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Richard Wright

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

It is perhaps a sign of our fame-obsessed times that we feel the periodic need to treat William Shakespeare as a kind of Elizabethan Olsen twin, mining his allegedly colourful but poorly documented personal life for nuggets of satisfying gossip.

There's a higher purpose here: All those reams of deathless drama surely came from somewhere, and it might as well have been from a life marked by (among other things) a shotgun wedding, family tragedy, years of early penury and rumours of deer poaching.

One of the more enduring whispers attached to the Bard is that he sired at least one illegitimate child. It's something we'd all like, Da Vinci Code-style, to believe is true, since it betokens the continued presence of his hi-test DNA among us.

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But in his depiction of a fictional Shakespearean "bastard," veteran Canadian novelist Richard B. Wright deprives us of this particular satisfaction, and replaces it with many others. His Aerlene Ward, unplanned offspring of Will and a sensuous, misguided nonentity named Elizabeth, has lived a quiet life as a housekeeper. Nearing the end of her life, at 70, she looks back to tell us of her obsession with her famous father. This has entailed an avid reading of each new play as it's issued (as a woman, she is unable to actually attend the theatre) and the kind of general hero worship experienced by any common fan.

Like Clara Callan, Wright's ninth and most famous novel, Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard produces a kind of insidious, transformative pain in the reader. A feminist pain, too: It's hard not to feel angry at the continual lack of notice accorded Aerlene, a strong and sensible person whose very ability to read prods her contemporaries into regarding her as a kind of sideshow freak.

Whether she will actually meet the great man is a question that takes us to the very end of the book. In any case, we don't hold high hopes for a rousing welcome from family man Will, whose abandonment of Aerlene's mother makes good old Romeo and Juliet seem that much less romantic.

Equally haunting is the novel's first section, in which mother Elizabeth (a.k.a. "Mam") recounts her life, including the fateful, short-lived tryst that produced Aerlene. The daughter's journey will turn out to be a correction of the mother's, which is marred by the really deep potholes only a woolly-headed romantic is truly capable of digging. "Nothing else matters when you are in love but being with the one you love, as you will find out some day," she tells her daughter airily. Aerlene, however, will make good and sure she doesn't, and turns herself, rather, into a sort of precursor to Jane Eyre, with Mr. Rochester assiduously removed from the picture.

Most of the women here are, in fact, imprisoned from within or without, whether through prostitution, indentured work or bad marriages. All Wright's novels are famously different, but he has earned a solid reputation for serving those who stand and wait. One gets a strong sense that variations on these women - shut out of the bawdy, bustling world of the Globe Theatre - actually existed, and we should be grateful to Wright for training a careful lens on them.

It's an incidental benefit, too, to see how Shakespeare's work was viewed in his time. That his plays could be viewed as a kind of lowbrow entertainment option for tavern rats is unthinkable now, but there it was. That an innocuous confection like A Midsummer Night's Dream could be thought of as "the devil's handiwork," with all its talk of fairies and wood sprites, makes us wonder whether someone like Eminem (for example) is headed for his own spate of celebratory festivals 400 years from now.

Against this much-changed social backdrop sits an enduring theme: family. What does it mean to have a father who exists only within the theatre, a world that can be rolled up and put away at the end of the day? Is he any kind of father at all? Yes, is the heroine's fiercely loyal answer, ringing wistfully into the void. At once the invisible product of hardship and the scion of glittering genius, Aerlene Ward lives a life as big as it is small. She may be the only one who sees it that way, but for the length of her graceful and dignified days, it will be enough.

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Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto journalist and critic. She is the author of the novel Alms.

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