Book review: Many Kinds of Silence by Elizabeth Ashworth
The glaring gaps in the records of William Shakespeare’s life have proved frustrating for historians… but fertile territory for novelists.
There are tantalising clues that the teenage playwright may have spent time tutoring at the country homes of some of Lancashire’s wealthy Catholics, including historic Hoghton Tower, near Preston, and Rufford Old Hall, near Ormskirk, seat of the Hesketh family.
What is fairly certain is that the Shakespeares were secret Catholics and these were perilous times for followers of the ‘old faith,’ particularly in faraway Lancashire, a hotbed of religious intrigue and treachery. The court in London was living under the constant threat of plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and royal spies had a long reach.
No one will ever know the real truth of Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ but Lancashire author Elizabeth Ashworth has scooped up what few pieces of evidence we have, worked her novelist’s magic and conjured up a thrilling tale which puts young William at the heart of conspiracy, danger… and murder.
Seventeen-year-old William Shakespeare has ambitions far beyond labouring in his father’s glove-making workshop in Stratford so when he gets the chance to join Jesuit priest Father Edmund Campion’s mission to study, travel and save lost souls, he heads off to Lancashire with hopes of becoming a priest.
William knows that recusant Catholics face imprisonment, torture and even death but the vast library of books at Hoghton Tower, held in the name of God, are sufficient temptation to risk his life in the search for greater knowledge.
Under the assumed name of William Shakeshaft, he takes up his post as tutor and is delighted to learn that the Hoghton family keep their own troupe of players. But the actors are also agents for Campion, hiding his forbidden priest’s vestments in their travelling coffers and moving between Lancashire’s Catholic households.
It is while performing at Rufford Old Hall that William meets the Heskeths’ close neighbour Ferdinando Stanley of Lathom, son of the 4th Earl of Derby and heir to a powerful family in line for the royal succession but suspected of harbouring Catholic sympathies.
When Campion is captured and executed, William returns to Stratford and sets out on a very different path. Marriage to Anne Hathaway means he must turn his back on the priesthood, but there are other ways for an intelligent and charming young man to be of use to the Catholic faith…
Many Kinds of Silence is a cleverly conceived and captivating novel, casting adrift a young and restless William in a maelstrom of religious strife and intrigue whilst exploring the adventurous spirit of a generation in pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Harnessing Shakespeare’s life and fortunes to that of his patron Ferdinando Stanley is not just a fascinating literary ploy but, in view of the facts available, suitably dramatic and entertainingly plausible.
Ashworth’s story is history and imagination in perfect harmony as she takes us on an exciting journey through Shakespeare’s formative years, the dangerous conspiracies of late 16th century England and the tumultuous events that shook some of Lancashire’s grandest houses.
Find out more about the author, the background to her novels and her extensive local research on her lively and informative website at www.elizabethashworth.com
(CreateSpace, paperback, £7.99)