Delia Bacon: Hawthorne's Last
On 28 July 1856, Nathaniel Hawthorne visited for an hour in London with a compatriot, Delia Bacon. Bacon, forty-five years old at the time, had been living in London for three years writing a book about the true authorship of the plays falsely attributed, as she believed, to William Shakespeare. Hawthornes sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody had been urging this meeting on him for some time, for Bacon had quickly become a favorite among the liberal literati of Boston and Cambridge after she moved there from New Haven in 1849.
Besides being attractive, vivacious, and intellectual, Bacon had been victimized in a nasty little scandal, no less nasty for being little, that fractured the New Haven Congregational community in 1847. Her brother Leonard Bacon, a minister, formally accused Alexander McWhorter, also a minister, of attempting to evade an engagement with Delia Bacon by defaming her. Leonard was backed by the town clergy, McWhorter by the Yale faculty. The evidence supported Leonard's claim, but the church proceedings that followed produced only the equivalent of a slap on the wrist for the culprit and exposed Delia Bacon to public humiliation. The examiners decided that though McWhorter had indeed calumniated Delia Bacon, her innocently indiscreet behavior had more or less invited it; therefore the harsh penalty sought by Leonard-defrocking-was not warranted.
The bad showing by the Yale Congregationalists in this episode delighted Boston Unitarians, and endeared Delia Bacon especially to the women. She was warmly received when she moved to Boston to support herself, as she had supported herself for many years, by giving group lessons in history to women in their homes. About a year after her arrival, Bacon began to deliver her historical lessons as public lectures; a year later she moved to New York and repeated the lectures on the public stage. Hawthorne might have learned about these events from Peabody or through the newspapers; if so, Bacon's circumstances as a woman scapegoated by a self-protective religious establishment might have been echoed in The Scarlet Letter, while her stint at public lecturing might have influenced his depictions of Zenobia and Priscilla in The Blithedale Romance. By the time he met her in person, however, the McWhorter scandal and her lecturing career were over; she was now completely driven by the idea that the historical Shakespeare had not written the plays attributed to him.
The conviction that this actual personage had been paid to front for works written collaboratively by a society of Elizabethan statesmen headed by Francis Bacon had first dawned on her before she moved to Boston, and as time passed she became increasingly certain that it was her destiny to make the existence of this society and its authorship of the plays known to the world.' In her view the society was necessarily a secret one, its authorship of the plays concealed, not because of any scorn attached to courtiers who wrote plays, but because the plays were politically incendiary. To simplify her complex argument, she saw the plays as briefs for and expositions of the principles of republican government in opposition to the monarchial despotism represented in and enforced by Queen Elizabeth. As student and teacher of history-to be sure, "history" for her did not mean what it means today-Bacon was far more interested in the historical than the literary implications of her theory (or, as she saw it, her discovery). She had long thought of drama as a unique teaching instrument through which an elite might instruct the masses, and had even published a Shakespearean play herself about the American Revolution, The Bride of Fort Edward, designed to instruct the populace in patriotism.
The possibility-to Bacon, the certainty-that a secret society of courtiers devoted to republican ideals had existed in Elizabeth's day and had tried to reach the masses surreptitiously through drama constituted a major revision, not only of a standard English history, but of standard United States history as well. American history written from the New England perspective (as it largely was before the Civil War) regularly claimed that American republican ideals originated among the Calvinist Puritans and emigrated to these shores along with them. Bacon's find, displacing republicanism from bourgeois Puritans to Church of England aristocrats, deprived New England Calvinism of its originary historical claim, and, indeed, struck more generally at American exceptionalism.
Shakespeare was already an established cultural institution in the United States by the late 1840s, and those who heard Bacon talk about her theory and who took it at all seriously urged her to bolster her assertions with concrete evidence. It was not enough, they pointed out, to demonstrate that the historical Shakespeare was an unlikely person to have written the plays; and, they insisted, literary interpretations, no matter how provocative, could never substitute for concrete facts. Like many another textualist, Bacon found her readings of the works absolutely convincing; but she bowed to pressure, garnered financial aid from patrons and family, and went to England ostensibly in search of proof.
