“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.” It’s hard not to think of King Lear’s famous admonishment to his daughter Cordelia when reading JR Thorp’s debut novel, Learwife. In a way the book can be seen as a response or challenge to this line, as Thorp creates a new voice from nothing, that of the silenced and banished wife of Lear, who is only fleetingly referenced in Shakespeare’s play.
Learwife is an original and highly accomplished debut that reimagines the life of a woman written out of literary history. With its story of motherhood, fealty and loss, the book offers a fresh perspective on an age-old tale. Although the queen’s name isn’t revealed until the closing chapters, a quick and powerful intimacy forms between character and reader from the outset. Her story – of banishment to an abbey 15 years earlier, shortly after the birth of Cordelia – is also the story of her family. One of the joys of this book is seeing characters such as Goneril and Regan through a new lens, that of a mother who may or may not be complicit in their downfall.
Thorp isn’t the first author to be inspired by the play. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, Anne Enright’s The Green Road and Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young are all highly acclaimed novels that tell hugely different stories with Lear-esque scenarios and dynamics. Taneja dramatises corruption among the rich in contemporary India. Enright looks at the reach of an ageing matriarch from the family homestead in Clare. Smiley, meanwhile, sets her book on an Iowa farm, whose titular acres are to be divided between a farmer’s three daughters, until the youngest rebels and things start to unravel.
With Learwife, Thorp also joins the ranks of authors such as Pat Barker, Natalie Haynes and Madeline Miller, who have, in recent times, successfully depicted female characters omitted from myth and literary history. The ability to capture a particular voice and era is crucial to this genre. As a writer, lyricist and librettist, Thorp is well placed to do this. She was born in Australia and is now living in Cork. She won the London Short Story Award in 2011, wrote the libretto for the modern opera Dear Marie Stopes, and has had works commissioned by the Arts Council, the Wellcome Trust and St Paul's Cathedral.
Fittingly, her debut novel is classical in shape, split into three parts over 43 chapters. Book I announces the trouble: the news of the deaths of her family. Book II sees a plague infiltrate the abbey. Book III brings crisis and then change as the queen organises a competition to pit two hopeful leaders against one another. Throughout this present-tense narrative, snatches of backstory and memories fill in the sins of the past.
The voice of the queen is proud, intelligent and occasionally regretful. Thorp is a stylish write, who blends old and new worlds in prose that is elegant, rhythmic and innovative: “They say the eldest girls killed one another. Weak like women are. They say poison. Cool, like glass.” Her descriptions are bright and devastating: “To move like an arrow through the skin of the eye, and spill into the world.”
The queen is a complex character, on the one hand deserving of sympathy, on the other brilliantly defiant about her brutal mothering style, which can be summarised as: hard knocks for their own good. Flashbacks show her playing her daughters off each other, setting them up for a fall before the king, frequent violence and a militant approach to governing their futures, irrespective of what they might want themselves. “One murders one’s children daily, the previous child cropped back, like willow, for new heads and frothing green to come out of the stump, and be reshaped. Thousands, thousands of these massacres, over a lifetime of mothering.”
These are the words of a woman who has nothing left to lose. Thorp gives the cruelty and violence a context: a world where women have little agency, where their lives depend on the whims of men. Servant or queen, a woman’s life in the court of Lear is not her own.
Occasionally the harking to the past feels repetitive, but for the most part it is well balanced with present action at the abbey. Metatextual references add depth – “I am sharp as a tooth,” recalling Lear’s line about ungrateful offspring; or “I will not see their like again” with its nod to Hamlet – and the book is rich with period detail, from a tunic with Flemish thickness, to Kent’s five rules for succeeding in court. Above all? Obedience to the king.
A brilliant flashback scene with daughter Regan towards the end of Learwife sums up this ruthless world: “You were choking; and in your fury I saw the impotence of all women, against the rationality of men, and the savagery it excuses.”