Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Shakespearean Speculations of the Bewildered Bacon

         I mentioned the name of Delia Bacon yesterday and said I’d return to her work, so here we are. Hers was one of the earliest to put forward the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were not written by a man of that name who came from Stratford-upon-Avon, but were actually written by other men. This idea begins simply enough. There are things in the plays that could not have been written by a person of Shakespeare’s class and education. He would not have had the experience of, let’s say, court life and etiquette but yet the procedures and customs are portrayed in such a way that they cannot have been written by someone unacquainted with them and so must have been produced by an ‘insider’. Delia Bacon thought that the works were written by such courtly men, she believed that Sir Francis Bacon was the hand behind the plays, assisted by others, including Sir Francis Drake, written to encode their radical philosophy and republican sensibilities, with which they could not publicly be seen to be associated. It’s a valid enough hypothesis, worth examining if only to prove its invalidity. 

David Bacon - father of Delia

Miss Delia Salter Bacon was born in a log cabin in Tallmadge, Ohio on February 2nd 1811, the daughter of David Bacon, a Congregationalist minister and his wife, Alice. David Bacon had hoped to found a Christian community in the wilds of Ohio but his plans failed (although the town of Tallmadge later prospered and grew) and the family returned to New England, where he died, aged 46, in 1817. His death left the family in severe poverty and what little money was available for education was spent on Delia’s elder brother, Leonard, who went on to become a minister. Delia’s formal education ended when she fourteen but she attempted the foundation of several schools of her own in and around Connecticut, all of which failed, as did her attempts at working in the schools run by others. 

Delia Bacon - Tales of the Puritans - 1831

She wrote a novel, Tales of the Puritans, at the age of twenty but it was not hoped-for success and poverty, disaster and disappointment continued to follow her (although she did beat Edgar Allan Poe in a short story competition in 1832). She tried again with The Bride of Fort Edward, which began its days as a stage-play before it was rewritten and revamped, retaining some blank-verse dialogue, and eventually published in 1839. It flopped badly, leading to more debts and this failure diverted Miss Bacon from her literary pretensions for a number of years, during which she attempted to rectify the deficiencies of her early schooling, returning to what little Latin to which she had been exposed and turning also to Greek. 

Delia Bacon - The Bride of Fort Edward - 1839

She began to give lectures on history, delivered without notes, for which she began to gain a favourable reputation and from which she earned enough to pay off her earlier debts. She began at Hartford, Connecticut, then moved to Boston, Cambridge, New York and Brooklyn, delivering her talks to parlours of like-minded ladies, all very modest, refined and genteel. She was, by what accounts we have, very good at it – interested and interesting, commanding and knowledgeable, expressive and dignified. 

However, the unrelenting toil and her failing health began to tell and in 1852, she was to give the last of her history lectures. There was also, to use the terminology of her day, ‘a grievous and humiliating disappointment’ – a friendship with a young theology student, Alexander MacWhorter, ended when her brother Leonard intervened; there may have been a hint of romance, possibly a proposal, something deeper than mere friendship, maybe even something physical but it came to an end, breaking her heart and leading to a rift with the Connecticut Puritans of her early life. 

Leonard Bacon

It may just have been filial concern but brother Leonard doesn’t come out of this well; indeed, he comes across as the archetypal smug, uptight, interfering, judgemental New England Puritan preacher. You know, the sort of bloke you wouldn’t get tired of punching in the mouth. She became ill, possibly suffering from a nervous breakdown, and spent the summer at a hydropathic spa at Round Hill, where she determined to visit England to research a notion she had that someone other than Shakespeare had written the plays. 

Delia Salter Bacon

Quite what went on in her mind when she was separated from friends and family at Round Hill, we will never know. She was in virtual solitary confinement, locked away with her thoughts, she neglected herself, seldom eating or sleeping, and took no exercise, devoting herself instead to her studies of Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon. Wounded, bodily and mentally, her imagination went into overdrive. Maybe it was just the coincidence of their surnames that drew her to Bacon; maybe there was, way back in history, some ancestral link. Did she believe her forbearer was being denied the glory that was being showered on a glover’s son from Stratford? Did she believe that there was a hidden meaning locked away within the plays, that she could discover? Prior to this illness, she had let it be known that she disputed Shakespeare’s authorship and some of the ladies to whom she had lectured were already concerned about this interest. 

Mrs John Farrar - Recollections of Seventy Years - 1865 (1866 ed.)

Eliza Ware Farrar, second wife of Harvard professor John Farrar, attended Bacon’s lectures and devoted a chapter about her in her Recollections of Seventy Years (1865), in which she mentions concerns about Bacon’s ‘monomania’ with Shakespeare, to such an extent that his name was never mentioned in Bacon’s presence and even books by or about Shakespeare were hidden from her view. Such concerns notwithstanding, patrons in New York provided her with ample funds (and a handsome new wardrobe) to be able to afford a visit to England and in 1853 she left for London.

Tomorrow - what happened next.

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