I think I’m going to have to conclude that this was a good book, just not the right book for me. The premise is fabulous: most scholars have assumed that William Shakespeare had a terrible relationship with his wife and they completely discount her as an influence on his work. Germaine Greer promises to re-examine primary sources to explore the possibility that this misogynistic approach may be entirely wrong, and that Ann Hathaway may have played a larger role in Shakespeare’s life than has traditionally been thought.
Good so far. Greer than goes into a minute examination of every primary document that might shed some light upon Shakespeare’s or Hathaway’s private lives, with further exploration into the lives of other families in Stratford in the same era to provide some background into what life, and marriage, was like in that place and time. She is scathing in her condemnation of other writers who make completely unsupported (and unsupportable) assumptions about Shakespeare’s marriage, but all her research reveals is that so little is known about the private life of England’s greatest playwright that no assumptions about his marriage — including Greer’s own — can possibly be supported from the evidence.
If you like meticulously researched social history, written for a popular readership but with a strong scholarly foundation, then you will like this. I didn’t, and ended up skimming the last half, because it bored me. This is a case where I believe the job could have been done much more efficiently by historical fiction than by straight history. I’d love to have seen someone do all the research Greer did, tease out new possibilities about what Ann Hathaway and her marriage to Shakespeare could have been like, and then write a really excellent novel about it — with the reader always remembering, as we do when we read historical fiction, that this is just one way things might have been.
In fact, this to me is the whole point of historical fiction; while it has to rest on the foundation of the plodding work historians do, it can rise above history and do things history can’t — allowing us to feel and see things that can never be captured in a list of entries in the Stratford church register for the year 1587, or the like. I think the definitive book on Shakespeare’s wife has yet to be written, and it will be a novel. And the novelist will have to thank Germaine Greer for doing all this fabulous research — but for me personally, I’d rather read the novel.