In the opening scene of Jennifer Falkner’s novella Susanna Hall, Her Book, the queen of England has just arrived at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon.
But Susanna, the eldest daughter of William Shakespeare, has reasons for not wanting to host Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.
Read the excerpt below from Susanna Hall, Her Book (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2022). Jennifer Falkner is a short story writer living in Ottawa, Canada.
July 11, 1643
It is the summer of her sixty-first year. A year of turmoil up and down the country. The king has abandoned his seat in London and his army charges about fighting his own people. A year of exorbitant taxes. Poor harvests. Neighbours turning against each other. A year in which Susanna wonders how many years are left to her.
Such wondering makes the pleasures of the garden all the keener. The dew is still upon the ground. Yarrow and chamomile in the herb beds scent the air. She grows betony for headaches, clary for sore backs and to bring on a woman’s courses, catmint to soothe bruises, nightshade for tired eyes and sore throats. Bees bumble over the blooms, drunk from their plenty. The damask roses, their heads nodding like censers on Saints’ days when she was young, spread their heavy scent on the breeze. Though she is still tired from the exertions of yesterday, the anxious night spent at her patient’s bedside, she can’t resist the morning. It is the perfect time to collect rose petals, while their potency is at their peak, before the wilting July sun bears down on them.
Back in the days of the old queen, her father said people at court doused themselves in rose water, that Whitehall stank like a hothouse. But since the Scotch thistle had replaced the Tudor rose, demand for rose water from London has almost disappeared. It can still fetch a precious few shillings in Stratford though and for that reason it is worth the trouble. Fools think it an aphrodisiac. John’s papers say it has the power to quicken the blood. Whether it does or not, she doesn’t know. But she knows it does no harm.
Alice, bursting outside, startles her out of her reverie.
“What’s all this noise?” Susanna casts an anxious glance at an upstairs window, at battlements of grey clouds gathering along the gables. The summer has been challenging so far. So much rain. But at least the slugs and mosquitoes thrive.
She says breathlessly, “The Queen! The Queen is here, Mistress Hall. The Queen of England. To see you!”
* * *
“She asks, does the daughter of the playwright live here? And oh, she smells beautiful, like a garden. She talks funny though. Do all royalty talk so?”
“Slow down, girl. I expect she talks funny because she’s French. Where is she now?”
“I showed her into the parlour. Her and her soldier. He’s a handsome one too–”
“Alice, stop prattling. Go and offer them something. Claret will do. Elder-flower wine, if they prefer. I will be there in a minute.”
She must be calm. What was royalty after all? Her father met the old Queen once, saw the current King’s father many times. If he was equal to it, she could be too. She deposits her basket of flowers in the still room and, turning to wash her hands in the bucket by the kitchen door, sees a flash of movement. It can’t be. Not here. She hasn’t seen a rat since her last visit to London. Something about their hairless, worm-like tails and their needle-sharp teeth. Worse than any vole or shrew of the countryside. Her father said it was people that attracted the rats, that’s why London teemed with them. Nothing to be done but keep a good dog.
“Not a cat, Father?” Susanna had asked.
“No, Sue. Rats are ferocious when they’re cornered. Not like a mouse. A rat will fight back. You need size on your side.”
She peers behind the barrel, along the wall to the still room door, but whatever it was, a shadow, a rat or just her dread of one, is gone.
* * *
They sit at one end of the great hall, under the tall traceried window looking out over the garden to the orchard beyond. It smells heavily of wood polished with beeswax, the old hall, of dust and the faint, sharp smell of wood smoke from the yawning fireplace. Susanna glances up, as she always does, at the square glass panel above their heads, the only coloured pane, with her parents’ initials in yellow and red, bound in a lover’s knot.
Sitting in John’s favourite armchair, the one nearest the fireplace, chatting brightly, the Queen of England.
Susanna, hands clasped tightly, gives a deep curtsy. It’s a wonder she doesn’t lose her balance and fall, so unreliable suddenly are her knees. She’s uncomfortably aware how red her knuckles are from the hasty scrubbing in cold water, of the stubborn garden mud still pressed into the corners of her fingernails.
This child-woman, the queen, so small that when she stands she barely reaches Susanna’s shoulder, speaks in a light, pleasing voice. Susanna finds it hard to believe she is already the mother of six and something close to her own daughter in age.
“Mistress Hall, I am so pleased to meet you. Sir William Davenant said I would find a welcome here.”
Her eyebrows rise despite herself. “Indeed? That was generous of him. Considering we have never met.”
“But he knew your father.”
Susanna hesitates. “I believe that’s so.”
“It is a great pity about his nose, otherwise the resemblance would be clear, I am sure.”
“I beg your pardon, madam, but it would not, because there is no resemblance to be had. Sir William Davenant is no relation.”
“Is he not? I am misinformed.” Her tone says that she knows herself to be better informed than Susanna and pities her for it.
But Susanna remains silent. The tide of men claiming to be descendants of her father had ebbed years ago. She was always a disappointment to them, to all his admirers. Even to his colleagues when they used to visit the house. She thought obscurity was finally hers. Why should she ease the conversation for a woman who would sully her mother’s reputation, who descends on her home uninvited and unannounced? Even if she is the Queen.
“I am such an admirer of his plays. We have them performed at court often. Do you have his likeness?”
There is a small trunk under her bed upstairs, filled to the brim with his words, foul copies she can’t bring herself to burn.
More his likeness than any painting.
“Sadly not, Your Majesty. My father was an impatient man and disliked sitting for a portrait. There is a bust in Holy Trinity, if you would care to visit, that is a near-enough likeness. It is the town’s memory of what he was like.”
“Yes, yes, I must do that,” she says, clearly with no intention of it. Her fingers, now pinching and rolling small folds of her skirt, refuse to sit still.
The erect figure at her side, which Susanna has begun to think of as a statue, finally speaks. “Do you live alone, Mistress Hall?” By his accents another foreigner, though not French like the Queen.
“Except for my servant, Alice. And my daughter and her husband.” She glances towards the other window, which looks forward to the courtyard and the gatehouse they must have just come through, where a movement has caught her eye. Men, some standing, some on horseback, fill the gravelled square. The sun flashes on metal. A sabre? The Queen has brought an army, it seems.
“And where is he, your son-in-law?”
“Thomas? In London at present, sir. He is a lawyer.” She shudders to think how quickly the news of her guests would have spread already had he been home to witness their arrival.
Her answer seems to satisfy. He nods and, after a brief exchange in an undertone with the Queen, exits the hall. His leather boots squeal with each step.
“You mustn’t mind Rupert. He is my nephew and my safety is always his first concern. Unfortunately the army has left his manners rather rough.” She leans forward and lowers her voice. “You see, we came here in complete secrecy. No one must know I am here.”
“I understand, Your Majesty.” Actually Susanna understands nothing of why the Queen of England is suddenly in her house, sipping from her mother’s red-glazed beaker and expressing admiration for her father who has been dead for nearly thirty years.
This excerpt from Susanna Hall, My Book was used with permission. Copyright © 2022 Jennifer Falkner