William Shakespeare is probably the most famous name in literature, yet there is still so much we don’t know about his life and his work. Despite centuries of research by academics and historians many questions remain unanswered. In particular, very little is known about Shakespeare’s activities between 1585 and 1592. In The Tutor, Andrea Chapin gives a fictional account of one of these ‘lost years’.
The novel begins in 1590 and introduces us to Katharine de L’Isle, a widow living in her uncle’s household at Lufanwal Hall in Lancashire. Katharine has no plans to marry again and is enjoying spending time with her cousins and their children and discussing poetry with her Uncle Edward. However, the family are Catholics, and with a Protestant queen on the throne of England they know that their peaceful lives could be interrupted at any moment. Their troubles begin when the family priest and schoolmaster is murdered and Edward is forced into exile, but for Katharine, as well as being a time of tragedy, this is also the start of an exciting new episode in her life.
The death of the priest leads to the arrival of a new tutor at Lufanwal – a young man from Stratford whose name is William Shakespeare. Will’s task is to teach the children Greek and Latin, but Katharine soon discovers that her own knowledge of these languages is better than his. When he confesses that what he really wants to do is write poetry, Katharine agrees to read his verses, offering advice and criticism, and in this way the poem Venus and Adonis begins to take shape. As they continue to work together, Katharine finds that she is falling in love – but does Will feel the same way?
The first thing you need to know about The Tutor is that there is no historical evidence that Shakespeare was in Lancashire during this period or that he ever knew a woman called Katharine de L’Isle. I’m not really sure how I feel about books that fictionalise a whole episode in the life of a real historical figure – I think I prefer to read novels that either deal with wholly fictitious characters placed into historical settings or that follow the life of a famous person while sticking closely to the facts – but the author does make it clear that the relationship between Katharine and Will is imaginary. The romantic aspect of the story was developed well, though I couldn’t really understand why Katharine was so attracted to Will, as I found him arrogant, manipulative and generally annoying. It’s not a very flattering portrayal at all – though having said that, I don’t think I’ve read a fictional portrayal of Shakespeare yet that I did like!
Katharine’s relationship with Will and her influence on his work is one element of this novel: the historical setting is another. I loved reading about life at Lufanwal Hall – the clothes people wore, the food they ate, the superstitions and beliefs they held, how they occupied their time – and we are also given some insights into the dangers of being a Catholic family living in Elizabethan England. Elizabeth I may have been more tolerant of religious differences than her sister and predecessor Mary I, but persecution did still occur under her reign as we see throughout this novel. I found this part of the story very interesting and I think there would have been enough material for a fascinating novel here even without the Katharine and Shakespeare storyline!
I hosted a guest post by Andrea Chapin as part of a blog tour back in April in which she talked about her research for the novel and it’s obvious that she did put a lot of thought into what Shakespeare may realistically have been doing during those lost years. I have read other novels which also explore possible theories regarding Shakespeare and the women who may have inspired his work (Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly and Shakespeare’s Mistress by Karen Harper) and this book compares well with both of those, although I still wasn’t entirely convinced that the writing of Venus and Adonis could have happened exactly as described in the novel.
The Tutor is Andrea Chapin’s first novel and while there were some aspects of it that I thought worked less well than others, I still found a lot to enjoy and will be interested to see what she writes next. Meanwhile, I have added a new page to the Journey Through Time section of my blog in which you can find more suggestions for Shakespeare-inspired reading.