Shakespeare and love: an ideal ingredient base for an enthralling historical fiction plot. The Tutor, by actress-turned-writer Andrea Chapin, imagines an intrigue between the Bard himself and an older widow that inspires his writing of the poem Venus and Adonis.
Venus and Adonis is based on characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Venus being the goddess of love and Adonis her mortal lover and long-time hunting companion. Shakespeare has displayed a penchant for the lusty, robust female character forced to pursue an evasive male. His Venus is true to type, and his unique interpretation is to bring to the story the element of Adonis’s refusal of Venus’s charms.
The Tutor takes the framework of the poem’s plot and builds an entirely credible and believable story for its influence. Shakespeare has taken a job as a tutor in a country manor, Lufanwal Hall, following an outbreak of the plague that has temporarily shuttered the theaters in London. Katherine, an older widowed cousin, lives with the family in Lufanwal and has spent the years since her husband’s early death in scholarship, learning Latin, Greek, and reading extensively from the family’s large library.
Katherine’s education makes her a natural draw for the inquisitive new tutor and the two soon strike up a friendship. After sharing favorite poems and other literary works, Katherine and Shakespeare embark on a writing collaboration with Will the author and Katherine the editor. After mastering the sonnet form, Shakespeare selects the story of Venus and Adonis for a longer poem. During the writing and editing process, the two find themselves entwined in a dance that reflects the sensuousness and passion of the story they are creating.
The historical details and settings in The Tutor are wonderfully drawn and feel remarkably authentic. Chapin mixes in a number of real historical characters (e.g. the architect Robert Smythson) and events that add credibility to the account. In addition, she has an enjoyable playfulness, for example adding in a visitation from three witches like those from Macbeth, which makes the story a joy to read.
The only thing that troubled me was that the Shakespeare figure was drawn to be a bit of a reprehensible lout. Historical fiction can be a difficult rope to walk – in my opinion the imaginary characters can be drawn with complete freedom, but I would caution against the strong assignment of motives for the real characters. It can be difficult enough to interpret these in a living person, let alone someone dead for centuries.