What’s in a book cover when it features a swimming pool?
Talking Location With … Georgie Hall – Stratford Upon Avon
13th October 2021
#TalkingLocationWith….Georgie Hall, author of Woman of a Certain Rage
Stratford upon Avon, inextricably linked with William Shakespeare, is a gift of a setting for a writer, whether reimagining the Bard’s family life, plotting dastardly murders in its half-timbered alleys, or giving a local wife her second shot at freedom. A medieval market town at the point where the northernmost Cotswolds meet the one-time Forest of Arden, this mecca for tourists, theatre-lovers and swans first captivated me on a teenage school trip treading in Shakespeare’s footsteps. I share his birthday – April 23rd – and often weave his quotes into my writing, hoping a fraction of that star-crossed genius might rub off.
It’s almost unthinkable to set a novel in and around the town without referencing Shakespeare: Woman of a Certain Rage starts with heroine Eliza joining her family to see As You Like It at the RSC, much of which she sits through cross-legged, wishing she’d popped to the Ladies first. A one-time actress, now reduced to narrating audiobooks, Eliza is a middle-aged, middle-class middle-Englander who longs to recapture the rebellious joie de vivre of her youth. Husband Paddy, meanwhile, is content filling his downtime with cricket and narrowboats.
Narrowboats are a colourful feature of Stratford Upon Avon, where the canal network meets Shakespeare’s Avon, painted barges sharing the water with kayakers, rowboats and floating restaurants. Many are moored tightly together in Bancroft’s Basin like confectionary bars, overlooked on one side by the Gower Memorial where Shakespeare sits high on his plinth with four of his best-known characters underfoot, and on the other by the RSC theatre complex resembling a giant cruise liner docked to the riverbank.
While the man-made waterway that leads upcountry to Birmingham is narrow and still, the River Avon is a force of nature surging west to meet the Severn, its progress stayed by industrial locks which are far fiercer and deeper than their canal counterparts. And it is navigating this river which provides Eliza with her key to freedom, the wilds of Warwickshire opening out as soon as river-users pass through the Colin P Witter Lock and beneath the Seven Meadows Road towards the sleepy village of Luddington, where Shakespeare is believed to have married Anne Hathaway aged just eighteen to her twenty-seven. When he died, he famously left his wife only his ‘second-best bed’, which seems an insult after their long marriage, much of which he was absent.
Four hundred years later, older women are still all too often viewed as second best bedfellows, although one only need spend a short time walking Stratford’s bustling heart and riverside parks to find a small army of us on the water and off it, attracted to the area by the culture, community and good schooling. It’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the country’s foremost HRT clinics is here, recently made famous by celebrity menopause influencers, and its location directly opposite one-time home to Victorian novelist Marie Corelli is a lovely irony.
Marie Corelli is now all-but forgotten, yet in her heyday she out-sold Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling combined, her stories of magic, tragic love adored by readers from Queen Victoria to humble shop girls. Forty-six when she moved to Church Street’s grandest Georgian townhouse – now home to the Shakespeare Institute – her writing had earned her rare independence among her sex. A fantastic self-dramatist with strawberry blonde hair piled up like a cottage loaf, she drove around town in a carriage pulled by miniature horses and cruised the River Avon in a genuine Venetian gondola. Her musical soirees were legendary, attracting stars and dignitaries from Sara Bernhardt to Winston Churchill, and although she was considered a termagant incomer by many local grandees, her philanthropy helped fund much of the preservation of Shakespeare’s Stratford we enjoy today.
It is undeniably William Shakespeare’s town, from his birthplace on Henley Street and other Tudor buildings and gardens connected with his life, to the many themed cafes and shops, the multiple statues and the wonderful theatre. His talent, springing from this beautiful river-threaded corner of Warwickshire, remains breath-takingly timeless.
Shakespeare was just fifty-two when he died, an age at which many of us today are only just finding our true strength. In Woman of Certain Rage, Eliza visits his surprisingly humble grave in Trinity Church before walking along the riverside, determined to start living to the full. Like Marie Corelli, she may not be remembered in centuries to come, but that’s no excuse to take midlife lying down or accept second best.
“Age cannot wither her, not custom stale / Her infinite variety” Antony and Cleopatra
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