Angela Thirlwell is an experienced and highly regarded biographer. For her latest book, however, in very creative approach to biography, she’s chosen Shakespeare’s Rosalind as her subject. The result is a playful, insightful, and impeccably researched glimpse of the real Rosalind… even if how ‘real’ she can ever be is still a matter for debate.
In this guest blog post, Angela’s excitement about Wimbledon prompts new ideas about Rosalind’s legacy.
It’s Wimbledon fortnight and my daughter and I are lucky enough to have won two tickets through the public ballot for seats high up on No. 1 Court. The combination of guile and aggression in the modern women’s game made me suddenly ask myself if Shakespeare’s Rosalind would have played tennis? Of course, on one level, she couldn’t have played lawn tennis as played at Wimbledon today. The game as we know it hadn’t been invented. Tudor men like Henry VIII played real tennis, a breathless version of the game with small-headed wooden rackets and hard balls ricocheting off indoor walls and roof – rather like to squash. Women didn’t play lawn tennis at Wimbledon until 1884 about 20 years after the new game of lawn had become popular with men.
One of the chapters I found so much fun in writing for my book about Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It, was my very personal take on her ‘Afterlife – A woman for all time – Rosalind’s daughters’. I realised that so many of Rosalind’s descendants had been part of my reading landscape since I was a child, from Jo March in Little Women to Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Neither actually cross-dressed as a boy called Ganymede like Rosalind but Jo sheared off her hair and sold it to pay the family bills, and Lizzie tramped the fields six inches deep in mud, vaulting stiles and charging through puddles with scant concern for her delicate Regency petticoats. Like Rosalind, both Jo and Lizzie both took command and found themselves liberated by claiming the rights of their boyfriends or brothers.
Wimbledon fortnight makes me remember one tennis-playing daughter of Rosalind I left out of my chapter on her Afterlife. She’s John Betjeman’s wartime beauty, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, with her ‘strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!’ The young subaltern – or Betjeman himself – who worships her reminds me of Rosalind’s Orlando who played love games in the Forest of Arden and impaled his sonnets in her praise on its branches. Shakespeare’s love story unfolds through a series of duelling conversations – like the erotic geometry of tennis:
Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!
Darting about the court in her daring culottes or shorts, Joan’s appeal is as homoerotic as Rosalind’s. Betjeman’s subaltern almost swoons at the effect:
Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy.
In the year of Shakespeare400, who are the strong Rosalinds of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships? Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Johanna Konta. You can make your own list!