I loved Jude Morgan’s books about the Brontës (The Taste of Sorrow) and the Romantic poets (Passion) so was very excited about reading this new novel on the life of William Shakespeare – and I’m pleased to say that it did live up to my expectations. Before I go any further I should point out that this book and the other two I’ve mentioned are fiction, although they do stick quite closely to the known facts about the lives of their subjects (as far as I can tell, not being an expert on any of them!)
The Secret Life of William Shakespeare opens in 1582 when we first meet Shakespeare as a glovemaker’s son from Stratford. At the age of eighteen he marries Anne Hathaway and they have three children together, but we soon learn that Will wants more out of life. He dreams of going to London and becoming an actor – and despite his father’s disapproval he sets out to turn his dream into reality.
It’s really not necessary to know anything about Shakespeare before beginning this novel and you could easily enjoy it without being familiar with any of his work. Some of his plays are mentioned, of course, but the plays are not the focus of this book. As the title suggests, the book is not just about Shakespeare the playwright but also about Shakespeare the man – his emotions, his hopes and fears, his relationships with the people around him, the things he might have said and done. Obviously we don’t know exactly what the real Shakespeare was like, but the way Jude Morgan portrays him here is believable and realistic.
Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway forms a very big part of this novel – in fact, a large proportion of the story is told from Anne’s perspective and a lot of what we learn about Shakespeare is seen through her eyes. For much of the novel Anne’s life is very separate from her husband’s – while he is in London, she stays behind in Stratford with their children. Although she understands that Will’s career is important to him, there is a sense that she has been left behind, that the ties between them are not as strong as they once were – and so there’s a sadness surrounding Anne and I did have sympathy for her. Anne’s character is very well-developed and I was interested in reading her story because I was interested in Anne herself, not just because she was William Shakespeare’s wife.
Other important characters include Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights, Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, and we see the ways in which they affect and influence each other’s lives. But there’s also a large cast of other characters who appear in the novel: Will and Anne’s children, Susanna, Judith and Hamnet; the men Will meets in the theatre world; family members such as Anne’s brother Bartholomew, Shakespeare’s parents and siblings; and their friends in Stratford. By fleshing out the characters surrounding Will, we are given a better idea of the type of person Will might have been – and some of these characters also have fascinating stories of their own.
Something that is often a problem in historical fiction is dialogue – but I think the author gets the balance right in this book; the language is modern enough to be easily understandable without feeling too modern. Jude Morgan does have quite an unusual, distinctive writing style though, so if you’re new to his work it might take a few chapters to get used to it – having read a couple of Morgan’s other books in the past, I already knew that I like the way he writes. Overall I preferred the novels on the Brontës and the Romantic poets, but that’s purely because they interest me personally more than Shakespeare does. The Secret Life of William Shakespeare is a fascinating historical fiction novel with all the depth and attention to detail I’ve come to expect from Jude Morgan. I finished this book feeling that I had learned something, as well as being entertained by an interesting and compelling story.
I received a copy of this book from Headline for review