Apr/May 2022  •   Reviews & Interviews

Learwife: A Novel

Review by Ann Skea

Learwife: A Novel.
J. R. Thorp.
Allen & Unwin Canon Gate. 2022. 336 pp.
ISBN 978 1 83885 283 2 7.

I am the queen of two crowns, banished fifteen years, the famed and gilded woman, bad-luck baleful girl, mother of three small animals, now gone. I am fifty-five years old. I am Lear's wife. I am here.

"Here," is the abbey in which King Lear's queen has been locked away. She recalls being taken suddenly from the royal palace in the middle of the night, not being allowed to speak to any of her family, and being bundled into a carriage and driven "four days overland." Still, after 15 years, she does not know why: "My crime" we call it, my vice, the unknown offence that led to my sentence."

It is not necessary to know Shakespeare's play, King Lear, to understand her story. A brief outline of the play prefaces Thorp's book. In Shakespeare's play, too, Lear mentions his wife's tomb, which suggests she is dead, but he is distressed, angry, exaggerating in order to make the point that a true daughter should be happy to see him, so this could be interpreted as hyperbole. Now, in Learwife, we hear her voice, and she is very much alive as she recalls a messenger bringing news to the abbey of the death of Lear and her three daughters:

I forgot in the moment that he would not know who I was...

"The king was mad, madam... "Divided his kingdom. Banished his younger daughter for a trifle. Not balanced." Cordelia, I thought. Was it my fault, whatever it was. What did I do to you?

And what? Did he take a sword to them all?

"No. No, there was a battle; at the last there was terrible confusion, and by dusk the princesses and king were dead. War being what it is, madam."

Madam. Perilous territory! "Madam me no madams," I told him.

From the moment she hears of these deaths, her mood swings between grief and anger. She is proud, clever, full of memories, and full of plans. Over the years, she has learned to wield her power cunningly to guide and influence the abbess, who has been her only contact with the nuns. These deaths, she believes, mean she will now be asked to leave the abbey, that she will be "bundled off" and have to fend for herself. So, she determines to find the graves and ensure her loved ones are properly buried, not just thrown into the earth at the side of a battlefield or lying "in a row in one rut of dirt, four astride, a family band linking arms."

She wants, too, to find Kent, Lear's loyal servant, who was believed to have survived. Kent, whom she had known since childhood and who had befriended her through her two marriages: the first to a religious fanatic, who had sickened and died; the second to the young Lear, lusty and headstrong. Both of whom she had loved fiercely.

Her plans are thwarted, not just by the abbess, but also by plague, which puts the abbey into quarantine. The nuns have recently got used to seeing her, so she is persuaded to tell them about her palace life. Her first account shocks them:

"I was married at fifteen to a boy who would not fuck me because he was a saint. He died of saintliness, and I ran across country to marry the pagan Lear, and gave him three daughters, and so he hated me. And the Lord would not raise either of them, ladies, because He has given me the suffering of ten husbands in the bodies of two and that is quite enough..."

Their faces! People always think I will talk like a bird. Sweet short chirps, snippets laced bits of sentences. The frail song of a seasonal animal. I astonish them. As I did when I was married.

"Man-language!" she had called it. "Straight, thick, pillaging and forcing through," and she remembers Goneril berating her for swearing in court. Relenting, she decides, now, to entertain the nuns, to offer them "little nicks," "little mouthfuls of a queen's life," "the garlands of the history, not the meat."

Through her memories, her stories, and her ongoing thoughts and actions, we gradually learn more about her. Her first marriage had been to a beautiful young king who "prayed for hours in sackcloth" while she "sat and rotted with frantic love." She thinks of Lear with a mixture of love and anger, reliving their happy times together, remembering his obstinacy, petulance, and foolhardiness, soothing his rages—"Of course I miss him." He could be gentle, and he could be unfeelingly cruel: "Lear would leave a boy naked in the snowy field to show disdain."

Like any mother, she has many memories of her children. Goneril—a quiet girl "with her own mysteries" and her "book of saints"—a "little wild witch." Reagan, cool and beautiful—"Heron-girl," "every morning she rose and unbound her hair and I would think, God help the man who sees it." The two of them squabbling over a toy. An older Reagan, furious when her will was thwarted. Cordelia, she remembers only as the frail three-month old baby she had to leave behind the night she was driven away with milk still leaking from her breasts.

The symbol of nothingness recurs in the queen's story, as it does in Shakespeare's play. She recalls Lear learning about the idea of nothingness and non-existence and the shape of Zero, and rejecting it: "What is this thing, this round thing? You cannot build on a hole in the earth. If I have nothing I need no mark of it." Her own thoughts are that this symbol has meaning. Zero is the circle which contains everything. The king and queen are the center of their royal circle. When they step outside it, as Lear does when he divides his kingdom between his daughters, and as the queen is forced to do when she is banished, they become nothing—powerless. You can be "written out of the book," as the queen says when she finally learns what crime she is supposed to have committed.

For Lear, stepping out of the circle led to madness. For the queen, when the circle in which she has lived "is broken," she learns to live within the circle of the abbey walls, where the abbess rules. Until the end of the book, we do not know her name. She is "Queen," "always and to everyone, except Kent," but she learns to make her own circle and "stand within it" so that the circle of her life "may become something." And she keeps the secret of her name, believing names have power.

My own name. I say it in secret in the cart, and the hanging dust moves. Power to move earth, power to calm water: the queen's name. Though forgotten.

Lear's wife may have been exiled, shamed, and forgotten, as she tells us, but in Learwife, J.R. Thorp's superb, sustained feat of ventriloquism gives her a life, a voice, and a character all her own, and enough emotional and psychological depth to make her live in our imaginations. Thorpe allows us to judge her occasional cruelty, understand her anger, her longings, her love for her children, and her frustration. We can admire her cunning and her fortitude, and see how age and circumstances change her, throwing her deeper into her memories, where the ghosts of her past continue to haunt her: "The gardens are gorgeous. Crusts of white, on the burned trees. The ghosts will knot them and wear them as garlands on their bright hair."

Learwife is beautifully written and a remarkable and fascinating novel.


Editor Note: Thinking about buying Learwife: A Novel or another book today? Please click the book cover link above. As an Amazon Associate, Eclectica Magazine earns a small percentage of qualifying purchases made after a reader clicks through to Amazon using any of our book cover links. It's a painless way to contribute to our growth and success. Thanks for the help!