“I had to create her out of nothing,” says author JR Thorp of her debut novel Learwife, which explores the untold story of King Lear’s wife, written out of literary history.
The idea first occurred to Australian-born, Irish-based Thorp at the age of eleven or twelve when she read Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger. “There’s a girl in that with a complicated relationship with her parents who says as an offhand line, ‘I wonder why Goneril and Regan were like that? What it was like for them growing up?’ It’s just a thought that’s mentioned and then discarded but it stayed with me.”
It started her thinking about family dynamics, and she read and re-read Shakespeare’s tragedy to see what had created those highly-competitive characters. She found only two fleeting references to Lear’s unnamed wife in the entire play.
“Something about her absence was creating this toxicity,” said Thorp. “You’re redirected away from the idea that this woman ever existed.”
She was writing the novel during the 2016 US presidential election, and was struck by “the brutality” of how Hillary Clinton was treated for her “temerity” in wanting to be president, Thorp tells the latest City of Books podcast, presented by Martina Devlin.
“There is still this violent suspicion of women and power and what they would do if they had power and what that looks like: the political manoeuvrings and the alliances and the real intelligence that can happen,” she said.
“I think it also really important for us to hold space for women who have many, many layers of negativity and positivity and who draw us in, not necessarily by being heroines, but by being incredibly indelible – even if we don’t support the choices that they make all the time.”
For more on Learwife: https://canongate.co.uk/books/3650-learwife/