One request led to two books for Lawrence Wells

Published 10:00 am Tuesday, July 9, 2024

By Allen Boyer

Out of a strange quest, Lawrence Wells has fashioned a strong, uncommonly sensitive pair of books.

In 1987, when Wells had one novel under his belt and had gotten the Yoknapatawpha Press under steam, the University of Mississippi reached out to him with a peculiar ghostwriting inquiry. An elderly benefactor, Gertrude C. Ford, had offered to endow a theatre and concert hall.

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Before finalizing the gift, Mrs. Ford asked a favor: that Ole Miss find a writer to help her complete a lifelong research project, a study proving that Shakespeare’s plays were actually penned by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, an Elizabethan courtier and minor poet.

The underpinnings of the “Oxfordian thesis” are convoluted. Wells sums them up ably. They are that the Earl of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth were madly in love – could not marry – but conceived a son, who was reared as Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. To conceal Southampton’s parentage, Elizabeth forced Oxford to publish under a false name the stage plays that he wrote.

“Southampton was the ‘Fair Youth’ of the sonnets; Shakespeare wrote sonnets that hinted that the Fair Youth was Elizabeth’s illegitimate son and unacknowledged heir; denied his birthright, Southampton joined the Essex Rebellion and tried to seize the throne by force.”

The Oxfordian thesis remains a fringe theory. No one in the English department would touch Mrs. Ford’s project, and several previous ghostwriters had found Mrs. Ford impossible to work with. Wells took the assignment. Fair Youth, a historical novel, is the study that Wells was hired to write. Ghostwriter is his memoir of writing it.

Wells will be Off Square Books at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 10 to sign and discuss both books.

On its surface, Fair Youth is a bodice-ripping, sword-and-soulmate historical novel – an Elizabethan romantasy book before the term was coined. Its characters eat from trenchers and drink from flagons, and Oxford muses about his rival, Sir Thomas Knyvet:

“Tomcat Knyvet fancies himself a swordsman. Did he not study fencing under Signor Bonetti?

No doubt he has mastered the passado, fendente, and punto reverso. . . . Ah, dear Tomcat, think you that I cannot dance to that tune?”

Ghostwriter is a book about Wells writing Fair Youth. It recreates his conferences with Mrs. Ford and the research trip he made to Britain with his wife Dean. It is a travelogue, in first person, sweeping crisply through the British Library, National Portrait Gallery, Stratford, and Castle Hedingham, for nine centuries the ancestral seat of the De Vere family. As befits a work on Shakespeare, there are a host of vividly drawn minor characters: Oxfordian enthusiasts, bluffly flirtatious aristocrats, cheerful and impossibly learned Royal Shakespeare Company actors – Ole Miss chancellor Bob Khayat, too, in a crucial cameo appearance.

The Gertrude C. Ford Performing Arts Center. Photo via Ole Miss

Wells manages skillfully both the bombast of Fair Youth and the first-person narrative of Ghostwriter. There is no self-conscious display of literary artifice – none of the clichéd “blurring of fiction and reality” that novelists too often use when writing a book about a writer writing a book. Rather, scenes from one story echo in the other.

When the young Earl of Oxford answers the Queen’s summons to her chambers, their encounter as lovers foreshadows another meeting, three decades later, when he revives his dying queen by feeding her spoonfuls of broth.

The wild speculations of Oxfordian conspiracy theory provide human moments that a novelist might ponder. (If Oxford wanted to shape his son’s destiny, only to be thwarted by Queen Elizabeth at every turn, does that rhyme with Oberon quarreling with Titania over the upbringing of a changeling page-boy?)

While Oxford fruitlessly seeks to win fame as a soldier, Shakespeare’s plays gain fame across England. Meantime, the real William Shakespeare, a minor character, the stage manager under whose name Oxford’s plays are published, remains a journeyman drone, competent to run the Globe, ready to ask money for keeping Oxford’s secret. He silently wonders whether Oxford is mocking him with the rustic clowns he writes into the comedies.

The two books move together. One narrative parallel matches Oxford’s service to Elizabeth and the tasks that Wells carries out at Mrs. Ford’s bidding. Imperious as any queen, and very nearly as rich, she issues commands in shouted transatlantic telephone calls. Then, without warning, the phone calls cease. When Wells returns to Mississippi, he finds his patroness silenced by a series of strokes, as subdued as Oxford finds Elizabeth.

Both these books have drawn interest. An early draft of Ghostwriter earned the 2014 Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for narrative nonfiction, and Fair Youth was a finalist choice in the 2024 Hawthorne fiction competition.

One book is fiction, the other a memoir, and yet the two fit seamlessly together. Fair Youth is the tale that Wells set out to write; Ghostwriter is the framing tale that comments on it. The device is one that Shakespeare knew, and that William Faulkner employed, and with these books Wells handles it masterfully.

“Ghostwriter: Shakespeare, Literary Landmines, and an Eccentric Patron’s Royal Obsession.” By Lawrence Wells. University Press of Mississippi. 176 pp. $28.00.

“Fair Youth: A Novel.” By Lawrence Wells. Sanctuary Editions / Yoknapatawpha Press. 247
pp. $24.95.

Allen Boyer grew up in Oxford and now writes in New York City.