Besides being a prolific poetic playwright, William Shakespeare was rumored to be a randy rouge, a philanderer; an insatiable collector of women’s – as well as men’s – hearts. To wit, the portrayal of him in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, with Dame Judi Dench as cranky Elizabeth I. Like the movie fictionalization of his romance with a noblewoman spawning Romeo and Juliet, The Tutor (February 2015) by Andrea Chapin verily tells the tale of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, one of the most erotic poems in English literature. And while it helps to read the poem and know a few facts about The Bard’s early life, these aren’t necessary to fully appreciate Chapin’s debut novel.
In truth, Shakespeare, the son of a glover, married Anne Hathaway in 1582; he barely eighteen, she twenty-six and mighty with child. By 1585 they had had three children. But then, according to Chapin’s research, his wife literally kicked him out and our darling Will embarked to parts unknown. Some speculate that for a time between 1585 and 1592, when he emerged upon the London stages as an accomplished playwright, he was a schoolteacher for a wealthy Catholic family on their country estate – the basis of Chapin’s historical romance.
Enter the main protagonist, Katharine de L’Isle, the widowed thirty-one-year-old niece of beloved Sir Edward, living with her extended family at Lufanwal Hall. Her uncle teaches her to read and the consumption of books in his vast library becomes her vocation. With the banishment of Roman Catholicism (its followers considered traitors to the Queen) and the wanton slaughter of priests, the years 1590 to 1592 were trying times indeed. When the estate priest is killed, Katharine goes to the old chapel schoolhouse where she meets the new tutor, none other than William Shakespeare. She becomes his muse and inspiration as he writes Venus and Adonis. Will is handsome, charmingly confident, and while not a very good tutor, is quite talented as a writer. Kate, of course, is smitten and soon imagines herself his true love, thus paralleling the lines of the epic poem.
An engaging novel, The Tutor borders on Harlequinesque formulaics, especially two-thirds through the complex, twisting plot line when Katharine graphically imagines her and Will making love. Like his fictionalized Adonis, Will is, in reality, a reluctant participant until Kate presses the issue, seemingly out of character for this otherwise strong and supposedly wise woman. What transpires afterwards and carries The Tutor to its not-so-surprising ending makes for a romping, rollicking good read. Chapin deftly couples family intrigues with Elizabethan era politics and marries them with accurate, detailed descriptions of daily life. Characters are richly and broadly drawn and her writing style mimics period dialect, sprinkled liberally with quick-witted turns of phrases that often parody The Bard himself.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
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