Learwife, A Thousand Acres, and creative criticality

I spent the last few days of the Christmas holidays engrossed in J.R. Thorp’s debut novel, Learwife. As its title suggests, it offers an answer to the question students ask every year: what happened to King Lear’s wife? In Thorp’s novel, Lear’s wife has spent the past fifteen years in a convent. She has just heard that her husband and all three of her daughters have died, and is determined to go to Dover to find their bodies, to mourn them properly. We don’t know, initially, why she has ended up in the convent, but it’s clear that it wasn’t her choice. This enclosed world is evoked in detail – the rivalries between the nuns, the privations of winter, the upheaval caused by an outbreak of illness – and Lear’s wife observes all of this from a vantage point that is not entirely neutral: there’s a sly enjoyment in the way she notices other people’s disappointments, their reactions to slights.

What’s most interesting to me, as a confirmed King Lear fan, is Thorp’s depiction of Lear’s daughters, and their place in Lear’s world. In Thorp’s version, there’s a fifteen-year age gap between Cordelia and her older sisters. Goneril and Regan, two years apart, bicker and compete. Their relationship with each other is marked by petty vanities and minor displays of spite. Attempts to assert themselves – borrowing their mother’s combs, refusing to obey orders, wearing foreign gowns that show their arms – are met with slaps and rage and coldness. There are pinches and scratches, dozens of minor cruelties. Regan marries first. Cornwall, a vain peacock, is offended by Lear’s refusal to let Regan leave the royal household: they must stay there, Lear says, in the house of Regan’s birth, rather than setting up court elsewhere. Goneril, who wants to become a nun, is married off to Albany against her will: he is an older man, gentle and calm. At their wedding-feast, she turned away from him and ‘laughed indecorously with companions, passing musicians, any other person’.

All the time, what Lear is waiting for is a son. His wife has several miscarriages. There are discussions: should a baby boy be adopted, secretly? Might a holy relic help? Then Cordelia is born, sickly, not expected to survive. And three months later, her mother is taken one night, with just one servant, to the convent where she will spend the next fifteen years. We don’t know, at this stage, why this has happened, but her grief is palpable. She is still producing milk, still aching.

Lear’s wife is barely mentioned in the play itself, so her personality, and her story, are entirely open to interpretation. The only hint we get is in Act 2 Scene 4, when Lear, in an increasing rage at the way his daughters are treating him, refers to their ‘mother’s tomb’ as ‘sepulchring an adultress’. (In Learwife, we find out, eventually, where these suspicions of adultery come from). But Goneril and Regan are much more prominent, and so any fictional interpretation of them needs to ring true. Thorp’s does. You can see entirely, reading about the sisters in childhood and adolescence, how they become the characters they do as adults: where Regan’s malice comes from and why Goneril is so detached from Albany.

“King Lear,” Act I, Scene I, by Edwin Austen Abbey, Metropolitan Museum of New York (public domain)

The other great fictional adaptation of King Lear that I know of is Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel A Thousand Acres, published in 1991. Smiley transplants the story of Lear and his three daughters to present-day Iowa, to a farm that is the elderly Larry Cook’s pride and joy, nurtured by him single-mindedly over decades. He wants to divide it between his three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline. Ginny and Rose, whose husbands work on the farm, are startled, but accept. Caroline, a lawyer who has moved away to Des Moines, refuses. For this she is cut out. What follows is an exploration of the tensions within the family, the shifting patterns of loyalty and rancour and the things that aren’t mentioned in order to keep the peace. One of these is the fact – revealed by from Caroline – that Ginny and Rose had been sexually abused by Larry. Some might call this far-fetched, but a number of recent productions do build a sense of the complexity of the daughters’ relationships with their father. In the 2016 RSC production, Nia Gwynne’s Goneril cringes at Lear’s cruelty: there’s a sense that she has had to screw her courage to the sticking-place in order to deny him what he wants.

Writing back to Shakespeare, exploiting what Emma Smith describes as ‘the sheer, permissive gappiness’ of his plays and opening these gaps up to explore them, takes skill and sensitivity. It’s something, however, that students aren’t able to do within current GCSE and A level specifications, and that’s a real shame. Writing that blends the creative and the critical, and that also makes use of the affordances of different genres, allows students to find their own ways into Shakespeare. In a chapter for Pamela Bickley and Jenny Stevens’ forthcoming book Shakespeare, Education and Pedagogy: Representations, Interactions and Adaptations, I’ve written about getting my Year Elevens to consider Lady Macbeth’s social media habits as a way of building their confidence and re-engaging them with the character after the first lockdown of 2020. It enabled them to articulate some very subtle observations about character and motivation, drawing on their almost instinctive knowledge of how people behave on social media to manage and manipulate appearances and present a ‘false face’ to the world. Such work is much fresher than any over-scaffolded extract analysis.

The absence of creative rewriting from any of the current specifications is particularly ironic given that creative rewriting is, after all, what Shakespeare himself was doing. Whether it was Holinshed’s Chronicles, Plutarch’s Lives, the Gesta Danorum or Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, Shakespeare himself was taking stories and finding in them spaces that could be opened up and characters who could be rendered more complex. There’s a wonderful moment early in Kiernan Ryan’s recent book Shakespearean Tragedy where Ryan describes Henry VI sitting on a molehill while the Battle of Towton rages, reflecting on his situation. As Ryan comments, ‘The soliloquy owes nothing to Shakespeare’s sources and everything to his fellow-feeling for this stranded royal misfit’. Imagination, sympathy, considering life from the perspective of someone who is not you: all these things might well be difficult to examine, but in the long run, they are far more valuable than any number of drilled paragraphs.

So: read Learwife, and read A Thousand Acres. And let’s push, if we can, for creativity to play a far bigger role in the literature curriculum than it currently does.

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