Review by Kimberley Snow
Bedtrick by Jinny Webber is her third novel about Alexander Cooke, a stage actor in Elizabethan England. The first book, The Secret Player, chronicles how a village girl, Kate Collins, becomes Master Cooke and makes her way to Shakespeare’s London. It follows her adventures and misadventures, including a love affair with the poet John Donne.
Dark Venus follows, continuing the on and off-stage life of Sander Cooke, as she is known, but concentrating on her friendship with Amelia Bassano Lanyer, an Italian beauty who was reputed to be the inspiration for the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets and later became a published poet in her own right.
Bedtrick continues Alexander Cooke’s theatrical chronology but is designed to stand alone, with her personal history subtly woven in. Now a hired man with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, she still generally plays female roles, with only a select few knowing her secret.
Early in the story, Sander discovers that her friend Frances, a seamstress who owns a dressmaking shop on London Bridge, is pregnant. The father is Sander’s brother Johnny, a fellow actor, who refuses to marry her.
When Sander confronts Johnny with his irresponsibility, he offers her an alternative. Why doesn’t she marry Frances? After all, she has the same last name. Sander is horrified. If discovered, they could be called out as witches. Public flogging would be the least of the dire consequences of two women marrying.
But if Frances births a bastard, she’ll lose her shop and her position as Queen Elizabeth’s Silkwoman. Out of friendship, Sander agrees to this marriage of necessity, complicated and risky though it is.
Throughout Bedtrick, Webber explores ideas of marriage itself as well as gender roles and societal assumptions—and the few who defy them. After their marriage, Sander and Frances deepen emotionally, despite the challenges to their union. In time they begin to explore the sensual pleasures of being women together. Webber has a delicate touch when dealing with the emotional and physical relationship between the two women as they tiptoe into unchartered, even unimagined territory.
The term “bedtrick” is defined as sex with a partner who pretends to be someone else. Two of Shakespeare’s plays, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure, make use of this plot device. In addition to being a literary device, traditions exist in other cultures in which a girl dresses up as a boy in order to sidestep patriarchal restrictions. In her book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, Jenny Nordberg explains a tradition called Bacha Posh: “For some girls, there has historically been a path to live, before puberty, as a boy. ‘Bacha posh,’ which in Dari means girl ‘dressed up as a boy,’ is an ancient tradition that predates the Taliban in which a family designates a girl to live as a boy. That could either allow her a boy’s freedoms — like education, athletics, and the right to be outside alone — or impose a boy’s duties on her, like working. The girls are expected to return at puberty, to become wives and mothers, whether they want to or not — and many don’t.”
Sander, who faked being male for similar freedoms, keeps her male identity beyond puberty. She’s made a life for herself as a man among the Lord Chamberlain’s Men where she feels relatively safe. Playing a husband, however, increases her risk.
In addition to the arc of Sander and Frances’ domestic life, much of the action of the book revolves around the stage. Central are the newly built Globe theatre and the plays Shakespeare wrote between 1599 and1603.
It might take a leap of imagination to go from viewing Shakespeare as revered and enshrined playwright and poet – long dead – to his active appearance in Bedtrick. Historically, he was also a working actor in his own plays, and to Sander, he’s a friend privy to her secret. When he asks her if she and Frances are happy together, she blurts out that they are not lovers “to whatever extent women can be.” He replies, “They can be. Kisses and tender embraces.” Good advice as it turns out.
Throughout Bedtrick, Sander and the cast prepare for new productions of such plays as Julius Caesar, Hamlet and As You Like It. As Shakespeare wrote his plays for his company, Sander wonders how he uses hers and Johnny’s complicated situation—and has her suspicions. Shakespeare’s fans will delight in details of staging and audience response. We also see the troupe provide both court and private stagings for Queen Elizabeth. Especially moving is the scene in which they perform Measure for Measure, hoping to cheer up the dying queen.
Short excerpts from the plays are liberally sprinkled throughout the book generally during rehearsals or productions. In addition, each chapter opens with a short quotation, setting the tone for the coming action. It isn’t hard to understand why Shakespeare has provided more quotes to our common culture than any source except the Bible.
Webber’s deep knowledge of both Shakespeare’s plays and the Elizabethan age provide a sense of authenticity to every page. Whether she is describing a dress fitting in a palace, a rowdy alehouse argument or a sweet domestic scene complete with the homey smell of baking bread, the characters and the times come alive.
The court, the aging Queen, the Earl of Essex and his threatened rebellion, and the question of who will succeed as ruler are all woven together into a satisfying whole with a glittering final scene. There’s something in the book to provide a special delight for the reader whether it be Sander and Frances’ marriage and the gender bending, the theatre, or political tensions and glimpses into the era. The book is written with kindness, sharp insight, wisdom and more than a touch of humor making it simply a damn good read.