I was looking forward to reading this book. I have read a couple of Shakespeare biographies and knew that there has long been a theory that during his “missing years” he went as a tutor to a Catholic family in Lancashire. Having now finished the book I have mixed feelings about it.
I found it very difficult to get going with this book and it would have been easy to give up early on but I persevered and about a third of the way through it started to catch my interest more.
As has been said, The Tutor is the story of Katharine de L’Isle and her relationship with William Shakespeare who is acting as tutor to the boys of the family.
The de L'Isle family’s Catholicism and the perception of the danger they are in colours their every action though, without giving anything away, the ending shows that to some extent this was a misperception that was used to gain an advantage for one of the characters. Strangely, Katharine seems the one whose actions are least affected by her faith.
Katharine appears outwardly resigned to her life but, having lost her family at a young age, having been married to a man much, much older than herself and having lost the two children from that marriage, she is still looking for love. Hence she is something of an easy target for Shakespeare. Yet when they finally “unite” there is little love or tenderness involved.
Her emotions find their outlet in literature and so her reactions to Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis” are fairly extreme, particularly when she starts to see herself and Will as the title characters.
Will comes across as thoroughly unpleasant, an ambitious opportunist who uses people for his own ends. In the case of Katharine he is using her knowledge and intelligence, her ability to imagine what Venus would do at any point in the poem, and her facility with words. For me this is where the book fails to convince. I can understand the need of the poet for a muse to inspire and produce the emotions that he then translates into words. But I cannot believe that even a fairly inexperienced Shakespeare would need a muse who so constantly corrects his work like a schoolmistress or “tutor”. It sometimes appears that she is the one writing the poem.
But Katharine also uses Will, both as a focus for her need for love and as a possible way out of the narrow confines of her life.
Apart from Katharine, and to an extent Will, I found the characters rather flat and one-dimensional. Consequently I didn’t feel involved with them and their ill fortune left me unmoved.
I believe Andrea Chapin has written a fair amount but this is her debut novel. She has mostly caught the cadences of Elizabethan speech but from time to time a modern phrase creeps in which is rather jarring. I know some apparently modern words were in fact common in Tudor times but I am sure some of the phrases here are modern Americanisms and they seem out of place. I also found the American spellings irritating so it would have been nice if it could have been edited for the British market.
The book is sometimes a bit disjointed and episodic. New chapters don’t always follow smoothly from the one before and a couple of times I had to check back that I hadn’t inadvertently missed a couple of pages. Some of the episodes seemed a bit unnecessary e.g. the overnight stay of the witches. They provided a reason for the bad things that were happening which could all be put down to the curse of the witches, but I feel the story would have flowed just as well without them.
I also felt the happy ending for Katharine with her marriage to Mr. Smythson was unnecessary and a bit too pat.
If this were a school report I would probably say “A good effort but room for improvement” but I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to read The Tutor.
The Tutor - Andrea Chapin
When I think of Shakespeare as the man not the playwright and poet I always think of the familiar Chandos portrait from the National Gallery. But when I read this book I think of the Joseph Fiennes portrayal from the film Shakespeare In Love. And I suppose that is quite fitting as both are fictional representations of the man whose true self remains the enigma and source of so much speculation. Often referred as the Bard I am wondering, from reading this book, whether that is the Elizabethan equivalent of a text abbreviation, i.e. b***ard for that is how I might describe his behaviour in this book!!
I did enjoy this novel; it owes as much to Jane Austen as it does to Shakespeare, methinks!! It does read as a ‘fan’ novel. In that the writer clearly reveres Shakespeare as a writer and I did wonder whether this story is the vicarious embodiment of a little fantasy she has about him, 50 Shades of Shakespeare! And so on one level I don't believe it is a novel to be taken seriously. It is what it is. But on another level that would be to dismiss the meticulous research that this writer has undertaken of the Elizabethan Age, socially and politically.
Katharine is a well drawn, substantial character, full of goodness without being over pious and prudish. However many of the other characters seem there as a function of the novel, they had a part to play to further the narrative but they seemed one dimensional. Ned wasn't in the book enough to see his character develop but the potential was there.
And Shakespeare? This is one personnel view of how he might have been based on historical hearsay I suppose. And it made for a very pleasant read. I haven’t been been able to find any other books by Ms Chapin, maybe this is her ‘book that is in all of us’ and that somehow makes it all the sweeter to read.
I do thank Penguin books and Genes Reunited for the opportunity to read this.
The Tutor by Andrea Chapin
I thought the idea of a fictionalised account of one of Shakespeare's 'lost years' was a good one.
Ths is written from the point of view of a widowed gentlewoman aged 32, Katherine, living in the house of her rich relatives. In her day this made her vulnerable and at a social disadvantage among her family. Her closest confidante appears to be her maid.
Katherine is the one character who is really well developed.
Shakespeare is a rather unpleasant character who, though brilliant, does not seem to have much feeling for anyone but himself. He is writing his narrative poem 'Venus and Adonis' and uses Katherine and later other women, it seems, to inspire him or give him ideas.
The writing in the book seems to me to vary. There are striking phrases eg 'Will was like a gem, sparkling and bright, but on someone else's finger'.
Then there are phrases that seem out of place such as 'she grabbed her cloak', She snuck outside', I have gotten fat'. Maybe these are just americanisms.
I felt that the plot rather lost it's way towards the end with Katherine acting recklessly which I felt was out of character, and Will was revealed as a complete philanderer.
