Shakespeare wastes no time on Lear’s backstory; we meet the brutal old autocrat as he divides his kingdom between two devoted daughters. Learwife begins where the play ends. The mad, broken old man and three daughters are dead; but why has a messenger brought the word to a remote nunnery where a forgotten woman paces the cloisters? She looks the reader in the eye:
“I am the queen of two crowns, banished 15 years, the famed and gilded woman, bad-luck baleful girl, mother of three… I am 55 years old. I am Lear’s wife. I am here.
Other writers, such Jean Rhys, Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker, have given a voice to marginalised women. J.R. Thorp goes further: in her debut novel the lyricist and prize-winning short story writer brings to life a woman who never existed on the page. Through the queen’s memories we dip in and out of a turbulent past as she recalls her marriages, to a saintly royal martyr, then Lear, red hair blazing, sexually potent, uncertain how to control the court. She knows how: think Lady Macbeth without the daggers as she slaughters a reputation or quashes a conspiracy. The only man this devious queen can trust is Kent, her loyal courtier.
Banished to a nunnery overnight for an unnamed crime, abandoning the newborn Cordelia, she survives the horrors of a plague epidemic, and amuses herself sowing violent discord among the nuns. With news of the deaths, however, she’s desperate to find the graves of the loved ones she flamboyantly mourns. But was her husband damaged, or dangerous; and what part did Regan and Goneril play in a childhood of cruelty and betrayal? The past is an elusive country.
Thorp’s prose is sweepingly lyrical; studded with jewels, wrapped in rich fabrics, blooming with resonant images: light of all sorts — sun, moon, torches, conflagration; the changing face of water. She finds mystery in the everyday, locates the poison that lurks within. Perhaps we get too much of the cloistered life though: the unsettlingly gorgeous court is more gripping.
On the last page of Shakespeare’s play, decent, honest Kent is offered a share of the throne. He refuses. ‘I have a journey, sir, shortly to go’ is usually taken to mean he’s following Lear to death. In Learwife he makes a different journey, to the queen whose confidant and shield he had always been, for a final, appalling revelation of what led to her expulsion.