shakespeare’s life concerns his marriage. Yes, he wed Anne Hathaway of Shottery in what we would today call a ‘shotgun wedding.’ Two of her deceased father’s friends pledged 40 pounds—a large sum then—that they would produce him for the hurried ceremony. True, their marriage bond (license) is still recorded, in Latin. (See a copy of it on my website, www.karenharperauthor.com) But on the previous day, a marriage bond was also recorded for William Shakespeare with an Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton, a different village near Stratford.
Ah, a mere slip of the pen in the same handwriting, opine the naysayers who refuse to admit there was another Anne in Shakespeare’s life. But did the same recorder also accidentally write Whateley instead of Hathaway and Temple Grafton for Shottery?
And so my book sets forth the very possible plot that, either Will had two wives or wanted to wed a different woman before his forced marriage. I see the clues for this everywhere in his life and plays. Whateleys did live in and around Stratford. Some dark-haired beauty (her identity has also been argument-fodder for centuries) inspired his poems and many of his female characters.
When he died, Will made certain that the infamous ‘second best bed’ went to Anne H. So where was the first best bed? Perhaps in the Blackfriars Gatehouse, his property in London where he lived so many years away from his Stratford family, and which he made certain did not go to Anne Hathaway upon his death.
But MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE is not Will’s book; it belong to Anne Whateley, who tells her own story. (And, no, I do not claim she helped him write the plays—only that she inspired him to write.) I greatly admire women who have ordinary beginnings but manage to face extraordinary circumstances with strength, courage, and force of character. When a lesser woman would have caved in to troubles and tragedies, Anne rises above them. She insists on a life of her own if and when she cannot totally share Will’s.
Although women of earlier historical periods were often chattel, bargaining chips or worse, some women managed to make their own way in a man’s word—and Anne is one. I celebrate that kind of woman in all my novels, historical or contemporary. MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE frequently points out how much Anne was inspired by Queen Elizabeth, a woman who overcame many trials (talks about a dysfunctional family!) but became the powerhouse of her age.
Readers often ask me how much of my historical novels (THE LAST BOLEYN; THE FIRST PRINCESS OF WALES) are based on fact and how much on fiction. In MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE nothing that is known of Will’s life or Tudor times has been fictionalized, although, as in all historical fiction, scenes and dialogue are created. Also, since little is known of Anne W’s life and background—but much can be surmised based on fact—I did have to fill in blanks in her life. In a way, as in all historical fiction, this novel is what Alex Haley, the author of ROOTS, dubbed ‘faction,’ a blending of fact and fiction.
I had to smile at a comment by an on-line reviewer on the Historical Fiction website which said, “Maybe Harper was an Elizabethan in a previous life,” but she makes an interesting point. No, I am not a reincarnated Elizabethan, but I am drawn to that period and have been for years. The Elizabethan era castles and manor houses of England do haunt me, as if the walls not only have ears but can speak.
Each time I step inside the Tower of London, I am hit with the darkest depression. And twice I’ve been able (despite all the tourists there) to stand alone upstairs at the Shakespeare birthplace to just ‘feel the past.’ I’ve had a private tour of the Boleyn home, Hever Castle, and stood silently in Anne’s bedroom, when entry to it is not on the regular tour. So, I can’t say I choose to write Tudor settings—rather, they choose me.
Why? I’ve given up trying to figure it out. Because I had a British pen pal when I was in elementary school who used to send me magazine photos of the current Queen Elizabeth when she was young? Because I taught Brit Lit for years to high school students and organized an Elizabethan Festival? Maybe because I became fascinated by Bess Tudor years ago and have a private library of books about her, including some that stretch back to the 1880s and 1920s? Go figure. I’m too busy writing.
And here’s a surprise. The book I just completed centers on another strong Elizabethan woman who, like Anne Whateley, began in obscurity but impacted famous people. Her involvement with the Tudors spanned the Anne Boleyn era through Elizabeth’s early reign, so that’s a lot of scandals, kings, queens, romances and beheadings!
I must say too, I am thrilled with the cover of MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE (which is also an audio book from Brilliance.) The Victorian painting by John William Waterhouse is titled The Soul of the Rose—Tudor roses, I like to think. But I also think MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE reveals the heart and soul of Will’s other wife.
Many thanks for being our guest today, Karen!
Now we'd like to hear from the rest of you. Does the Elizabethan Period seem like a "golden age" to you as a reader? Do you enjoy stories that begin as a "history mystery"? Or would you simply like to be entered for an autographed hardcover copy of Karen's MISTRESSS SHAKESPEARE? We'll choose a winner at random on Sunday night, so please post away!