The Mad Miss Bacon
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?