Much of Shakespeare's life is shrouded in mystery. There is documentary evidence that he married and sired three children and later went on to write and perform in London. But the interim period of 1585 to 1592 continues to perplex literary scholars and arouse wild speculation. One of the more credible theories to have emerged is that he retreated to the countryside and worked as a schoolmaster for a wealthy Catholic family.
Intrigued by these "lost years" and attracted to the idea of Shakespeare as tutor, Brooklyn-based writer Andrea Chapin has written a novel that shrewdly and imaginatively plugs the gap and solves the riddle. It is 1590 and Katharine de L'Isle, a 31-year-old widow, is living at Lufanwal Hall, the country manor of her uncle Sir Edward. The calm of reading and teaching her cousins' children is suddenly interrupted by the murder of Catholic priests and persecution of Irish sympathizers. Seeking comfort, she enters the family chapel, where she meets a stranger who transforms her life.
Chapin gives Shakespeare a dramatic entrance. He startles Katharine, then proceeds to insult her with his rapier wit. She learns that he teaches on the estate but that his real ambition is to make it as a poet.
An intimacy develops: Shakespeare becomes "Will" and Katharine is transformed into a cross between his muse and his tutor, shaping his sonnets and honing his great narrative poem, "Venus and Adonis." Inevitably, Katharine is not only dazzled by his verse. However, the deeper she immerses herself in his world, the greater the fall that awaits her.
"The Tutor" could have disastrously backfired. It is one thing for Tom Stoppard to ventriloquize the bard in the movie "Shakespeare in Love"; quite another for a debut novelist to put words into the mouth of "the self-anointed poet of mankind." And yet Chapin pulls it off magnificently. She judiciously avoids creating new verse in his name, instead sticking to everyday conversation, playful flirtation and bitter tirades. Chapin is well-versed in Elizabethan argot ("Verily!" "Zounds!" "Fare thee well!") and demonstrates a sound knowledge of the era's cultural, political and societal mores.
Love and literature are at the heart of the novel; around that, Chapin weaves a sticky web of intrigue, packing her narrative with deaths, arrests, madness, three witches and a purported plot against the queen. More subtle are her sly nods toward the plays that were to come: Will teaches his pupils about Julius Caesar; he spouts lines that end up in "Henry V," and when Katharine's father says, "Kate, I fear for the man who marries you, for you are a horse that will never be tamed" we are put in mind of that other Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew."
It all adds up to a tremendous work of historical fiction. Not only does Chapin tell a good tale, she brings Shakespeare winningly alive to display "the curious, brilliant alchemy of his mind."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.