In England, however, Bacon did not search for material evidence. Rather, she worked at refining and extending her interpretations to make their arguments ever more self-evident. That is, she continued to act as though extrinsic evidence was not really necessary to her case, as though the text itself contained all the proof required. (Here she betrayed her long exposure to and immersion in the traditional art of biblical exegesis.) Bacon also made a bad strategic mistake by publishing an attack on Shakespeare-the ground-clearing, she said, for her graver performance of the plays as political treatises-in Putnam's in January 1856. The response to this article was so negative that Putnam's declined to publish any more of her project.
When Hawthorne met her she was living in great poverty and in a state of near-despair because she had no idea how to get her book (which took the form of a long historical preamble and extended close readings of three plays: King Lear, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus) into print. Hawthorne evinced an interest in the work that went beyond mere politeness, and soon after their meeting she sent him the manuscript. He and Sophia read it, Sophia thought it brilliant, and Hawthorne undertook to see that it was published. He negotiated with publishers and with the increasingly anxious and emotionally volatile author; eventually he not only wrote an introduction for the book but also subvented publication costs. Thanks to him, then, Bacon's book of almost seven hundred pages, The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded, came out in London and Boston in 1857.
With the manuscript finally at the press, Delia Bacon left London for Stratford and finally, briefly, faced the challenge of finding the extrinsic evidence that she still continued to think she did not need. In deciding what to look for she reasoned, first, that the society would have left documentary evidence of its existence; and second, that the prohibition against moving Shakespeare's bones probably meant the documents were buried in the grave. But at Stratford she lingered and lingered without doing anything. Once, and once only, she visited the grave inside the Stratford church to test her conclusions in some unspecified way. Gaining permission to remain after closing time, she spent perhaps three hours there. In a letter dated 16 October 1856, she described this episode to Hawthorne. This, the only account she seems to have written of her visit, was republished in an 1888 biography by a nephew; but long before then Hawthorne had used it in the Stratford essay called "Reflections of a Gifted Woman," which appeared first in the Atlantic Monthly and then in Our Old Home.
In this essay Hawthorne portrayed Bacon as a combination of his two major character types: the individual whose obsession determines the shape of the inner and outer life, and the antinomian heroine who defies social conventions. The character who most prefigures her is Catherine of "The Gentle Boy," but this character type is filtered through the memorable sequence initiated by Hester Prynne. Assimilating Bacon to his own world, Hawthorne inevitably discounted Bacon's own view of her project. He deprecated the particular content of her theory, going so far as to transform her bardophobia into an unconscious manifestation of bardolotry:
Hawthorne would never have fixated on Shakespeare had the plays not been icons of the culture and had Bacon not accepted them as masterpieces. There is considerable rhetorical canniness in this way of handling her theory. Since the Putnam's article had been so badly received, he likely realized he could pacify those for whom Shakespeare was sacrosanct by pointing up the obvious reverence for the plays that underlay her attack on the presumed author, and by ignoring her obvious class bias against the unlettered butcher's son whom she thought Shakespeare to be.
At the same time, it was Hawthorne's essay that put into circulation knowledge of Bacon's visit to the church, explained her reasons for undertaking it, and-by attaching his account of Bacon to Stratford and writing five virtuoso pages about Bacon's visit to the church-made what was only a brief, belated, tangential episode in her crusade against Shakespeare into the centerpiece of her campaign.
This description of Bacon's project follows the English Notebooks' account of Hawthornes meeting with Bacon (387); no other record of this meeting exists besides his. Perhaps she did tell him among much else that she had come to England and stayed there for three years only to obtain possession of "material and unquestionable proofs"; her behavior in England lent no support to this rationale, as Hawthorne might easily have observed. He seemingly doubted many parts of her story, but not this.
