Making Much of Little - by Susan Price

 Last month, my colleague, Griselda Heppel, wrote about how annoying it is when people make wild unsubstantiated guesses about Shakespeare's life, based on very little evidence.

For instance, he left his wife his 'second best bed,' so, obviously, he didn't think much of her. And she was eight years older than him so, obviously it was an unwanted marriage of convenience. And he went away to be a playwright in London, so quite plainly, he hated the sight of her.

Any of these statements may be true. But it's just as likely that they aren't. They are much made out of very little.

The idea that Bill didn't get on with Anne because he was young and carefree and she was such a grumpy old hag is based solely on a line in Twelfth Night: 'Let still the woman take an elder than herself.' This is seized on as a hot-line to Shakespeare's heart. Aha! This is him regretting his unwise marriage and letting slip what he really thought.

Never mind that Shakespeare was putting words into the mouths of characters and making stuff up, never mind that it's just one among thousands of lines that he wrote. Perhaps he did believe that it was a mistake for a man to marry an older woman. But I have just as much evidence (none), to state that it was an in-joke between Shakespeare, Anne and their crowd. In my small circle of friends - to take a random sample - there are three very happy marriages where the wife is several years older than the husband. They sometimes joke about it - one older wife recently promised her 'boy' some pocket-money for sweeties from her pension.

Then there's the 'fact' that Shakespeare ran away to London to escape the crone. What's this based on? Nothing. We have exactly no idea how often Shakespeare went home to the country, or Anne made a trip into town. We have plenty of marriages today where one partner lives away from home for part of the time, perhaps even in a different country and yet some of those marriages survive. Travel was harder in the past, but people still travelled long distances very often - recent archaelogy has shown that animals raised in the Orkneys were eaten during feasts at Stonehenge. How did these animals get from the Orkneys to Salisbury Plain? Clue: they didn't go by Ryan Air.

In the past there were also plenty of marriages where one or the other partner was absent for a long time. Ships made long sea-crossings, Vikings viked, fish-wives travelled from town to town, drovers were away for months as they droved cattle to market. It's certainly not out of the question that Shakespeare went home quite often -- and he obviously didn't cut all ties with Stratford, since he returned there and built himself a big house. His wife was one of those ties.

And that infamous 'second-best bed.' We only know of this bed because, in his will, Bill bequeathed it to Anne. From this, some people have concluded that, since he only considered her deserving of second-best, Bill didn't like Anne very much. Reading of this, my uxorious father commented, "Maybe it was the most comfortable bed." Which is entirely possible. Beds were a bit of a status symbol at the time -- if you were nobody, you slept on a straw-filled mattress on the floor. The 'best bed' would have been the most showy and expensive, the one with the most carving and the most embroidered curtains. The one you put guests in. 'Best' doesn't always mean the most comfortable or the favourite.

It never seems to have crossed the minds of historians who take this line that Shakespeare may have discussed his will with his wife and the bed known in the family as 'the second-best bed' was the one she wanted. There is exactly as much evidence to back this view as the one that supposes it was Bill being spiteful.

Then there are all the guesses made about Shakespeare's 'lost years.' He must have spent them as an ostler because his plays reveal knowledge about horses. Some nautical terms are used in The Tempest, so he must have been a sailor. He mentions some weaponry and tactics, so he must have been a soldier.

I think anyone who's done any writing can see through these arguments. Writers are experts in making much of little, so I doubt Shakespeare was a slouch at it.

I have myself been praised to my face for the knowledge of riding and weaponry revealed in my Sterkarm books and I don't know how I kept my face straight. Riding and weaponry -- two subjects of which I know even less, I would guess, than Shakespeare knew about sailing.

The Sterkarm Handshake
My riever family, the Sterkarms spend a great deal of their life riding, so I knew I was going to have to mention horses now and again. There's one dodge always available to a fiction writer -- when something is so much a part of a character's life, they take it for granted and don't often gab on about it. As I type these words, I'm not thinking about the pros and cons of Microsoft versus Apple. So if the POV is Per Sterkarm, he's not going to detail every step in saddling and bridling his horse, or grooming it. He just does it, in his sleep if necessary, and goes on his way.

