Fascination with Shakespeare and his family has lasted far longer than any of their lives. I don’t consider myself a huge devotee of Shakespeare or the many narratives which have sprung up about the few details about his life, but I’ve consumed a fair number of them, as most of us have. But the ones which have always interested me have been about his children: what we do know about Shakespeare is that he was successful in his time, and an absentee father. What would that be like? And so I’ve read a handful of these imaginings, filling in the little we know with guesses at what might have happened. Jennifer Falkner’s Susanna Hall, Her Book is another imagining of the life of Susanna, the eldest daughter of William Shakespeare, but one approached from a different angle than most. Set over three days in July 1643, Susanna Hall is a widow, a midwife, a healer, and harbouring a possible rebel in her house when Queen Henrietta Maria, consort to King Charles I, seeks shelter in Susanna’s house. Returned to England, the queen was met with immediate anger; the queen being a Roman Catholic was part of the public distaste for her.
The novella tells the story of the three days from the viewpoints of Susanna, the queen, Elizabeth, Susanna’s daughter; and Robin, the rebel the mother and daughter attempt to conceal from the queen. Falkner weaves in Susanna’s memories of her life, touching on her childhood and her famous father, but also of her marriage and a scandal in her earlier marriage. Falkner’s approach to exploring the story of Susanna Hall is unique, and introduced me to new facts about her, ones which often get left behind in the focus on Susanna and her father. Shakespeare is of course a character here, though he is long dead at this point, and Susanna’s memories are fond, though distant. He figures largely for Susanna’s connection to him, and the assumption of others that his talent has passed down to her.
Tense and haunting, Susanna Hall, Her Book, is a wonderful addition to the body of fiction on the Shakespeare family, and one which takes Susanna and truly makes her the heroine of her own story, as the title declares. Falkner’s writing is fully immersive, and she packs a lot of story in less than 150 pages, but is never hurried. A worthy addition to the body of historical fiction around the Shakespeares.
Jennifer Falkner (she/her) is a short story writer living in Ottawa, Canada, on the traditional, unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe First Nation. Her stories have placed first in the HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition, the Retreat West Short Story Prize and the Little Bird Short Story Contest. Her work has appeared in several literary journals, including untethered, Agnes and True, and The Stonecoast Review, among others.
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Alison Manley bounced around the Maritimes before landing in Miramichi, NB, where she works as a hospital librarian. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. When she's not reading biomedical research for her work, she likes reading poetry, contemporary and historical fiction, and personal essays. Noted for a love of bright colours (and lipstick), you can find her wandering the banks of the Miramichi River with a book and a paintbrush.