Katherine then returns to being sensible and accepts the proposal of nice Mr Smythson - a bit of a turnaround.
However, the historical background was very interesting and the book was definitely not a boring read.
If I’d picked up this book in a shop, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. At first it was difficult to read, partly because of the small font and because it appeared that every utterance was going to be dissected for a hidden meaning.
Thankfully, as the author got into her stride, this device was only used when Katherine was talking to Shakespeare, or reliving her conversations with him. The book is set in Lancashire from the autumn of 1592 to the spring of 1593 during which time, according to Wiki, Shakespeare is writing his poem Venus and Adonis.
As Katherine makes suggestions as how Shakespeare could improve his writing, it’s clear that the imagery reflects her growing love -or is it lust? - for him and his for her. The interpretation of the poem is quite erotic at times leading our Katherine to have a ‘rosy glow’ about her person.
Despite having the opportunity and a willing partner, Shakespeare does not instigate a ‘union’. Katherine is the one to do so, resulting in what in current times could almost be referred to as female on male rape. Katherine is surprised when he does the same to her on the next occasion they meet. Although she didn’t actually put up much of a fight, it was purely a physical act with no emotional attachment.
Shakespeare came across very much as a user of people. In the case of Katherine he is using her wit, intelligence and breadth of reading to inspire his own writing. Unbeknown to her, he is trying out his words to see if he can create the emotions in her that he desires his audience to have when they read the poem. Katherine believed him to be an honest man who was ‘wooing her’ until gradually she recognised that he was inconstant in his affections. Although rumours had been circulating about him, she was able to see for her self that
- The 15 year old servant girl Mercy was given a necklace similar to Katherine’s, and was made pregnant by him. Both were told that he would take them to London.
- Lady Strange received a pair of gloves, again the same as Katherine’s.
Apart from her breadth of literary knowledge, one admirable aspect of Andrea Chapin’s writing style is her ability to mimic the rhythm of Elizabethan speech without throwing in Medieval words all of the time.
To those of you who were selected to receive a free copy of The Tutor, we hope you enjoy reading it and would love to hear what you think.
Take a look these discussion questions, and post your views.
1. Throughout the novel, Queen Elizabeth is referred to as a destructive force because of her persecution of Catholics. How does the De L’Isle family’s Catholicism color their perception of the times they live in?
2. How is Katharine’s view of love shaped by her traumatic childhood? At the end Katharine admits to Smythson that she is “terribly afraid” of love. Is there a connection between what she seeks and ultimately doesn’t get from Shakespeare that relates to the loss of her family? What role does Sir Edward play in Katharine’s life and what role does Ned play? How does the reader’s perception of Ned shift as the story unfolds?How does Katharine’s perception of Smythson shift? Discuss the differences between Katharine’s relationships with Sir Edward, Ned, Shakespeare, and Smythson.
3. The novel takes place in the sixteenth century, but how are the themes of love, religion, creativity, ambition, family, and the gender divide concurrent with our modern world? For example, how does the persecution of Catholics relate to religious strife today? Discuss “then” vs. “now”—the similarities and/or differences.
4. At the start of the book, Katharine acknowledges that poetry thrills her. What does Sir Edward mean when he says to Katharine, “Reading, my sweet Kate, is no replacement for living”? Why has Katharine sought refuge in literature? And how does her work with Shakespeare on the poem “Venus and Adonis” address this theme?
5. Why does Katharine begin to see her life as narrow, whereas before she was content within the walls of Lufanwal with her cousins, their children, and her books? What prompts Katharine to consider that there may be a future for her that is different from her world at Lufanwal Hall?
6. What part do the women at Lufanwal Hall play in Katharine’s life? How does Katharine view Ursula, Matilda, and Mary? Isabel and Joan try to caution Katharine about Shakespeare, yet she doesn’t she listen. How does Ursula’s sad fate serve as a warning for Katharine? How does the story about the witches serve as a paradigm for how women were treated in Elizabethan times?
7. Examine creativity, imagination, collaboration, and authorship in the story. The muse and the artist are ancient archetypes. What is it that the artist needs from the muse? What does Shakespeare need from Katharine? Is Will Shakespeare a good man or a bad man? Or perhaps it’s not that simple. What are Shakespeare’s goals? Has Katharine misread his intentions?
8. Is Katharine’s final “union” with Will a feminist victory in that it’s on her own terms and satisfies her long-anticipated dreams? In what way does it provide her with the answers/truth that she needs in order to put him behind her/move on?
9. How is Smythson different from Shakespeare? When does Katharine first notice this difference? Aemilia Bassano is a real historical figure and one of a handful of known Elizabethan women writers. Why does Robert Smythson give Katharine the poems by Aemilia Bassano? What does Katharine learn from Smythson?
10. Shakespeare’s medium of creation is words—which turn out to be slippery and malleable in his hands, and he uses them beautifully but also to manipulate and control people. Robert’s medium is stone and plaster, which he uses to build magnificent homes to house people. In what ways do their media reflect their character?
11. How does Katharine’s relationship with Shakespeare change during the course of the novel? Though Katharine is crushed by her relationship with Shakespeare, how does this relationship serve as a catalyst for transformation within her? What has she learned about herself? And does their relationship change Shakespeare?
12. Edward was a tutor to Katharine; Will is (supposed to be) a tutor to the children; Katharine is a tutor to Will by helping to shape his poem; and Katharine is also a tutor to Molly by teaching her to read (and to be a strong woman). Is Smythson a tutor? How so? What similarities do these “tutorships” share and in what ways are they different?