The Mad Miss Bacon

The Arts

The idea that William Shakespeare did not write his own plays was not a new one by the time Delia Bacon seized upon it. The first doubt had been cast in 1771 when one Herbert Laurence issued a book accusing the Bard of plagiarism and deer-stealing. This was roughly a century and a half after his target had died. Nobody took any notice.

The most ferocious assault came from New York in 1848 when Joseph C Hart accused Shakespeare of being a fraud in a book called ‘The Romance of Yachting'(!). The tone was the same as that adopted by most accusations of the period; how could a seemingly uneducated man about whom we know very little have authored 37 extraordinary plays? Surely they must have been written by someone more obviously talented, a university scholar with breeding. The subtext, of course, was that the Bard was simply too common to have managed the feat. His brain would not have been developed enough…

Enter tall, neurotic, determined Delia Salter Bacon of New England, the daughter of a failed preacher. She taught and lectured (convincingly, by all accounts) and determined a theory that Shakespeare was a front for a huge conspiracy. This ‘vulgar, illiterate’ little man was a patsy, fronting for a secret cabal of better qualified writers including Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh and Edward de Vere. Why they should do such a thing never seems to have occurred to her, but little else did apart from her grand unifying theory.

She described them as ‘a little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who undertook to head and organise popular opposition against the government, and were compelled to retreat from that enterprise. Driven from one field, they showed themselves in another.’ And that – despite her endless, endless talk, was as far as the theory went.

Miss Bacon came to England and wrote to any respected author who would give her credence. Too many were too polite. Thomas Carlyle suggested she should go to the original source material in the British Museum and comb it for any scraps of information that could prove her hypothesis.

But no – blithely ignoring such practical advice she dismissed the only way of providing proof and continued banging the drum for the conspirators without conducting any research on the subject. It didn’t help that her writing style was repetitive, garrulous and redundant. Her references to Shakespeare became cruder; she presented him as a complete idiot and dismissed all other opinion. She horrified and offended wherever she went, but seemed not to notice.

By now Miss Bacon had been able, through sheer monomaniacal enthusiasm, to draw plaudits (and finance) from a few literary figures. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had considered her a genius to rank beside Walt Whitman (let’s not go there) eventually withdrew his support. Nathaniel Hawthorne fell under her spell but snapped out of it on his way home from meeting her. Mark Twain still believed in her. Publishers grew weary of the same half-baked theory being offered up with no empirical proof. For whatever reason, Miss Bacon refused to do her homework.

Instead she announced that Francis Bacon had left clues that Shakespeare had been buried with a secret document offering a solution to the mystery. She was going to dig him up. She hung around the churchyard at dusk and finally collared the sexton, who had a word with the vicar, who – incredibly – agreed to allow her to lift the covering stone from Will’s grave.

And then she changed her mind.

Bacon was wrong! He’d meant her to look somewhere else entirely! Backing down at the last minute, she concentrated on getting her vast paving slab of a book published. Nathaniel Hawthorne very kindly found a publisher, picked up her costs and wrote an introduction. Which she altered and altered and finally threw out, while making his life a living hell. She was ungrateful, rude and clearly unwell yet people of means helped her out again and again.

Her 800 page-plus volume was published to resounding silence and mystification. It is unreadable, rambling rubbish that could have been summed up in a pamphlet.

As always, Miss Bacon avoided all news she didn’t want to hear and died in an insane asylum, oblivious to the book’s fate, lost in dreams. She had fallen victim to our inability to trust the unlikely; that a man of towering natural genius should emerge from a lowly background with his creative intellect fully formed.

In the same way that the Victorian anti-muse Georgina Weldon destroyed the composer Gounod, the same way that Bruce Robinson wrecked his own talent by penning endless drivel about Jack the Ripper, unchecked obsession steals away objectivity.

We seek an answer to the eternal mystery – where does genius come from? Could it really be as random and spontaneous as lightning? Why is it not quantifiable? Why is it making me feel uncomfortable?

Because it makes you doubt yourself. And because not everything can be neatly parcelled up with an explanatory footnote. If it could, someone would find a way to sell it, wouldn’t they?

