Brave as hell

John Kerrigan

  • Enderby’s Dark Lady, or No End to Enderby by Anthony Burgess
    Hutchinson, 160 pp, £7.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 09 156050 0
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Modern Edition edited by A.L. Rowse
    Macmillan, 311 pp, £20.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 333 36386 8

In 1964, the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, two very different books appeared. Anthony Burgess’s tribute to the poet, Nothing Like the Sun, was a boisterous biographical novel full of sugared sack and bawdry, with sombre undertones of decay. Taking literally the references in Shakespeare’s sonnets to a mistress ‘black as hell’, Burgess made the Dark Lady of his story a voluptuous East Indian who, after seducing the dramatist, inspired the tragic plays of his maturity by giving him a dose of syphilis. A.L. Rowse, meanwhile, edited the sonnets themselves. Already the author of a large-scale life of the poet, and, as a historian, well-placed to deal with at least one aspect of the verse, Rowse produced a volume that was ultimately unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, his edition was recognisably a work of scholarship, displaying some of the prudence looked for in the form. Unlike Burgess, for instance, Rowse refused to identify or sketch a Dark Lady, because he thought the evidence insufficient. The last two decades have changed all that. While Burgess has pursued the spirit of Shakespeare through a film-script, a popular biography and, now, an Enderby novel – feigning, in the process, notable images of the poet – Dr Rowse has drifted into fantasy. Having discovered a Dark Lady in the Bodleian, and been seduced by her, he has ended up writing, in the latest version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, fiction disguised as scholarship.

The history of Shakespearean fiction is long and motley, like Feste’s coat. Arguably, it starts with Scott. Earlier tales about the Bard – his deer-poaching at Charlecote, the drinking bout at Bidford, holding horses at the theatre door – were fallacious rather than fictional. Starved of facts about the national poet, and eager to endorse the little that was known, 18th-century antiquaries trusted in Warwickshire gossip, or, like William Ireland, forged what they wanted to find. The display of collective folly was extraordinary, yet the impulse behind it was not strictly fanciful: it stemmed less from a neglect of the facts than an uncontrolled craving to possess them. When Scott introduced Shakespeare to Kenilworth as an established writer and ‘gamesome mad fellow’, he was obeying another instinct. Scott knew that the poet had been a child during Leicester’s courtship of Elizabeth, but he chose to ignore it for the sake of romance. Once Shakespeare became a character, a romantic hero like Rob Roy, known facts were suddenly flexible. Apocryphal episodes like the deer-stealing became, in the wake of Scott, not a means of authenticating Shakespeare, but novelistic material ennobled by him; and lacunae left in his biography by 18th-century commentators incited authors to flights of fancy rather than silence, or research.

From Emma Severn to the Comtesse de Chambrun, for a hundred years or more, Bardic Romance was a major form. Forgotten now, or doomed to be read only by critics, books like Miss Severn’s Anne Hathaway; or, Shakespeare in Love enjoyed mass appeal in Victorian England. One fatuous confection by Robert Folkestone Williams, The Youth of Shakespeare, went through six editions in three countries, besides being translated into German, and the author was encouraged by its success to complete a Shakespearean trilogy. Since, as Helen Gardner says, ‘the facts that are clearly established’ about Shakespeare’s life ‘could be written by a neat writer on two sides of a postcard’ (LRB, Vol. 6, No 6), this represents a considerable feat of expansion – but no other kind of feat. At its best, Bardic Romance rose to the sort of picturesque realism that Stephen Dedalus pastiched in ‘Scylla and Charybdis’:

The flag is up on the playhouse by the bankside. The bear Sackerson growls in the pit near it, Paris garden. Canvasclimbers who sailed with Drake chew their sausages among the groundlings ...

At its worst, as in Folkestone Williams’s trilogy, the same traditions churned out clichés from Merrie England: drunken varlets, swashbuckling knaves, bountiful patrons like Sir Marmaduke de Largesse, and country cottages with woodbine round the door.

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[1] Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 (Allison and Busby, 160 pp., £6.95 and £2.95, 20 February, 0 85031 584 0).

[2] Issued by the Shakespeare Authorship Information Centre, 20 Park Street, Brighton.

[3] Oxford, 270 pp., £19.50, 8 March, 0 19 812815 0.