Yet, as we have seen, Bacon's activities in England make it absolutely clear that she had no desire to look for extrinsic evidence of Shakespeare's non-authorship. She set out on her evidence-hunting expedition belatedly and, it is fair to suppose, reluctantly, given how long she had deferred it, given that she lived in Stratford for a few months before going to the church, and given that she went there once only. She was a speculator not a fact-finder, whose heart was in her interpretations and not in empirical research. Perhaps Hawthorne gave the grave-digging motive particular weight to counteract the bad impression that a stubborn disbelief in the need for factual confirmation might make on American audiences, as well as to justify her long expatiation. It certainly would not do to stress the Anglophilic challenge to American historiography contained in her work.
Then, for his account of her visit to the church, Hawthorne used her letter to him, the only first-hand record of that visit. And here one sees another attraction of the grave-digging motif. Bacon's letter, published a quarter-century later in her nephew's biography of her, reveals a visit of quite a different character from the one Hawthorne represented. Her letter to Hawthorne is much concerned to justify the failure of her excursion. Over and over again she explains-without saying what she intended to do-why she didn't do it.
Bacon registers the presence of the hovering clerk as a check on her plans, not as a spur to action. Her expedition has failed; she justifies her failure to Hawthorne by pleading her moral responsibility to this clerk. The tone all along is anxious and defensive, not proudly defiant.
Guy Fawkes certainly suggests rebellious intentions, but the rest of the description is modest and almost self-deprecatory, although written with considerable literary flair. Hawthorne transformed it into a spectacular and much longer tour de force of psychological Gothic in which Bacon emerges unambiguously as a heroine of the true Hawthorne type:
One could write a great many pages unpacking this paragraph and the way in which it revises Bacon's letter. Bacon's letter did not specify either the task she proposed to carry out or the implements with which she proposed to perform it. Hawthorne did not invent implements for her, but his description invites readers to think that she had brought a shovel with her, since gravedigging was her object. Bacon may have brought nothing more than a yardstick to measure the grave's dimensions; or she may have brought nothing more than a lantern. The obsession with physical digging in Hawthome's story is more his own than hers. It echoes the innumerable metaphors of subterranean concealment, buried treasure, and underground corpses that run through his work.
Bacon writes of the unseen bust of Shakespeare looking down at her and the clerk's creaking footsteps; in Hawthome's rewriting these Gothic undertones balloon until they eclipse the rest of her account. Bacon's letter confesses enormous anxiety, discomfort, even fear. Hawthorne insists that she was unafraid; his Bacon, serene in her sense of right, seems to have come to the church expressly for the Revolutionary encounter that Hawthorne causes to happen, in which she valiantly confronts and defies the terrific authority of the bard who has simultaneously come down from his pedestal and risen from the dead. In brief, there is the outline of an unwritten novel here that would supplement the stories of Hester, Zenobia, and Miriam with the tale of one more Hawthornean heroine.
Soon after The Philosophy of Shakespeares Plays Unfolded was published, Bacon suffered a severe psychotic breakdown. A relative brought her home to the United Sates; she died in an institution just two years later. Boston readers of Hawthornes essay in the Atlantic would read "Recollections of a Gifted Woman" with knowledge of this miserable ending to her life story, and recognize how he was working to rehabilitate Bacon's reputation. In his biography, Bacon's nephew Theodore justified publication of certain segments of the Bacon-Hawthorne correspondence by making Hawthorne a hero in Bacon's life.
There is no point in chastising Hawthorne for presenting Delia Bacon to the world in a way that only partly recognized her own concerns. And it would be wrong to say that his presentation trivialized her, even though it clearly distorted her. Indeed, his depiction of an intrepid woman facing down Death himself resonates with a transcendental and revolutionary feminism that Bacon's own work does not obviously contain and which she herself would probably have rejected. Bacon imagined herself as the belated rescuer of a group of noble male spirits who had been silenced during their lives by a powerful woman: "The faith, the lives, the liberties, the dearest earthly hopes, of England's proudest subjects, her noblest, her bravest, her best, her most learned, her most accomplished, her most inspired, might be at the mercy of a woman's caprices" (Philosophy xxxiii). After the deaths of these great men, Bacon believed, the historical facts had been buried by the success of a vulgar imposter.
