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Review: The Tutor, by Andrea Chapin
Riverhead, 2015. 356 pp. $28

A twenty-six-year-old actor named Will Shakespeare entertains a crowd of minor nobility at a Lancashire estate in 1590. Master Shakespeare has as yet written nothing to deserve the fame or fortune he confidently expects, and his most evident talents are dressing above his station and seducing scullery maids. The occasion is St. Crispin’s Day, which means that Shakespeare-loving readers know what to expect.

William Shakespeare, 1610 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

William Shakespeare, 1610 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Sure enough, instead of verse honoring the saint, the bold, foppish visitor launches into speeches about a martial king who spouts phrases like “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” The performance enthralls everyone, even the French guests, though they realize that Shakespeare is recalling Henry V’s crushing victory over their forebears at Agincourt.

I call this an “Oh, Susannah!” moment because, when I was little, I saw a Hollywood movie about Stephen Foster, in which the composer no sooner sings his masterpiece than the world taps its collective foot. To be fair, Chapin handles the scene with bravura, and I must confess, I’m the last person to criticize, for I owe my name to Henry V and grew up hearing those speeches around the house. Even so, it’s a tad hokey.

However, the real reason to read The Tutor is to appreciate how Chapin depicts the young genius and his disturbing effect on others, especially women. The key woman here is Katharine de L’Isle, a beautiful, extremely literate widow of thirty-one, a poor relation to the noble family that has taken her in since she was orphaned at a young age. Will tutors the children of the manor, but he casts his eyes elsewhere, quickly finding Katharine, or Kate, as he insists on calling her. From the first, sparks fly in repartee worthy of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. To keep him at arm’s length, she corrects the verses he shows her, questioning his word choices and lambasting his style with a sure hand, which piques his vanity but drives him to improve. But she’s already lost, and she knows it. Worse, the poem he’s wrestling with is Venus and Adonis.

What a brilliant stroke: The two play out the mythical characters as if the long, drawn-out seduction were their own. Everything Kate’s heard and seen should tell her that Will’s using her, to cast her aside when he pleases. He’s lecherous, cruel, a social climber, an actor who spins lies like truth and demands loyalty while giving none. But Will’s more charismatic and exciting than anyone Kate has ever met, and she, who has spent her life loving words, hears them in a new way. For once–hallelujah!–I’ve read a convincing portrayal of a desperate, obsessive love.

Chapin knows her literary ground and understands the poetry, while her shrewd characterization of a jealous man who lives a double sexual standard perhaps prefigures such plays as Much Ado, Othello, or Measure for Measure. (When Will calls Kate a headstrong woman who deserves her solitary widowhood, it’s hard not to think of Taming of the Shrew; and when three accused witches pass through, their presence recalls Macbeth.)

But the novel would be better minus excess baggage. Kate’s household is Catholic, suffering persecution under Queen Elizabeth’s repressive hand, and though that suits the time, I think it unbalances The Tutor. The religious war brings about convenient exits and entrances, but several feel forced, as do a few of the many deaths. The way Chapin portrays this dysfunctional family slides into melodrama at moments.

Kate feels too good to be true, especially for her time–her extraordinary intellectual gifts, the way she risks her reputation without a qualm (or, for that matter, correction), her acceptance of a male cousin’s homosexuality, the way she treats her maid almost like a friend. I can accept one or two of these, but all? I’m not sure. The language, though almost always suitable and lovely indeed, still lapses into the modern, as when the male cousin talks like a therapist, or when random idioms or words like paranoia or spymaster appear.

All that aside, though, The Tutor offers many pleasures, and I expect that readers who love Shakespeare without worshiping him will enjoy it, as I did.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.