Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Small Painting Solves the Biggest Mystery about Shakespeare (no. 45)

 by Larry Witham


WHEN THE 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was celebrated last week (April 23), there was little mention of the dispute over who The Bard really was. The topic is apparently still ripe, however, and that’s why it was taken up in Charlie Lovett’s recent novel, The Bookman’s Tale (2013).
            In this work of fiction, an eighteenth century watercolor painting solves the great mystery of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays: a bard born in Stratford England, or someone else (such as the statesman Francis Bacon)? The novel comes down on the side of the man from Stratford, the majority opinion, of course.
            Literary academia has been ruffled by this long-simmering dispute over the origin of the plays for good reason: There is no surviving documentation about the existence of a flesh-and-blood “William Shakespeare.” Also, there’s nothing that counts as his original handwriting or signature.
            In The Bookman’s Tale, Lovett carries us into that controversy, using an artwork to ignite the entire adventure. The thirty-something American protagonist, Peter Byerly, finds a watercolor portrait from the Victorian age that looks just like his late wife, who had recently died of brain cancer. Byerly traces the picture to a long-ago owner of a Shakespeare-related text that includes a signature of The Bard himself, thus proving he really existed and took credit for his plays.
            Getting to this revelation, however, is the novel’s complex task, accomplished well enough with the normal amount or remarkable coincidences.
            One of them is the watercolor itself. It measures only four by four inches, and yet gives the hero undisputed visual proof that “the resemblance [to his dead wife] was uncanny.” The tiny watercolor “showed a woman seated in front of a mirror, combing a long tress of dark hair. . . . The dark hair and pale skin were Amanda’s as were the straight shoulders … the countenance … the narrow face, the high, pale forehead; and above all the deep green eyes.”
             This was quite a feat of visual interpretation by Byerly, but it was enough to get the novel going (with a clue that fits inside an old book) and enough to propel the hero into an undaunted investigation.
            To wit: “The mystery of the watercolor’s origins felt deeply personal and Peter [Byerly] could already feel curiosity and grief melding into obsession. He had to know where this painting came from—how a hundred-year-old portrait of his wife, who had been born only twenty-nine years ago, had come to be tucked into an eighteenth-century book on Shakespeare forgeries. The problem was how to begin. Peter had never worked with paintings before.”
       Author Lovett, an expert in old books and a former antiquarian bookseller, knows the “who was 'Shakespeare'?” debate well and has built his novel on that intellectual thread. In the end, his protagonist proves the conventional “Stratfordian” theory that, despite no knowledge about a man named something like Shakespeare, he was indeed a real individual, and clearly a literary genius.
            The novel opens to readers the arcane bibliophile world by way of Byerly’s snooping in England and, in flashbacks, his time in North Carolina, where his wife’s dynastic family founded a college with the “Deveraux Rare Books Room.” The Deveraux family line runs back to Amanda’s great grandmother who is, indeed, the woman in the watercolor (and thus Amanda looks like her).
            That great grandmother, however, was the love child between a married Victorian book collector (an amateur watercolorist) and a forbidden mistress named Isabel (who is in the painting). Being illegitimate, Isabel’s daughter was reared by the Deveraux family. And so it is, finally, that Byerly’s wife, Amanda Deveraux, looks like Isabel. This same adulterous collector (who committed suicide out of guilt for his moral wrong) had owned the secret proof of Shakespeare’s signature, and had hidden it away.
            Now Byerly has found it. Although Byerly is suffering from the loss of his wife, Amanda, thanks to her, he will stumble into great fortune. He gains legal ownership of all the newly-discovered Shakespeare papers, and to boot, inherit a $14 million Deveraux bequest to the last surviving member of the family (which is Byerly by his marriage). We cheer for this young man; even before he met Amanda, he was a nervous introvert who took anxiety pills and saw a psychiatrist.
            Meanwhile, the author has used the “watercolor clue” to put art into this otherwise bibliophile novel, rich with the inside baseball of antiquarian book collectors.
            Watercolors are a great English tradition. The novel introduces some of its aura by describing an association of “eccentric British watercolor enthusiasts,” some of whom help Byerly with his investigation. One of them becomes his new love interest. Together they track down the dastardly book collector who is hiding Shakespearean evidence for financial gain.
            In ways, the novel is like a Hardy Boys adventure. There are secret documents, hidden tombs, forged books, furtive individuals lurking in the dark, and a denouement in which Byerly walks through a mile of pitch-dark tunnel, finds a wooden door at the end, and suddenly arrives in a well-lit study of a British estate. Voilà, the villain stands before him!
       The child-like quality of this story of true love, tragic death, and final wealth and fame (almost Dickensian) is augmented by the adult world as well—an adult world narrated in three time periods. The novel interweaves the post-Shakespearean era; the time of Peter and Amanda’s courtship; and the period of widower Byerly making his discovery in a bookshop in a small Welsh town.
            For adult consumption, the past is filled with infidelity, illegitimate births, blackmail, forgery, and suicide. In Byerly’s present there’s anxiety pills, two murders, frequent sex scenes in the college antiquarian book room, alcoholic parents, shrill profanity, millionaire parents, a nearly fatal appendicitis, and finally sudden death by brain cancer.
       In other words, there’s not much that The Bookman’s Tale leaves out, either for the young at heart, or for those who like stories built upon one improbably sad misfortune after another.
       When it comes to art, however, The Bookman’s Tale naturally takes the kind of liberty necessary for writers who’ve never worked with paint. Watercolor is a notoriously difficult medium with which to do an accurate, tiny portrait. Even so, Byerly finds a watercolor that, after a hundred years, is so precise that he knows he’s looking at his wife’s genetic heritage.
       Not a major demerit, of course. The Bookman’s Tale has so many fantastical coincidences that the watercolor jibes with the entire narrative. Call it an R-rated Hardy Boy’s adventure for book lovers. Art lovers, meantime, will be pleased to know that a tiny painting can revolutionize literary history, as Byerly so often reminds readers in his quest.

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