Swan Town: The Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare
By Michael J. Ortiz
197 pages | HarperCollins | ISBN 0060581263 | US$15.99 | 2006
Imagine a children’s book for ages 10 and older which portrays a spirited young girl’s maturation against a backdrop of a drowning of an old widow for alleged witchcraft; the death of a sibling from the plague; the hanging and drawing (ie, disembowelling while alive) of a family for harbouring outlawed priests; the observance of secret liturgies; the emergence of the theatre; and the flowering of Elizabethan English.
All this and more can be found in Michael J. Ortiz’s first novel, Swan Town: The Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare, a work of historical fiction which offers an imaginative story of William Shakespeare’s 13-year-old daughter, Susanna, living in a world of subterranean Catholicism during the English Reformation. The book places Shakespeare and his family squarely in the camp of the Papists.
For some time now, revisionist historians have been questioning the traditional Whig Protestant narrative of an England gladly shedding its Catholicism, finding its true identity through the good offices of the Tudors. Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (1992) is an outstanding example of this trend. Drawing upon exhaustive research, Duffy revealed an English people deeply sacramental and steeped in a Roman liturgy and belief.
Duffy, a fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, relates the famous account of the destruction of the village of Clyst St Mary in 1549, at the instigation of Walter Ralegh [sic], father of the famous seaman. On his way to Exeter, Ralegh came upon an old woman praying the Rosary on her way to Mass. He warned her of the punishment for such practices. The woman reported this threat to her parishioners who came close to lynching Ralegh. A local mill was burned. A rebellion erupted, due in part to ongoing controversy over earlier restrictions and bans on other sacramentals and traditional prayer-books. After a bloody battle with local authorities in which the peasantry was slaughtered, the village was burnt to the ground. “Archbishop Cranmer’s dislike of rosary beads and holy water had cost the people of Clyst dear,” said Duffy.
The issue of Shakespeare’s crypto-Catholicism has been the subject of speculation for many years. The same is true for the towering political philosopher, Edmund Burke. The Irish scholar and statesman, Conor Cruise O’Brien has long argued the case for Burke’s Catholic sympathies, given his Irish roots, generating controversy among scholars. However, O’Brien never went so far as to claim that Burke was a practicing Catholic. The claims for Shakespeare’s Catholicism are being asserted with greater specificity if not certainty, going beyond his family milieu to include the Bard himself.
The scholarly case for Shakespeare’s Catholic identity was most recently argued in Claire Asquith’s 2005 book, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. Asquith closely analyses the texts of Shakespeare’s plays and maintains that they contain a Catholic code, developed by 16th-century dissidents, which, when read in the context of the historical record, reveal him to be a severe critic of the Protestant regime and a defender of the ancient faith. The American novelist, Jane Smiley, hardly a Catholic apologist, has stated, “I was convinced by Asquith’s logic.”
It was probably inevitable that these academic and scholarly musing would find their way into literature. But it is rather startling to see these themes appearing in a work of juvenile literature nonetheless.
Ortiz opens his story with Susanna Shakespeare, impatient with life in the small village of Stratford, which she refers to as “Swan Town” for the lovely birds inhabiting the River Avon. A bit of a proto-feminist, she is bored by the domestic chores and pines for her father in distant London. “A girl like me, more nimble of mind than finger, what am I to do? Hide my wit in a half-penny purse and smile all day long?”
She resolves to keep a journal in the year 1597 moved by an irresistible impulse to write. Whether or not Shakespeare’s real daughter could even read and write, this literary device allows for a bond between the playwright and Susanna. It also provides the vehicle for Susanna to express strong opinions on the Queen, religious intolerance, the locals whom she both loves and detests, and the parade of colourful characters whom she meets in Stratford and in London where her father spends most of his time.
Her language is colourful, reflecting the period in which she lives. Her epithets extend to “garlic-eating groundlings”, “flap-eared villains in Shoreditch”, “beetle-headed dolt”, “dunghill knaves”, “total beef wits”, not to mention “toad-spotted infidels”. Her many excited utterances include “switches and spurs”, “boils and plagues”, “shreds and patches”, as well as “newts and blind worms”. This reviewer counted 18 such vivid expressions in the first 27 pages.
Ortiz, whose day job is teaching English literature at a prep school in Maryland (Full disclosure: he taught my son), demonstrates his sheer love for language in a charming passage in which Susanna and her father try to best one another in a game of “word-pudding”, the goal of which is “to pile up words as if they were pudding, and whoever can think up the most words without hesitating–that’s the hard part–wins the game.” Volleying back and forth, William throws down the word “knave” to which Susanna answers: “foul-mouthed knave.” “A foul-mouthed, gor-bellied knave” is bested by “foul-mouthed, gor-bellied, worsted-stocking knave.” And on it goes.
A smart and lively girl, Susanna begins to sense the tenuous position of her family which “secretly practices the old faith, or at least the adults do.” After witnessing Sir Colin Hill, the local authority in Stratford, search houses for forbidden prayer books, pillory citizens, destroy a Catholic chapel (“I hereby reclaim this chapel from all popish pretenders and cleanse it of all images and structures contrary to the true faith of this land.”), in addition to drowning the widow for witchcraft, she resolves to join her family in their practice of the old faith. “Only divine charity can overcome such darkness and ill will.”
Swan Town follows its heroine through many adventures in the teeming precincts of London and the earthy Globe theatre, amidst the perils of religious persecution. It also provides a romantic story line between the renewed Catholic Susanna and the Puritan doctor John Hall, the name of Susanna’s real-life husband. There are last-minute rescues, betrayals, and sacrifice which engulf the entire Shakespeare family throughout. Even the Earl of Oxford makes a cameo appearance.
Ortiz describes scenes evocative of the time, place, and mood of Shakespeare’s art and Elizabethan England. One evening, after dinner, Susanna joins her father on a walk. After visiting the gravestone of her deceased brother, Hamnet, Shakespeare mentions that he is working on a new play about Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, whose “mystery will be one with the joy and the sorrow that Hamnet’s life brought to us…” They proceed to Stratford’s charnel house which houses the remains of those for whom there was no room in the graveyard.
Reminiscent of Hamlet and poor Yorick, Shakespeare picks up a skull from a heap of bones, prompting Susanna to ask, “Are we no more than this?” Shakespeare responds: “We shouldn’t be afraid of death, Susanna, though it may take years to learn how. At such sorrowful partings, life is changed, not ended.”
Ortiz paints a vibrant picture of the Globe theatre complete with rowdy crowds, pungent smells, and the thrill of new theatrical productions. In one harrowing adventure, Susanna manages to induce one of the actors to help her and her sister, Judith, in performing a short, allegorical play which, not so subtly, lampoons Queen Elizabeth I for misrule and intolerance. This sets off a near riot among her loyal subjects in the audience.
Swan Town is an exciting, fast-paced tale which will introduce young readers–and their parents–into a world of beauty and pain, love and intolerance, and the glory of English literature. It is well worth unplugging your son or daughter from the computer for a few hours and guiding them to this tale set in a crucial period of the history of the English-speaking peoples of the world.
G. Tracy Mehan III, the father of five daughters, is a former official at the US Environmental Protection Agency. He is currently a consultant in Arlington, Virginia.