She imagined herself as a heroine whose mission went far beyond rescuing just this group of men. Her task was to rescue History itself from the grip of a powerful falsehood. "History rest in me a clue," she wrote in broken syntax shortly before her death (Hopkins 248). Moreover, by reconstituting the messages of Shakespeare's plays as well as establishing their authorship, she hoped to remind people of these messages at a moment when they were badly needed and, thus, to put History back on target. Was this ambition a response to the decline of republican principles, as she understood them, in her own country? Or to the failure of republican revolutions in western Europe in 1848? A literary critic despite her commitment to material history, she truly believed that proper interpretations of literary works could affect the course of human events.
To Hawthorne this could be nothing but the kind of self-deceived grandiosity for which he had little sympathy, as the anti-heroes of "The Man of Adamant" and "Ethan Brand" among many examples make clear. But, evidently, Hawthorne saw more in Bacon than her obsession. His stories and novels, as we know, cycle around repeatedly to the quarrel between the children of New England and their Puritan fathers, to the failed but moving resistance of those who want to free their lives from the grip of established authority. Hawthorne chose to read Bacon's hostility to Shakespeare as another instance of this resistance, to see in her Shakespeare a substitute or symbol for the real object of her hatred, the New England Calvinism that had so cruelly betrayed her. He recorded in his journal after meeting her that what had most disturbed Bacon about her discovery was that "the philosophy, which she found under the surface of the plays," ran "counter to the religious doctrines in which she had been educated" (English Notebooks 388).
In "Recollections of a Gifted Woman" Bacon is represented as one more--the last-in Hawthornes line of principled women who stand up for their rights as human beings against the law of the dead father. And this last time he provided something like a happy ending to this regularly tragic plot via an imagined rapprochement between the rebellious child and the defied parent:
The rapprochement, however, is bitter-sweet, since it recertifies the father's authority and brings Delia Bacon back into the fold only through his loving forgiveness. In the better world she will have the unquestionable proof she was looking for-proof positive that her theory was wrong.
Hawthorne did not believe her theory and he should not have believed it. No evidence of the existence of a secret society of play-writing Elizabethan courtiers has ever been discovered, and Bacon's reading of the personages in Elizabeth's court-including Elizabeth herself-would be completely unacceptable to present-day historians of the early modem period. But his appreciation for Delia Bacon's courage and sympathy for her plight had everything to do with its longevity. Without his subvention and introduction, her book would not have been published. The essay in Our Old Home was the best publicity her work ever received. It put the question of Shakespeare's authorship of the plays into cultural play once and, apparently, for all. The focus on what Shakespeare's grave might conceal made this the main item on the agendas of all anti-Stratfordians thereafter, no matter whom their candidate for author might happen to be. If, as the Shakespeare scholar Samuel Schoenbaum believes, the heart of the anti-Stratfordian project is a hatred of authority (608), then after all Hawthorne got Delia Bacon just the hearing that she would have wanted.
1 For Delia Bacon's life I am drawing from Theodore Bacon, Beecher, Hopkins, and Deese as well as my own researches into Bacon's work and the contours of standard historiography in the antebellum era. This essay is developed from a talk given at a Nathaniel Hawthorne Society session at the 1993 MLA convention in Toronto. I am grateful to colleagues in early modem literature at the University of Illinois-Howard Cole, David Kay, Carol Neely, Arnold Stein, and Richard Wheeler-for informative discussions about the content of Bacon's theories.
2For the role of history in women's education see my "At Home with History." For an overview of women's substantial production of historical writings, see my American Women Writers and the Work of History (forthcoming) and essays on individual women in my Feminism and American Literary History.
3 Delia Bacon did not claim kinship with Francis Bacon. Although she made him the leader of her imagined society, she saw the plays as collaborative productions by the society, not as single-authored works.
*Originally published in the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 20.2 (Fall 1994): 1-10.