ANY reader or contributor to the Irish Examiner Books section would probably consider themselves a lover of words, but when author JR Thorp introduced herself as a writer and librettist, she felt the tangible pause. “I write opera lyrics; I know, it’s a confusing biography because no one seems to know what the word means.
Australian living in Cork City, author Jennifer says, “I studied creative writing at Oxford. My husband’s friend, composer Toby Young, complained about a commission to be accompanied by lyrics. My husband said — “My wife — she can write lyrics! This is how the work of the opera began.
Jennifer reveals how her new novel grew out of a subsequent doctorate in creative writing.
“For my thesis, I wrote this amazing, hilarious juggernaut that was novel but really fun. It taught me how to write a novel, which I then applied to Learwife.
Her first published novel Learwife is based on a once invisible queen. To quote his own words, King Lear’s wife was “unwritten”; barely mentioned in the Shakespearean play of the same name, she is presumed dead. Knowledge of the play is a plus but by no means required, its story begins where the play ends, with husband Lear and his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, all deceased.
“Word came out that he’s dead, now, and the girls.” And it’s over.
Banished to a convent until then, the book is a roller coaster of reflections on two marriages, a life in exile, the untimely death of his family and the mourning of two ungrateful daughters. The third daughter, Cordelia, she only imagines, having been banished by Lear to the convent when she was a baby.
“It was important to me that it was a first-person novel and that she had a defined character. As I worked, her voice became clear; she had a point of view, brutal in some ways and loving to others. Sometimes she’s unsympathetic. The main characters don’t have to be likable. You just have to accompany them on their journey.
The love for her daughters is clear everywhere, as is the love for both husbands.
“She has a great capacity for human connection. Sometimes she is funny and insightful. She likes to shock nuns. Even though she has blind spots, she understands the world. She’s been through a lot. People don’t have to like her all the time, just connect with her enough to keep going.
Writing is magic. Queen Lear states: “The world is an O, and is outside and inside, and falls through itself.
Like so many other women written out of history, when asked if she thought it was important to give this stranger a voice, Jennifer replied, “Yeah, I thought it was. a good idea. I thought someone else must have done it, but when I went hunting all I found was a Lear’s Wife poem by WS Merwin.
Learwife took five years to write. “The last bits were written on the (somewhat aptly named) Bookshelf cafe just off the South Mall in Cork City in what used to be a library.
“Upstairs, there is a workspace; I walked in literally every afternoon. In the middle of lockdown, when they were finally able to reopen, I walked in and said “the book I was writing”. It’s published’, they said ‘what?’. They literally had no idea what I had done.
Learwife can be hard reading; not only do we relive the memories of the violence and hostility she experienced in life, but we also see her as a child bride locked in a lonely marriage, coupled with her later union with an explosive King Lear . Subsequently ending in disaster, her greatest ally, Kent, called her “a greater queen than he was king.”
Neither marriage produced a male heir for the kingdoms. “I am the queen with two crowns, banished for fifteen years, the famous and golden woman, unlucky unlucky daughter, mother of three little animals, now missing. I am fifty-five years old. I am Lear’s wife. I’m here’.
While appreciating the language in Learwife as an art form, I expressed that while reading I sometimes felt like “it just didn’t work”.
Jennifer comes to the rescue with her writing. “It’s supposed to be a little crazy. The book has a lot of thick, dense prose. It’s the kind of book I wanted to write, a book where you read two pages, take a few nice things out of it and leave. If that’s too much, listen to the audiobook instead. Here, the writing really comes to life; it’s easy to have it in the car or somewhere you can listen to a page or two. It is read by actress Julia Stevenson in a voice that Jennifer describes as glorious and beautiful.
“I had a very talented pool of writers and editors, mostly from my master’s degree, to give me honest feedback.”
Writer Jing Jing Lee is one of his best friends. When asked what she thinks of the book, author Jennifer says, “I’m proud of it; I think it’s a beautiful thing. I’m really encouraged by the number of people who have read it and loved it. I set out to do a nice character portrait and I think I did it the best I could. It’s not perfect; I’m still learning to write novels, you’re learning all your life.
When it was released last November, Learwife was the Independent Bookstore’s Book of the Month, earning a list of Fiction Books of the Year 2021 from Waterstones. After receiving the Markievicz Prize from the Irish Arts Council, Jennifer is now focusing on a new novel. Created in honor of Constance de Markievicz – herself an artist – and the first woman elected to Parliament and appointed to the Cabinet – this fund helps artists develop new works that reflect the role of women in the period covered by the decade of centenarians 2012–2023.
“When they called me and told me I had it, it was a wonderful moment. You have to apply even if you think you have no chance in Haiti. You have to put yourself forward in hopefully someone will read your work and tune in. In that case, the Arts Council thought I had a good idea. Now I’m writing the first draft.
“When I was young, I loved books and I wanted to have a bookstore. Then my teacher told me that women don’t own bookstores. Maybe that was my defining moment, the reason I became a writer instead,” laughs Jennifer.
“I miss some things about Australia – the plants, the smells and the seasons, but not the politics. One of the things I love about Ireland is that people are open, like Australians. A part of my family was from Northern Ireland. I have high hopes for the resilience of the Irish art scene and a post-covid renaissance. There is so much good art of all genres in this country, and so much wonderful artists.
“Ireland has welcomed me both artistically and personally, it’s such a lovely place; I want to thank everyone for being so nice to me here. And, if anyone in the Irish operatic or operatic world wants a new lyricist, don’t forget, I’m here.
- Learwife by JR Thorp
- Canongate, €15.99