Stuart Kells’ Shakespeares’ Library book review: in search of the ‘literary conspiracy’

Stuart Kells is a rare kind of writer. He is able to tackle global economic power on one hand, and, on the other, write with panache and credibility about whether Shakespeare was a literary conspiracy. He has a friendly, warm style, and packs in heaps of information without lecturing.

If ours were a more populous country – where it was less risky for publishers to take a punt on showcasing unclassifiable authors – this erudite, careful, generous intellectual would be very well known by now. But in this Australia, at this time, where the word “erudite” makes us nervous, Kells’s unassuming brilliance is probably undervalued.  

Kells’s book is a compendium of bibliographical deceit and obsession (and yes, along the way both Dan Brown and Umberto Eco get a mention).

This is not to suggest that he’s being overlooked by publishers – just that the whole apparatus for getting books out to readers and building interest in and access to books such as those Kells writes is now predicated on simplicity, because it’s necessary to shout to be heard. A good, strong, predictable chant is the best bet. That’s why we are more familiar with all kinds of writers whose books can seems very much like lots of others. (And why a non-commercial ABC is so important.)

Kells lives in Melbourne and has just become an adjunct professor in La Trobe University’s Business School. He has always been a book collector, writing about how he got the bug young, searching for pulp fiction treasures and discovering the pleasure of fossicking at markets and second-hand book shops. It was writing a biography of Melbourne antiquarian book dealer Kay Craddock (Rare, published in 2011) that appears to have sparked what has flamed into an impressive array of books.

As his “other” career as an economist and academic was developing apace with roles in business and government, he was also researching the three Lane brothers whose company, Penguin Books, revolutionised publishing. In 2015 Black Inc published Penguin and the Lane Brothers, and in 2016 Stuart and his wife, fellow collector Fiona Wells, teamed up with Louise Paton and Richard’s daughter Elizabeth Lane to edit Outback Penguin. This was a volume of the diaries of Richard Lane, the brother who had come to South Australia in 1922 as a farm apprentice or “Barwell boy”. 

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Stuart Kells

In 2017, Text published The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, and this year we have Shakespeare’s Library, subtitled “Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature”.  If that weren’t enough for over-achieving Stuart, he also teamed up with Ian Gow to write The Big Four, about the history of global accounting firms, published earlier this year by La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc. The subtitle is Kellsian: “The curious past and perilous future of the global accounting monopoly”. 

That brings us to Shakespeare’s Library – which doesn’t actually bring us to Shakespeare’s Library at all. If Kells were less reliable, we’d get him “solving” the mystery about why there is so little material evidence that the greatest writer in the history of English literature actually existed, let alone wrote such a huge and memorable body of work. Instead, we get an “unlocking”: and while that might seem like a cop-out, it accurately describes this book’s strategy. Shakespeare’s Library finds a way into a topic that is daunting because of the volume of comment based on a distressingly small amount of information. And it does so with both humour and respect; what could easily be dry and inaccessibly arcane information is delivered with a lightness and energy that make it very attractive. 

In our era, when individuality is admired above all and the “hero” is an aspirational identity, the genius artist/writer is embedded firmly in our cultural assumptions.

Kells states in his introduction why the mystery of what happened to Shakespeare’s own books and papers is so intriguing and important. It’s the absence of written proof about the Bard’s life that has opened up so much conjecture and spawned so many theories about his identity. Two “regrettable traditions” have made the search much more convoluted: “the long tradition of Shakespeare forgery, and an even longer tradition of bad Shakespearean scholarship”. Kells might call it “regrettable”, but he also revels in it all, from the ingenious code-breakers who find the truth about Shakespeare hidden in the texts, to the daring liars who forge manuscripts. Kells’s book is a compendium of bibliographical deceit and obsession (and yes, along the way both Dan Brown and Umberto Eco get a mention, the latter in a way that has made me want urgently to re-read Foucault’s Pendulum).

Occasionally, the listing of bibliophiles and the books they seek is a bit too specialist, but it’s easy to forgive this indulgence as it rarely slows the story down for long. In recompense, there’s so much information here that sets the record straight about things such as how the First Folio came to be printed and why it became known as the “real” text (and why it most definitely is not). 

Along the way we meet friends of Kells who are convinced that it was Sir Henry Neville, not Shakespeare, who wrote the plays and poems. Kells doesn’t agree, because the scant evidence in favour of Neville (or Sir Francis Bacon, if he’s your favourite) doesn’t add up to Shakespeare not being the writer, even though there are, to be sure, yawning gaps in the record which would prove once and for all that he was.

Kells pieces together this puzzle to suggest that it’s not quite as weird as our retrospective view perceives it to be. In our era, when individuality is admired above all and the “hero” is an aspirational identity, the genius artist/writer is embedded firmly in our cultural assumptions. To refer that identity back on to a late-Renaissance playwright is, Kells reminds us, problematic. It has led to all kinds of ingenious theories that cut corners in order to shape the Shakespearean square peg into history’s round hole. So to speak.

“Understanding how the plays and poems were actually created takes us a long way in the Authorship Question and the library mystery,” he writes. Rather than the writer alone at his desk penning “Now is the winter of our discontent…” and continuing until the ink dries on “finis”, the Shakespeare Kells paints for us is “newly sized”: a “collaborative, phased, production-line” picture of a man who was not only a genius but also, maybe, a little bit of all the images of him that have exercised so many imaginations from his own time through to ours. 

So, the mystery isn’t solved, and while it is still very odd indeed that the great Bard is an enigma, it’s a lot less odd and actually a lot more interesting when you’ve read Kells. 

Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the greatest mystery in literature by Stuart Kells is published by Text, $34.99

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