29 comments on “The Mad Miss Bacon”

  1. John Griffin says:

    Ms Bacon’s view is shared by many in English government today, that ‘high’ culture can only be produced by the certifiable elite, complete with genetic pedigree, public school education and Oxbridge degrees. The corollary is that it can only be recognised by similar. And, of course, anything ‘popular’ neither can be ‘high’ culture nor of any other merit than providing profits via the uncultured. In literature, working in almost any genre – especially SF or crime – is of low merit. In music, both Boe and Ball have spoken about the gross class snobbery they have encountered.
    Genius, of course, announces itself, unless the term itself is overused and largely devoid of merit.
    But all of us have our frames of reference, surely – were Hendrix and Van Halen geniuses of the electric guitar? Who – if any – were the geniuses in electronica – Oram, Derbyshire, Moog, etc? Who decides what genius is in art?

  2. Peter+T says:

    Some modern and probably equally lunatic reviewers claim she was ahead of her time. Certainly, if she lived today, she could have been a very successful politician.

  3. David+Ronaldson says:

    John Griffin I hope you’re not suggesting that our noble Boris and his Government are in any way as guilty as Ms Bacon as failing to research or consider facts or details?

  4. Andrew+Holme says:

    This one could run and run. James Shapiro in his book ‘Contested Will’ states that over 50 claimants to being Shakespeare have been championed over the centuries. This begs the question, ” if Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, which one of the 50+ people did? ” Did they all write one play each?
    A few thoughts from 40 years of study. There are very few known ‘facts’ about Shakespeare. Not unusual for late 16C England. We have no idea when John Webster was born for instance. We do know Shakespeare was born and can be reasonably sure when. He was christened. His father was a high official of Stratford during Will’s childhood. He would have gone to Stratford Grammar. We don’t know for sure, but it would have been extremely unusual for the Mayor’s son not to have done so. He therefore received the exact same education as Marlowe. Marlowe went to Cambridge where he hardly spent any time. Will, as far as we know, didn’t go to University. In the late 1580s both men are writing for the London stage, Marlowe with instant success. Will is acting as well as writing. The plays of Shakespeare were written to be performed, not read. They have to have been written by a man of the theatre. Sort of narrows the candidates down a bit!

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    Despite the word genius deriving from the Latin for innate ability, my view is that geniuses are largely ‘made’ not born. They are of a time and place with its influences. And yes, my bias (in case you haven’t guessed…) is to the ‘nurture’ side of the nature/nurture continuum of human existence, although I am willing to accept that a certain mental or intellectual predisposition does play a role.

    The term has been tossed around so much these days as to be virtually meaningless and is largely in the ‘eyes of the beholder’ or, more specifically, society’s influencers. Is the literally one in a million autistic savant a ‘genius’ because they can calculate with almost the speed of a computer or, play an piano sonata from memory after one hearing ? Is acknowledged skill ‘genius ?’ Generally not. But then I think the term is too often used as a way of keeping those with merely superb ability from getting above themselves by those of no to lesser ability. ‘Well, he may have won the ___________ (take your pick) but he’s no genius.’ It is held out as a sort of ‘Holy Grail.’ And, as I said, virtually meaningless.

    And btw, I know for a fact that the Bryant & May series is really written by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and J. K. Rowling. /s

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    Permit me to amend the last sentence in my previous post. I have it on good authority that the Bryant & May series was actually written by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, with the assistance of someone called Christopher Fowler, whose name serves as a pseudonym for the trio. /s

  7. admin says:

    There’s something of Pritti Patel about Miss Bacon.

  8. Brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler, there’s no need to insult poor mentally challenged Miss Bacon, as she did not have the educational advantages of your Home Secretary.

  9. Martin+Tolley says:

    Imagine being at Stratford grammar school, and being WS’s teacher of reading and writing…

  10. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Brooke – I think the similarity to Priti Patel is facial rather than educational. I can’t unsee it now.

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    The fact that MS Bacon was increasingly unstable does not make her theory automatically wrong. It’s wrong because it’s wrong, not because she offered it. There has been considerable (!) research into the life of Shakespeare (however you want to spell it) and a number of other interesting theories have been presented, one of which is that the Shakespeare family were continuing Catholics, but kept it secret so that the father could continue in public life in Stratford. Some writing was supposedly (well, I saw photographs on a tv program) found in a corner of the family home, apparently a will and definitely phrased Catholic fashion, and the researchers found records of Will’s presence in known Catholic homes in the North. If that were to be confirmed it could unleash masses (?!) of new analyses on the wording of select passages. Words spouted from public stages were certainly monitored for disaffection, though, so it would all have to have been carefully cloaked. Oh, oh, for a good education that would allow me access to the sources!

  12. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Bacon, Patel, Johnson, Trump and their ilk are all perpetrators of ‘The Big Sigh.’

  13. Brooke says:

    Cornelia–I get it now. Wish I didn’t.

