The Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: the latest round in the perennial debate about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, another tale of confused authorship about a famous historian’s wife attacking his colleagues on Amazon, and a review of a sweeping new work of Russian history.
Who Wrote Shakespeare?
What, aside from international fame, did Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, and Orson Welles have in common? The answer to Charles Nicholl's rhetorical question in the TLS this week is that they all believed that the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare were really written by someone else. The first three belong to the classic “Baconian” era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the claims of Sir Francis Bacon’s authorship were uppermost and were argued most vociferously in America. Freud and Welles were more modern “Oxfordians,” believing the true author to be Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Chaplin did not know who wrote the plays, he explained in his 1964 autobiography, “but I can hardly think it was the boy from Stratford. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude.”
These, argues Nicholl in his review of James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, are essentially celebrity endorsements: None of the above, with the possible exception of Freud, could be called a Shakespeare scholar. But one could continue it through to the present day to Malcolm X, Enoch Powell, Derek Jacobi, and the actor currently the toast of London for his role in the new and not-unShakespearean play, Jerusalem, Mark Rylance. Once upon a time the anti-Stratfordian cause seemed daring and even excitingly modern in its challenge to traditional and, from the American point of view, to English orthodoxy. If to many it also seemed barmy, it was a flamboyant, newsworthy sort of barminess.
British Literary Skullduggery
The headlines in London have been blazing since the weekend about a strange story of literary skullduggery from last week's TLS: “It was the wife" ... “Mystery is now history” were some of the exclamations after the admission that the wife of the historian Orlando Figes was the author of a series of unusual anonymous Amazon reviews. Our diarist, JC, can now take up his own scoop, which told how, based on information supplied by the writer Rachel Polonsky, he reported on reviews which had appeared on Amazon under the pen name “Historian”. One was intensely hostile to Ms Polonsky’s book, Molotov’s Magic Lantern (“This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”); another was rude about Robert Service’s Comrades. A third, however, was full of praise for The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London. Some Amazon commenters concluded that the author of the reviews was Figes himself. Could one of the country’s bestselling historians, be attacking fellow Russianists—comrades, indeed—from behind a mask?
Twenty-four hours after the TLS went to press, journalists across Fleet Street received legal notices warning them off the story. Such notices are common in Britain, though they usually refer to film or sports stars. Now Figes’ lawyer, was threatening to sue anyone who connected him to Historian’s reviews. Through the week, no newspaper touched it. On Friday afternoon, we heard ourselves from Figes' lawyer, saying that our article was actionable, demanding a correction and legal costs.
The TLS was not the only party to receive a lawyer’s attention. Robert Service did, too, after he had circulated a complaining letter to colleagues. To Service, it was reminiscent of the system of anonimki, prevalent in the pre-glasnost Soviet Union. When newspapers were about to print the story, Figes' lawyer wrote: “Whether or not it was supplied directly by you, it was a foreseeable consequence of you sending the email [to the historians]. In such circumstances, the originator, i.e. you, is liable for re-publications by the media (see for example McManus vs. Beckham  EWCA Civ 939).” Before the dramatic revelation—“My client’s wife wrote the reviews”—Figes had contacted all the historians originally emailed by Service, denying involvement. “Virtually anybody could have written the Amazon reviews,” he said, contradicting the expert’s findings. “To those of you who have circulated Bob’s email, I’d be grateful if you did the same for mine ‘in the interests of glasnost’.” In fact, the spirit of glasnost–openness, debate, fair comment—was precisely what Figes, through the offices of his lawyer, worked frantically to extinguish.
Looking for Mr. Molotov
By coincidence, the TLS has its own review of Rachel Polonsky’s book this week, by our critic, Donald Rayfield, who describes how, by serendipity, she rents a flat directly beneath Vyacheslav Molotov’s old apartment in central Moscow and is given access to remnants of his library and to his magic lantern. Like Tatyana in Eugene Onegin’s deserted library, Rayfield says, she proves adept at reconstructing the person from underlinings and fingernail indentations. From this square mile around Romanov Lane, where so many of Molotov’s colleagues lived before he connived at their extermination, Polonsky sets forth on her “journey into Russian history.” This is history with a cast of thousands, spread over centuries and thousands of miles. It could leave one bewildered, were it not for the author’s narrative skill.
As her epilogue shows, she is not easily deluded: today’s Russia is witnessing an invocation, if not resurrection, of the past, a disregard for law, life and objective truth. Despite all the intellectual vigor in the work of Herzen, Dostoevsky, the academicians Sergei and Nikolai Vavilov and others whom Polonsky admires, you cannot help wondering if Joseph Conrad’s assertion in Under Western Eyes that the “Russian idea” is just absolute cynicism has now come true.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.