Susanna Hall: Her Book

Written by Jennifer Falkner
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Falkner’s debut novella covers three summer days in 1643, when Henrietta Maria, queen to Charles I of England, was traveling south to meet the king in Oxford during the early days of the Civil War. She is known to have stopped briefly in Stratford-upon-Avon. Falkner builds on this fact, imagining that as a patron of the theater, Henrietta Maria invites herself to New Place, home of the deceased William Shakespeare, now run by his daughter, Susanna Hall, locally known as a healer.

Susanna isn’t a royalist, and she’s hiding a local boy gravely injured in an attack on the queen’s party. To save herself and her family, she must keep her guests apart while keeping up appearances for the demanding queen in a time of high taxes and poor harvests.

Falkner narrates from three vantages: Susanna, Henrietta Maria, and Robin, the injured boy. Interspersed are instructions for Susanna’s potions for “bleared and bloodshoten eise” or “plague water” and some of the dishes she may have offered her guest, such as “a frigacy of rabbits.” While breaking the narrative, these recipes provide a fascinating taste of the times.

Because the novella lacks the historical context typical of the genre, some readers may want an Internet refresher on the period. Multiple points of view broaden the story at the expense of emotional connection to each character. However, readers interested in the Shakespeare family and how the cataclysm of the Civil War played out in the provinces will enjoy this unique perspective on the summer of 1643.