What's needed is not pages of detail but a few little telling points to mention in passing, to slip in between lines of dialogue, that will give many readers the impression that I know all of what I write, while, in fact, knowing almost nothing. Someone mounting, say, and then leaning down from the saddle to tighten the saddle-girth. And a bit of terming, like 'girth' helps as well.

Where do I find these details? Well, some are cribbed from books and, these days, from the internet. But the best little tid-bits always come from talking to people who know far, far more than you do. So, a big thank you from me to Karen Bush and Katherine Roberts of this parish, who are both excellent riders and know all sorts of good stuff. Karen, in particular, did me a big favour in reading A Sterkarm Tryst and correcting everything horse-related as well as giving me a few more details (like the herb that you can stick through a head-strap to discourage midges.)

A Sterkarm Tryst
Shakespeare didn't have to work as an ostler to gain knowledge about horses. In his time and until quite recently, 99% of land transport involved horses. (The 1% involved dogs, donkeys, mules and oxen. Percentages entirely invented.)

My grandfather was an ostler, which is how I  learned that odd word. ('Your grandad's first job was as an ostler.' -  'What's an ostler?') Grandad worked with the giant percherons who pulled the delivery carts of a local brewery and I learned a few odd little horsey facts from stories about him. When Shakespeare needed a few similar pointers, I doubt he had to search very hard for an ostler to chat to. It must have been impossible to turn round without bumping into one.

The same goes for his 'knowledge' of ships and their ways. He lived for at least part of his year in London. Wharfs and warehouses lined the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge and the Tower. Ships came and went all the time. There would have been sailors of different ranks in his audiences.

And my own vaunted knowledge of weaponry? For a while I was friendly with a couple of fellas who seemed to spend their every spare minute re-enacting. Most of the time they were Roman legionnaires and had impressive suits of very accurate Roman armour. But they often helped out another group at by pretending to be Americans in WW2. At the drop of a helmet, they would go and be Vietnam Vets. Now they were very knowledgeable about weapons. So I asked them: If it was necessary to equip mercenaries at short notice and on the cheap, what weapons would be supplied?

Without taking a moment to draw breath, they said, "Kalashnikovs." And went on to explain why. And, generally, the pros and cons of kalishnikovs. They did even better -- they borrowed a replica kalishniknov and let me feel how heavy it was, and showed me how to take it apart and slam it back together.

I lost touch with them but remain grateful and hope they are still happily marching behind the eagle all these years later. I went home and wove all they'd told me in and out of dialogue and background in my book. I made much out of little.

The joy of it is, that people who know far more about these subjects than I will ever do, read these little asides and often conclude that I know as much about riding or weapons as they do. Because, when people get involved in a story, they put themselves and their experience into it. A passing mention of something like a girth taps into all that experience and they no longer draw a sharp line between their own extensive knowledge and the content of the book.

Making much of little. I'd put money on Shakespeare being a master of it. No clues or hints about his life taken from his plays can be trusted. All you can conclude from some mention of horse-doctoring or cannonades or sails being shortened is that Bill had probably been chatting in the pub again.

"You know when you're, like, out at sea, right? And a storm blows up, yeah? Like, whaddaya do?"

