The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

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

Passion by Jude Morgan

Passion is a historical fiction novel which tells the story of four women and their relationships with the Romantic poets, Byron, Shelley and Keats. There’s Lady Caroline Lamb, a married woman who has an affair with Lord Byron, and Augusta Leigh, his half-sister who also becomes his lover. Then there’s Mary Godwin, future wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankenstein, and finally, Fanny Brawne, John Keats’ fiancée. This long and ambitious book takes us through the lives of all of these characters, describing the passionate and unconventional relationships that scandalised the public during the early years of the 19th century.

Although the book concentrates on the four women I’ve already mentioned, there are several other women who also play an important part in the story. One of these is the writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mother) and in the prologue we learn a lot about her life and death. We also meet Byron’s wife, Annabella Milbanke, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, who becomes involved with both Byron and Shelley. All of the female characters in the book are portrayed as interesting and complex people in their own right, not just because of the men they loved.

As well as providing information on the historical and political background of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Morgan also shows exactly what it was like to be a woman living during those times. It was this attention to detail that made me really believe in the story. And he takes us right inside the minds of Mary, Caroline, Augusta and Fanny, imagining what they might have thought and how they might have felt. I thought the characterisation of Lady Caroline Lamb, with her excitable, emotional personality was particularly well done. I also enjoyed reading about Augusta Leigh’s relationship with her half-brother, Byron – the dialogue between them felt completely believable and the scenes where the two of them were together were some of my favourite parts of the book.

At over 600 pages long and with its variety of narrative styles and techniques this is not the easiest of books to read. The story is told from several different perspectives, there are shifts from past to present tense, and from the third person to first person, sometimes with the characters (particularly Caroline) talking directly to the reader. I had an idea of what to expect as I recently read one of Jude Morgan’s other books, The Taste of Sorrow, and although his writing style does take a while to get used to, I really like it.

Of the three poets, Byron comes across as the most charismatic and colourful character, which I expect was also true in real life, but Shelley was fascinating to read about too. He had such interesting ideas about vegetarianism, religion and marriage. Keats, however, doesn’t appear until near the end of the book and although he and Fanny Brawne do take more of a central role in the final chapters, the focus is definitely on the other characters. Keats’ and Fanny’s story felt disconnected from the others and this is the one thing that disappointed me about the book. I do understand though that Keats was slightly younger than Byron and Shelley and their paths didn’t really cross until later, so maybe it would have been difficult to incorporate him into the earlier parts of the book.

The last few chapters are very sad, with one tragedy and death following another. The scenes towards the end of the book which take place in Keats’ house at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome were particularly poignant as I had visited the house a few years ago and so could picture his final days very vividly. (I would highly recommend visiting the Keats-Shelley House to anyone thinking of going to Rome, by the way.)

Although Morgan’s book about the Brontës, The Taste of Sorrow, had more personal appeal for me because I’m more interested in the Brontës than I am in the Romantic poets, I thought this book was equally impressive. Now that I’ve read it and know a lot more about Byron, Shelley and Keats, maybe I should have another attempt at actually reading their poetry!

The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan

The Taste of Sorrow is a fictional retelling of the lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, beginning with their childhoods and ending just after Charlotte’s wedding. Before I started reading this book if you’d asked me how much I already knew about the Brontës, I would have said I knew very little. And yet a lot of the story felt familiar to me – their early attempts at writing stories set in the fantasy worlds of Angria and Gondal, their experiences of working as governesses, their brother Branwell’s alcoholism – so I must have known more than I thought.

Although The Taste of Sorrow does seem to stick to the historical facts as far as I could tell, it’s important to remember that this is a novel and not a biography. Jude Morgan brings the Brontë sisters to life by giving us insights into their feelings and emotions, their hopes and dreams. His fictional Brontës are realistic, complex and three-dimensional, and would have been interesting characters to read about even if they had not been based on real people. We can obviously never know exactly what thoughts would have gone through the minds of the real Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but I had no problem believing that they may really have said and done the things that Morgan has imagined them to have said and done. And that’s the highest praise I can give to an author writing this type of historical fiction.

The Taste of Sorrow, as the title suggests, is not the happiest of books. The Brontës had a lot of sorrow in their lives, beginning with the death of their mother and two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. They also had to deal with the usual challenges and obstacles that came with being a woman in the 19th century. When Charlotte suggested that she would like to be an author she was discouraged by her father simply because she was female. Instead, Mr Brontë pinned all his hopes on his son, Branwell.

I had read very little about Branwell before I started this book, though I knew he had caused his family a lot of pain because of his drinking. I thought Morgan portrayed him quite sympathetically, attempting to show the pressures and disappointments that contributed to his downfall, and how his sisters struggled to reconcile their love for him with their despair in him. Although I couldn’t like Branwell, his character felt as real to me as the characters of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

The book itself is very well written, although the style is unusual and takes a while to get used to, but the strong point of the book is the characterisation and each sister is shown as having her own distinct personality. Morgan does focus more on Charlotte than the other two, though I can see that as the sister who outlived the others it probably made sense to tell most of the story from her perspective. But my favourite Brontë book is Wuthering Heights (I love it even more than Jane Eyre, which I know puts me in a minority within the book blogging world) and for that reason, the sister I was most interesting in reading about was Emily. Although we don’t get to spend as much time with Emily as we do with Charlotte, I thought Morgan’s portrayal of her was excellent and I could easily believe that his Emily was the person who wrote Wuthering Heights.

I was also pleased to see that Morgan does give Anne a lot of attention and she is not shown as being in any way inferior or less important than her sisters. Personally I loved both of Anne’s books, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, and I think it’s sad to see how often she is overlooked or dismissed.

The Taste of Sorrow will obviously be of particular interest to Brontë fans, but I think it would also be enjoyed by a wider audience as an interesting and compelling historical fiction novel in its own right. Now I just need to read the remaining two Brontë novels I still haven’t read: The Professor and Shirley.