Author Andrea Chapin is a brave woman. She’s taken the “lost years” of William Shakespeare, and made him a character in her novel set in Lancashire England in 1590 (two years before we start to see the rise of historical documentation about the Bard’s life). This was when Will was just on the threshold of publishing the works that would become the backbone of English literature, when he was still mainly known as a London stage player. He was 26, and just entering his prime.
Ms. Chapin takes some of the hearsays of Shakespeare’s life at this time, and casts him as the newly acquired tutor for the venerable De L’Isle family. The De L’Isles are Lancastrian gentry of some means, but have fallen out of favor with the Queen due to their staunch Catholic loyalties. Along with Sir Edward De L’Isle, his wife, Lady Matilda, and their children and grandchildren, is fiercely intelligent, beautiful Katharine De L’Isle – Sir Edward’s niece. Lady Katharine had come to Lufanwal Hall as a child after being orphaned in a fire. At age 18 she married a man three times her age, but he died two years later, so Katharine retreated back to the De L’Isle estate. Now, at 31, and having rebuffed the attentions of numerous suitors, she seems content to play out her years as the loving aunt to the De L’Isle offspring. That is, until the charming William Shakespeare comes into her life.
At first Katharine is unimpressed with Master Shakespeare’s lack of credentials, his unorthodox teaching methods and his lackadaisical scholarship, but when he enlists her help with a work he is currently undertaking – an epic poem about a meeting between Venus and Adonis – she is quickly taken in by his charm, his wit and his talent (not to mention his good looks). Despite his quickening reputation as a rogue and philanderer, Katherine finds herself intrigued by his literary prowess and flattered by his attention, and eventually she losses not only her heart but also her head to the captivating young man from Stratford.
It’s a very interesting premise for a historical novel – the effects of, and effects on a nascent Will Shakespeare – and Ms. Chapin certainly knows her way around Elizabethan speech and poetry; likewise her portraiture of a family caught in the vise of religious intolerance is wonderfully wrought. Unfortunately, though, The Tutor ends up coming across more as a sensationalized romance novel than something with worthy literary gristle.
It’s not that the author paints William Shakespeare as a womanizing, sweet talking, narcissistic schemer. Even the most doting of Shakespeare’s admirers must admit that the man was not completely sterling in character. Indeed, she treats Master Shakespeare in a believable if somewhat unflattering manner (other than The Tutor’s Shakespeare having a physical appearance more akin to Joseph Fiennes in the film Shakespeare in Love than the picture that history has countenanced him with; Katharine often remarks on how comely Will is, in face and figure). He may not be a sympathetic character in the book, but he is an engaging and consistent one.
What simply doesn’t wash in The Tutor is the lapses in Katherine, who is truly the main character in the novel. Not lapses in her judgment (although she does evidence those), nor in her knowledge, but in her very substance. Here is a woman of breeding and character who appears to exemplify intelligence, graciousness and kindness, and yet not only is she able to shrug off huge breaches in the strict societal and religious morality of the time, but she appears to be utterly unbothered by them. She turns a completely blind eye to the fact that Will is married and has children – something that he readily admits. Even if the marriage is unhappy or confining of his art, one would think Lady Kate would be mindful of his matrimonial vows or at the very least of the appearance of impropriety in spending so much time alone with a married man, not to mention all the letters sent back and forth between them at all hours of the day and night, or her obvious pining for him. Then, there is how she shows absolutely no shock or even a hint of squeamishness when clandestinely witnessing a homosexual encounter, nor does she evidence any concern or objection upon learning that a close relative is also of that sexual persuasion. That Will himself seems to harbor such tendencies doesn’t seem to bother her one bit.
Methinks the lady doth protest too little!
But it’s not just about physicality. There’s how unaffected Katharine is emotionally by the death of someone who has been the central anchor of her life, simply because she is in a huff about Will’s current treatment of her. Oh, at random times it hits her that she should be sorrowful, and then she is sad, but more often than not she merely brushes it aside. Or there’s how she responds when a beloved cousin finally returns from afar. Suddenly his long looked for appearance barely seems to scratch at the surface of her awareness; well, except those times when it seems to be her everything. These melodramatic developments ring of literary convenience rather than measure of an evolving narrative.
It’s a shame. The parts of The Tutor that are good, are very, very good. The depiction of religious fervent under persecution – the dangers that Catholics of the time were subjected to, and the lengths they went to in order to hold on to their traditions – is riveting. Descriptions of food, clothing, lodging, landscape, society, are vivid and bring the denizens of Lufanwal Hall and the neighboring countryside to life. An encounter with mental illness is extraordinarily well realized (even with the obvious Ophelia overtones), the role of superstition and its relationship to religion are enlightening, and even Kate’s inner musings at the start of the novel are often telling and rich. And the discussions between Kate and Will of poetry and emotion, words and emotion, innuendo and emotion, are simply brilliant.
It is precisely because there is so much promise in The Tutor that it makes the sudden undercutting of depth and reason so hard to bear. Yes, I absolutely understand that love can make one stark raving mad. That infatuation can overrule reason, that even the most sensible person can be completely undone by desire. But in a literary work, this movement shouldn’t dissolve into a plethora of “oh, my, I shouldn’t be doing this” moments while those things of substance are simply shrugged aside. If our heroine is indeed intelligent, loving and caring, she should be drawn into love’s madness kicking and screaming, overcoming great internal battles against convention and reason, not racing towards it clad in nothing but a dressing gown and robe.
We have been led to expect Downton Abbey, but instead end up getting Dallas in doublet and hose.
I’m not saying that The Tutor isn’t worth a read. It has a lot going for it, as far as the idea and feel of it are concerned. Like I said at the start of the review, Ms. Chapin is brave to utilize William Shakespeare as she has, and I applaud her for not portraying the man simply as a tortured artistic figurehead. But don’t read The Tutor expecting some great literary novel full of pith and historical immersion; instead, enjoy it for what it really is – a lush while somewhat uneven melodrama with Elizabethan trappings. In that, it excels.