Today I'm delighted to welcome back my good friend Teresa Grant, who writes the wonderfully intriguing Regency-set spy/mystery series starring Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch. In her latest book, which comes out next week, the action moves to London, and fittingly enough a major plot twist involves Shakespeare! Teresa studied British history at Stanford, and her meticulous research on the details of the era weave seamlessly into her stories. So, how does Shakepeare figure into the skullduggery still going on between the English and French in 1817? For that I shall turn the pen over to Teresa herself . . .
I've loved Shakespeare ever since the summer I was six when my parents took me to As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Romeo & Juliet at a local Shakespeare festival. Since I was fourteen, nearly every year involves a trip or more (we now go three times a year) to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. My characters, particularly my central couple, agents and husband and wife Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch, liberally quote Shakespeare. In fact for Malcolm and Suzanne it's a sort of code—they can use quotes to express feelings they can't put into words for themselves. I've written scenes set at the theatre during performances of Shakespeare plays and even scenes at rehearsals, but with my books set in the Regency/Napoleonic era, I'd never centered a book around a Shakespeare play.
Until I got the idea for The Berkeley Square Affair. Authors often get asked where they got the idea for a book. For me, at least, the answer is usually too much a mélange of inspirations and half-formulated thoughts to pinpoint one moment. But in the case of The Berkeley Square Affair, I know exactly when the idea came to me. I was driving with my daughter Mélanie to the birthday party of the daughter of friends who was turning one (at the time Mélanie’s own first birthday party seemed far in the future, and she is now past two, which tells you something about the time that elapses between the genesis of a book and its publication). As I drove along winding country roads, I got the idea of Malcolm and Suzanne’s friend, playwright Simon Tanner, climbing through their drawing room window, bloody from an attack. Because he was bringing them a manuscript. A manuscript that might be an alternate version of Hamlet. Of course, this being Malcolm and Suzanne’s world, the manuscript contains secrets beyond the identity of its author.
As usual when I plot, I played "what if." What if the manuscript contained coded marks added more recently, connected to modern espionage secrets rather than the identity of its author. Conveniently, a major character in my last book, The Paris Affair, was Manon Caret, a French actress and Bonapartist spy who escaped to England with Malcolm and Suzanne's help, one step ahead of Fouché's agents. I already had Manon finding work at Simon's theatre. Now I could see how she tied into this story…I also knew this would be a book that deal with issues of fathers and sons, lovers set to spy on each other, and the younger generation unraveling the secrets of the past, all of which echo strands in Hamlet.
But as I dreamed upon the plot, I began to realize that the Hamlet manuscript couldn't simply be a MacGuffin or a thematic echo. The manuscript might contain secrets relating to Napoleonic Wars espionage, but the manuscript itself had to play a role in the mystery. To invent a fictional manuscript that may be an alternate version of Hamlet is not such a great leap. There are three different versions of Hamlet that we know of—the First and Second Quartos and the First Folio. The First Quarto version wasn't discovered until 1823, so it isn't mentioned in The Berkeley Square Affair, which is set in 1817. There are also mentions of an earlier play that was a source for Hamlet, perhaps by Thomas Kyd, perhaps even by Shakespeare himself. James Shapiro's wonderful A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599, paints a vivid picture of the year in which Shakespeare seems to have written or at least finalized Hamlet (a lot of scholars think he was working on it for years.) Early in 1599, the Chamberlain's Men, the company of players of which Shakespeare was a member, threw up the Globe theatre from the timbers of a dismantled theatre, and finally had a home of their own. It was also the year in which Shakespeare penned Henry V, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It., all of which deal with rulers in one way or another, as does Hamlet. Shapiro brings to life the social and political context in which Hamlet and the other plays were written. Elizabeth I was aging and questions of succession loomed large. Rebellion flared in Ireland, to which Elizabeth dispatched her former favorite the Earl of Essex. The events of Essex's disastrous expedition to Ireland caused his relationship with the queen to unravel further and his return to England saw the Essex rebellion and his spectacular fall.
In one of those wonderful serendipitous twists that sometimes happen when one is plotting a book, i had already decided that the events of the United Irish uprising in 1798 would play an important role in my book. Malcolm and Suzanne's investigation takes them back to the events of 1798 and still further back to the events of 1599, and the love affair between actor Francis Woolright and aristocrat Eleanor Harleton, which may hold the key to the secrets of the Hamlet manuscript. Francis and Eleanor are fictional, as is the manuscript, but the historical events of 1599 that shape their story are very real as are the events of 1817 in which Malcolm and Suzanne undertake their investigation.
So,do you have a favorite book inspired by a work of literature? A favorite Shakespeare play? A favorite novel in which the characters investigate another era? (Teresa has kindly offered to send a copy of The Berkeley Affair to one lucky winner who will be chosen at random from the comments left here between today and Thursday night.)