18 November 2019

Guest Post by Bart Casey, Author of The Vavasour Macbeth


Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Buried Shakespearean treasure from an ancestor’s tomb brings a disillusioned BBC reporter home to solve her father’s murder and restart her life with the man who has always loved her.

Thanks to Tony Riches for inviting me to write a guest post on The Writing Desk about my new novel The Vavasour Macbeth.  I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce you to some of the very real Tudor tales written into the book.

As I hope you’ll soon discover for yourselves, the story is told in the form of a 20th century thriller after scores of old manuscripts are found in a flooded Elizabethan tomb.  But underpinning the modern-day action are details drawn from three lines of historical research that I have been exploring for decades: first, investigations into the question of who actually wrote Shakespeare; secondly, the remarkable biographies of Tudors Anne Vavasour and Sir Henry Lee; and finally some little-known quirks about Shakespeare’s play-writing and his masterpiece Macbeth.


Shakespeare Authorship 


It was in graduate school that I read Sir Edmund Chambers’ magisterial two-volume biography called William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems.  Quite frankly, I was shocked at how few facts and how many problems remain about the world’s most famous writer.

It turned out I was not alone, and very shortly I found myself in that crazy corner of English literature studies called “the Shakespeare Authorship Question,” which is filled with conspiracy theories, name calling and loud shouting.  I was astonished at how many people could not believe “the Stratford man” wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare.  I was even more surprised that worthies such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud were among them.

Since the leading alt-candidate Shakespeare appeared to be Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, I plunged into serious study of his life and literary remains (because there are many examples of works undoubtedly written by him).  I concluded that he was just not up to Shakespeare’s mark – not even close.  But it was while reading about Oxford that I stumbled onto the sad tale of his fling with a teenaged maid of honor named Anne Vavasour.  And that began the second line of research incorporated into The Vavasour Macbeth.

Anne Vavasour and Sir Henry Lee


Anne Vavasour

Anne’s family groomed her from childhood to be a companion to the Queen.  True to plan, she arrived at court at the age of sixteen as a Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber.  She was a lively breath of fresh air for the courtiers hanging around awaiting the Queen’s pleasure.  Unfortunately, the Earl of Oxford – then in his thirties  -- was estranged from his wife at the time and on the prowl for excitement.  So perhaps it wasn’t much of a surprise that young Anne was ensnared.  She then became the scandal of the season when she gave birth to a bouncing baby boy in the maidens’ chamber at court only about 15 months after she had arrived.

Elizabeth was furious and sent both Anne and Oxford to the Tower for a time.  Oxford was banned from court for two years and never recovered his favorable position, while Anne seemed doomed to a miserably reduced life as an unwed mother – until Sir Henry Lee came to her rescue a few years later.

Sir Henry was in Elizabeth’s innermost circle.  He was immensely wealthy and of impeccable character.  He was also thirty years older than Anne.  He had been at court since he inherited his family lands and fortune at the age of fourteen.  That’s when he had been taken from his family into the direct service of King Henry VIII in the royal household.  In fact, there was a rumor that Sir Henry was the king’s illegitimate son.  Indeed, that relationship may explain why Sir Henry always remained in the closest circle of courtiers serving King Henry VIII and each of his children -- Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth – during difficult times when many lost their footing.

Then in 1590, after decades of faithful service, Sir Henry decided to retire as Queen Elizabeth’s Personal Champion at the joust.  His wife and three children were all dead, and he was facing lonely years ahead.  That’s when he invited Anne (and her son by Oxford) to join him as his de facto wife.  Then for the next twenty years, they divided their time between his fifteen-room apartment overlooking the Thames in London and his many estates in the country.  Sir Henry was about 57 and Anne about 27 years old.  And they lived happily in sin together, as confirmed by many reports, stories, and letters documented today in the British State Papers and National Archives. Their unusual living arrangements even seemed to have the tacit approval of Elizabeth, especially after her well-documented visit to Sir Henry’s Ditchley estate during the Progress of 1592.  That was when the Queen and her court all were drafted into acting out a two-day drama on the nature of love which Sir Henry paid to have written by a dream team of poets and dramatists.  And this September event would have coincided exactly with the time when young Shakespeare and his writing colleagues were desperate for writing work while the theatres were closed by plague in the city.

Finally, when Sir Henry died approaching age 80, he left his money and the use of his estates to Anne for a period of sixty years or until her death, whichever came first.  She would have been about 47 at the time of this bequest, and lived out the rest of her long life as one of the richest women in England, completing her highly unlikely recovery from youthful ruin.  In The Vavasour Macbeth, those ancient manuscripts are found in Anne and Sir Henry’s shared tomb.

Shakespeare’s play-writing and Macbeth


My own conclusion about Shakespeare’s plays is that they were highly collaborative creations.  I have no doubt the Stratford man himself wrote the great speeches and soliloquies, and also shaped the stories and their pacing.  But I don’t think he wrote every word and crossed every “t” in the versions remaining today -- just as Steven Spielberg did not write all of the screenplays of his films.  And specific performances would have been adapted for their audiences and time allowed.

In The Vavasour Macbeth I do describe many of the forensic forays into the search for Shakespeare’s handwriting as well as some textual issues of his plays in the posthumous First Folio.  While many of those thirty-six plays appeared in previous smaller “quarto” editions, Macbeth did not, and the only known example of that play is the one found in the First Folio.  Also, unlike the others, it was not “cleaned up” for publication by scribes like Anthony Munday or Ralph Crane who standardized stage directions and formatting.  By contrast, the surviving version of Macbeth seems to be a last minute inclusion in the First Folio, and is obviously a script from one particular performance.  It also shows evidence of serious abridgment from a lost longer version.  Songs by the witches were lobbed in from other sources, a stage direction to “ring the bell” was actually incorporated into the spoken lines by an apprentice typesetter, and many (including Samuel Taylor Coleridge) believe the scene with the drunken porter was added by another writer for comic relief.  Finally, what remains as Macbeth today is a very abbreviated version at just over 2,000 lines compared with Hamlet at more than 4,000.  All of this and more is explained and discussed in The Vavasour Macbeth as the papers discovered in the tomb continue to reveal themselves.

Finally, there is the question of whether anything really new about Shakespeare and his plays is likely to be discovered in the future.  Having been briefly introduced to the mountains of unread and untranscribed documents stored in the National Archive in Kew, and understanding that there are still a very few people today who can actually read and interpret those documents, I dare say we very might well have some Shakespearean revelations coming sometime in the future.  And it is in the fictional part of The Vavasour Macbeth that I show just how much we believe about the bard might be changed by even a single new discovery – such as papers found in an Elizabethan tomb perhaps?

I hope that your curiosity will lead you to read The Vavasour Macbeth and that you will not be disappointed.  The book is available in print, ebook, and audio editions for your reading pleasure.

Best wishes,

Bart Casey
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About the Author

Bart Casey grew up in London, studied Literature at Harvard, and trained as a professor before switching to an advertising career, living many years amidst the settings for The Vavasour Macbeth. His recent biography of Victorian Laurence Oliphant was chosen by Kirkus for its Best Books of 2016. Now writing full-time, Bart is working on a sequel novel to The Vavasour Macbeth in which the same modern-day characters follow in the footsteps of Byron, Keats and the Shelleys around post-Napoleonic Switzerland and Italy. Find out more at Bart's website http://www.bartcasey.com/

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