I loved this book. The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare by Arliss Ryan is an entirely different life-of-Shakespeare seen from the eyes of the woman who should know him best—his abandoned wife.
Very little is known about the actual Anne Shakespeare, but that hasn’t stopped scholars from concluding she was a mere bump in the road for the bard. He was only eighteen when he wed; she was several years older and pregnant. They had three children together. Nevertheless, he abandoned her for fame and fortune in London. Clearly, the marriage was a mistake.
In Arliss Ryan’s The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare, Anne refuses to play the role of cast-off wife. Told in a first person voice, the reader gets a chance to know Anne before she meets and falls in love with Will Shakespeare. Her eyes are wide open. She sees his faults as clearly as his strengths. Ryan paints a surprisingly realistic picture of a romance that is not particularly romantic. There is much to admire in Will, but it’s not his capacity to be a husband and father.
Will does escape to London, hoping to become an actor. For a time, Anne is the cast-off wife. But she continues to live a life of her own. She refuses to be defined as a just a wife, and an unloved one at that. She is beautiful, intelligent and strong willed. When the circumstances are right, she also leaves Stratford for London.
Despite a difficult start, Anne is even more in her element in London than Will. Their marriage may not quite be a marriage, but it is a partnership, a secret collaboration. Together, they become the Shakespeare that has endured.
The storyline is richly detailed and emotionally complex. Anne has to compromise quite a bit to put up with Will, but she never surrenders. She is able to build her own life around that of her husband. They complement each other, contributing to a greater success.
Anne’s drive-by analysis of each of the plays in the Shakespeare canon alone is worth the price of admission. Some she claims are her best work. Others, collaborations, they struggle over, and we get to watch the plays come together. Finally, there are those she simply dismisses as bad plays.
This is a delightful book. Although I recognize it as a complete fiction, while immersed in the book I was in another world. Nothing jarred. I was willing to believe. And I fear I’ll never quite look at Shakespeare in the same way.
If you are a historical fiction fan, have a look at the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry for some great book recommendations or to sign up!