  14. joel says:

    thank you…now i have to go look into georgina weldon and gounod…it will give me something to do during my lunch

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Martin+Tolley Yes — I can see it… English master: ‘Shakespeare we don’t have time for another one of your monologues. Sit down and give someone else a chance.’

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    I think I’ve figured out the reason for Delia Bacon’s obsession. The parabolic bonnet. It was obviously collecting and focusing waves of some kind on her head.

  17. Peter+T says:

    Ms Bacon didn’t die in the lunatica sylum; she was cryogenically preserved. Delia Bacon lives! Under a new identity, of course. If you should recognise her, it’s better not to say anything as she may attack. She used to keep a steel blade in the parabolic bonnet; she now keeps it elsewhere, which can cause a strained expression … .

  18. John Howard says:

    Admin… thank you for that wonderful comparison between the style of Miss Bacon and the style of that Home Secretary person… It made me giggle…

  19. Chris says:

    TV Historian Michael Wood did a series about Shakespeare in 2003. It didn’t address the theories about other people writing the plays, but did indirectly, make a good case for him being the author.

    He was from a peasant background, but their were fairly high class peasants, who had taken part in local government and held important jobs for generations, in Tudor times such people were on the rise all over England. As previously mentioned on this thread, his father was a town councillor and mayor, free education at the new Grammar School was one of the perks of these posts.

    His plays use slang terms common in the rural midlands, and in some cases use as a basis stories from popular school text books of the time.

    As to his considerable output, like many of your ‘Forgotten Authors’ he had to write to support himself, a good motivator for creativity.

  20. John Griffin says:

    Stu – the ‘let somebody else have a chance’ is in Akala’s book Natives, where he gets it as a put-down in school. I had it in sport as a teenager, having won several sprint titles. University and free love in 1970 solved that problem.

  21. Peter+T says:

    If my fellow Midlands grammar schoolboy Will S. didn’t write his plays, who do we attack for lack of PC?

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    I am particularly fond of the ‘ Baconian’ theory of Shakespeare’s authorship. As you may know, Sir Francis was the first alternative author (of the more than 80 — so far…) suggested for his works through tortured reasoning including — and this is my favorite — cryptographic cipher and code clues in the plays and poems. One often cited example is the word ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus’ in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’, which has been rendered in Latin as ‘These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the World.’ Uh, okay…

    But, more eye-watering is the conspiracy portion of the theory which has Shakespeare serving as Bacon’s beard to protect the latter’s political career (wouldn’t do to be known to write plays for public consumption) and nearly everyone around the two men knowing this but keeping shtum.

    Actually, I prefer Archibald Mulliner’s explanation. In a P.G. Wodehouse story, he is told that Bacon wrote plays for Shakespeare and remarks that it was ‘dashed decent of him,’ but suggests he may have only done it because he owed Shakespeare money. 

  23. Paul C says:

    Contested by Will by James Shapiro (mentioned by Andrew above) seems watertight to me. I felt deeply sorry for Miss Bacon afterwards – what a sad life.

    Shapiro’s other books are great even if you’re not that interested in Shakespeare : 1599 : A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare & The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Both are very rich portraits of their times and not too academic.

  24. admin says:

    My favourite spin on the Bard is ‘The Destiny Man’ by Peter Van Greenaway, in which a thespy old ham actor finds a Shakespeare folio on the tube and claims copyright…

  25. Roger says:

    J C Squire pointed out that, given the differences between the writings attributed to them, if Bacon did write Shakespeare’s works, someone else must have written Bacon’s, and the obvious candidate is Shakespeare.

  26. John Howard says:

    Admin…. You have now kicked my brain into gear.. when I’ve finished this book and next visit the bookshelves the book I will be getting down to read will be that one. Haven’t read it in ages.. Thanks for the inspiration.

  27. John Howard says:

    Thanks for the inspiration Admin.. when I have finished the book I am currently reading I shall go to the bookshelves and get that one down. I haven’t read it in ages..

  28. Stu-I-Am says:

    I have this image of young Will at Stratford grammar:

    Shakespeare (wildly waving his raised hand): ‘Sir, sir!’

    English Master (resignedly): ‘Yes, Shakespeare. Another can’t wait question is it ?’

    Shakespeare (leaping to his feet): ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? ‘

    English Master: ‘Very interesting, I’m sure. Now sit down.

  29. Patricia O'Brien says:

    I went to a talk a couple of years back propounding that Shakespeare was actually an Italian called Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza (translated literally shake spear) I was offended!

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