Susan Price is the award-winning writer of the Sterkarm Trilogy

And the Ghost World Sequence beginning with the Carnegie winning Ghost Drum
Ghost Drum   



Ann Turnbull said…
This is all so true... And I'm an older wife myself, so naturally don't buy the 'grumpy old hag' description.
Jan Needle said…
I may have said it before, but my favourite bit of 'applied research' was in a nautical book I had the extreme pleasure of reading (a little of). The author wrote 'The rigging swarmed with sailors, furling and unfurling the many sails.' It's never left me! Thank God for friends and Wikipedia, eh?
Bill Kirton said…
An entertaining read, as usual, Susan. And it left me thinking (not for the first time) of Don Marquis's excellent 'Archy and Mehitabel' poems. In one, 'Pete the Parrot and Shakespeare', Bill is chatting with 'ben jonson and
frankie beaumont'. It's a long poem, in which Bill reveals his true ambitions:

here i am ben says bill
nothing but a lousy playwright
and with anything like luck
in the breaks i might have been
a fairly decent sonnet writer
i might have been a poet
if i had kept away from the theatre
yes says ben i ve often
thought of that bill
but one consolation is
you are making pretty good money
out of the theatre
money money says bill what the hell
is money what i want is to be
a poet not a business man

(The book was published nearly a hundred years ago but it's still a great read.)
Susan Price said…
Jan, yes, thank god for friends who patch up your ignorance! Your story reminds me of my father telling me about a book he read while doing National Service in the 1940's. He was desperate for something to read and picked up a book discarded by another squaddie. It was a torrid romance set among French types. Dad wasn't enjoying it but read on because he hadn't anything better -- until he came on the French heroine saying something very like, "Mais you must flee, mon cheri - my 'usband, if he catch you, he will kill you without merci!"
At which point Dad chucked the book across the barracks and went back to counting the flies circling the light-bulbs.

And Bill -- I keep hearing things from friends that make me think I MUST read 'Archy and Mehitabel' -- and then I get distracted and don't. But note to self: MUST read it.
Ann Turnbull said…
I agree with Bill. You must.
Anonymous said…
Only just getting in before midnight.... I read this early today (unable to comment till now though, that's my phone not letting me, as usual) and was delighted to be quoted re Shakespeare and all the silly assumptions people make about his home life, loves and career, on not a shred of evidence. The famous 'second-best bed' controversy is a case in point, and I like your suggestion that Anne might actually have asked for this. Who knows? It's funny how the need for detailed research that we take for granted in other writers somehow doesn't apply to Shakespeare; whereas what would be more natural than him talking directly to sailors about their experiences? Any any man of his position would have to know all about horses, they were a vital part of every day life.

You're quite right about not overloading the reader with historical detail that your characters wouldn't see as worth mentioning; the trick, as you say, is a light brushstroke here and there, authentic and intriguing enough to gain your readers' confidence, while allowing their imaginations to fill in the rest. And there will always be the sceptics.... In The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, I have a 12 year-old boy in 1586 talking about going to grammar school; a friend reading the book doubted there was any such thing then but checked and found that there were. Well, of course, I'd checked that myself....
Umberto Tosi said…
Enjoyed your post very much, I found it particularly pertinent as I am working on my sequel to Ophelia Rising - Vol. 3 - set in the early 1600s with many a nod towards the Bard. Thank you.
Dennis Hamley said…
Wonderful post full of good semnse - and dead right about research for hisorical novels. Just enough to pull the wool over the eyes with a few killeer details to keep it there. Sue, how I remember the Kalashnikovs those fools carry to go for their murderous 'walk in the park' through the time tunnel in Sterkarm Handshake. Beautifully done. Yes, I too must read 'Archy and Mehitabel' again after so many years. I first picked it up when reading English at uni, under the impression that it was a satirical comment on Dryden's 'Absolom and Achitophel' - 'Greater wits to madness sure are near allied/ and thin partitions do their bounds divide.' That, by the way, is an exampole of the killer detail intended to deflect criticism.
Thanks for the mention, Sue! Though I'm not sure about 'excellent rider' - my knowledge of riding was picked up the hard way after landing a job with racehorses, so Ms Bush will be far more knowledgeable about how to sit in the saddle...

As for authenticity, I agree it's the little details that make a book seem real, and yours definitely do seem real, even the Time Tube (though how you know so much about that is beyond me - do you have one that you've invented stashed away in your back garden?)

Loving those Ghost book covers!

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