Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Inconvenient Woman, Part 2

If you’re one of those readers who’s more interested in the plays than in this whole authorship discussion, rest assured I have only a couple more posts on the authorship controversy. Actually the series wasn't complete when I abandoned it a year or so ago--I never really got to do my De Vere Takedown.  I will do that, maybe in conjunction with a review of Anonymous, if I ever get around to seeing it. The film, from what I've read, is positively wild. Yummy Renaissance tabloid fare. I'm sure I'll enjoy it, in a junk-foodish sort of way. But I may try to finish Othello before incurring the wrath of the Oxfordians with that post. We'll see.

In the meantime, back to our Baconian saga.

The Public Intellectual

I realized, upon re-reading my last post, that I may have left readers with the impression that Delia Bacon was a reclusive, Emily Dickinsonian sort of creature—a nineteenth-century “bluestocking” who spent her life with her nose buried in books. That’s not at all the case. Although she retired from public life in 1845, after a particularly nasty—and utterly unjust—scandal ruined her reputation, prior to that she had been a nationally-known lecturer who kept company (I mean intellectual company, not the other kind) with the likes of Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, and Samuel Morse, the guy who invented Morse Code. At twenty she anonymously published a trilogy of novellas, Tales of the Puritans, and a year later won a prize for a short story about the Revolutionary War, a rather generic romantic piece entitled “Love’s Martyr,” about a colonial woman who is killed by Indians en route to meet her loyalist lover.

She had many admirers among her contemporaries, and some of them left us pretty gushy assessments of her genius and charisma. She was “graceful and intellectual in appearance, eloquent in speech, marvelously wise, and full of inspiration, she looked and spoke the very muse of history.”  A woman, of course, has to be a “muse” of some sort, not a flesh-and-blood historian. But still, it was pretty high praise for an era when most respectable women were banished to parlors and sitting rooms, hunched over needlework while they struggled to breathe through their corsets.

She was, in her youth, interested in the theater and even developed her Revolutionary romance for the stage.  The famous actress Ellen Tree was set to play the heroine. While in the process of doing the final edits on her play, however, Delia suffered some kind of a breakdown. Her brother and another male friend had criticized the play harshly—doubtless motivated by horror that she would pursue unfeminine—and un-Puritan—occupation of writing for the stage.  The play itself had some brilliant moments, many have said (I honestly haven’t read it, so I can’t confirm or deny these assessments), and was clearly indebted to Shakespeare.

Anyway, it seems clear that Delia’s moralistic/Puritan side couldn’t be reconciled to this theatrical ambition. She decided that plays in general—not just hers—weren’t meant to be performed, only read…this became her take on Shakespeare, too, and helped bolster her case for the bookish Bacon over the Stratford man of the stage.

Like a lot of women frustrated in their career ambitions and banished to the fringes of the public world, Delia allowed her intellectual passion to morph into an obsession—she eventually traveled to England, haunting graveyards, and at one point was determined to dig up Francis Bacon’s remains to see if there were any manuscripts buried with him.  The authorities dismissed her as an American crackpot, which is pretty much how history has judged her, too.

I’m pretty sure that, if she were alive today, she’d be an avid blogger.

The Obsession

Delia, like Will Shakespeare, hasn’t left us much in the way of biographical materials, notes, or even a bibliography from which to follow her train of thought. Most of what we know about her comes from others—again, like Shakespeare. Ironic, really, since the dearth of biographical info on Shakespeare is what set her off on her strange quest to begin with.

We do know she was a teacher of young women, and that her classes on Shakespeare were renowned. In many ways, Delia’s approach to teaching Shakespeare was ahead of its time. Her young female charges were taught that every play was thick with hidden significance, that there was “nothing superfluous…every word [was] full of meaning.” This was New Criticism avant la lettre; at a time when most literary essays on Shakespeare were more celebratory than analytic, Delia brought real rigor to the business of interpretation.

At the same time, she was a product of her era in that she—like virtually all early Shakespeareans—envisioned a Renaissance in which the lower and middle classes were incapable of greatness. Her Shakespeare could not have been anything but an aristocrat—no one who belonged to the “unlettered masses” could possibly have written the deeply philosophical and political works he was said to have authored. Although she claimed to be a democrat rather than a monarchist at heart, her project evinced nothing so much as deep nostalgia for social hierarchy.

It made perfect sense to her that someone else, someone with a better pedigree and more education, must have been the “real” Shakespeare. So she went looking around for a suitable candidate—and found Francis Bacon. A man who was, at that time, thought to be fully Shakespeare’s equal as a thinker, rhetorician, and political visionary. Once she had decided on Bacon, she didn’t delve into the archives for proof of her theory. She went, instead, to Shakespeare’s plays themselves, poring over each line for authorial hints that Bacon may—or rather, must—have encrypted in “his” work.
This became the model for all future anti-Stratfordians—lacking any archival evidence for these alternative candidates, their advocates have always looked to the plays themselves. Since Delia’s time, finding the true Bard has been--either literally or figuratively--a matter of code-breaking.

The Crack-Up

Delia’s desire to find the true Shakespeare might have amounted to little more than a passionate intellectual avocation, had her life not taken a turn for the worse in the 1840’s.  Delia had become very close to a certain Alexander MacWhorter, a young theology graduate some eleven years her junior.  They met in New Haven, at a hotel where both were lodgers.  MacWhorter was working on biblical code-breaking himself—something having to do with the letters in Yahveh—so he and Delia had a lot to talk about.

It’s difficult to ascertain what happened between them emotionally. What we do know is that Delia’s brother (a stuffy old Puritan more worried about his own reputation than hers, to my mind) demanded that MacWhorter reveal “his intentions” toward Delia. Mac panicked, I think, and started telling everyone Delia had misread their relationship. He showed her somewhat imprudent, effusive letters around town, mocking her shamefully.

Personal aside: I hate this guy. These days, everyone likes to think that the Internet has made people more cruel and less empathic. But long before Facebook, there were plenty of bullies and soulless, self-serving bastards in all walks of life. Alex MacWhorter was one of these.

Well, it eventually came down to a court case! Leonard Bacon tried to get MacWhorter kicked out of the clergy. Delia had to testify at a trial that went on for weeks and shamed her far beyond New England. People were talking about it all across the country.

I totally know how she must have felt.

Eventually this show trial was decided by a bunch of ministers who ruled…wait for it…for The Man! Delia lost her case—or rather Leonard lost his—and her reputation was in ruins. A vote against her effectively meant she had pursued this little twit and tried to seduce him into marrying her against his will.

After this she seemed to go off the deep end. She took the Shakespeare controversy personally, and seemed to think that Will Shakespeare had actually sinned against her.  If she had misinterpreted MacWhorter, she was determined to prove she hadn’t made the same mistake here.  She called Shakespeare a “booby,” “the Stratford poacher,” and a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate play-actor.”   It was “too gross to be endured” that a man like this could have written all those beautiful, philosophical works.  She effectively put Shakespeare on trial; as she herself had been subjected to questions she could not satisfactorily answer, so too was the long-dead playwright.

She grew paranoid, convinced that others were trying to steal her ideas. She went to England and behaved badly. Eventually she was brought back to America, where she ended her life in an insane asylum.  We’re talking shackles and straitjackets, people—this was the nineteenth century.

In many was, Delia Bacon was the madwoman who refused to stay in the attic. Once a brilliant teacher and literary scholar, she became a laughingstock—and a living example of the old misogynist assumption that too much thinking and not enough childbearing will drive the weaker sex around the bend.

Next: Further Baconian excesses, and some ways that Mark Twain was like Elvis.

No comments:

Post a Comment