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Ghostwriter - Shakespeare, Literary Landmines, and an Eccentric Patron's Royal Obsession


Shakespeare, Literary Landmines, and an Eccentric Patron's Royal Obsession

By Lawrence Wells
Hardcover : 9781496852434, 216 pages, 10 b&w illustrations, July 2024

Two people, principal and ghostwriter, collaborate on the controversial story of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and his alleged affair with Queen Elizabeth I.


Part literary mystery, part an examination of what constitutes fiction versus reality, Ghostwriter is based on the true story of author Lawrence Wells, then 45, hired by the University of Mississippi in 1987 to ghostwrite a novel for a wealthy, eccentric donor (“Mrs. F,” then 75), who was convinced that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was William Shakespeare. Believing herself to be the reincarnation of Queen Elizabeth I, Mrs. F treated ghostwriter Wells as a “captive” Edward de Vere.

Their roller-coaster literary collaboration dramatized Elizabeth and de Vere’s romance, which according to legend produced a son (Henry Wriothesley) born in secret. Henry grew up to become the 3rd Earl of Southampton, who is universally acknowledged as “The Fair Youth” of Shakespeare’s sonnets and whose real-life descendants include Princess Diana and her sons, Prince Harry and William, Prince of Wales.

Wells and his late wife, Dean Faulkner Wells, niece of William Faulkner, traveled to England to research the life of Edward de Vere and interview proponents of the Shakespeare authorship debate. That summer, London tabloids headlined the royal breakup of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, incidentally echoing Wells and Mrs. F’s tempestuous love story about Edward de Vere and Queen Elizabeth I.

Flashbacks weave several elements together—the seventeenth-century mystery of Queen Elizabeth’s “royal bastard,” Wells’s evolving relationship with his eccentric patron, his search for the “real” Shakespeare, and the bawdy Elizabethan narrative he composed for his benefactor. The stories merge, leading to a surprising conclusion.


"Wells is a skilled storyteller, and his ability to capture the uncanny, metafictional nature of ghostwriting is by turns profound and comic: ‘To think like Mrs. F is to don an imaginary kimono. Since she’s not here, as ghostwriter it’s my duty to represent her. I’ve learned to imitate her style of composition, to write in jerks and starts, reacting to someone else’s ideas. The next logical step is to anticipate her thoughts.’ His quixotic quest concerns literary history but also family histories, as well as the stories people tell themselves to contextualize their confusing place in the world."

- Kirkus Reviews

"Wonderfully funny and witty, veers from bathos to magic, from subtle to sublime. I felt as if I were entering a dusty maze, a strange mad place where nothing is as it seems. It gave me goose bumps and made me laugh in equal measure. I was hooked from the first paragraph, and it got better."

- Rosemary Kingsland, coauthor of Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles and author of The Secret Life of a Schoolgirl: A Memoir

"This book is outright wonderful! Brilliantly conceived. Very clever and falling-down funny. I admire how Wells weaves together the stories of his literary quest, his working relationship with 'Mrs. F,' a literary tour of England, and his wife Dean's obsession with the breakup of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. It all fits and is a very clever construction. Mrs. F is an unforgettable character."

- David Sheffield, former head writer at Saturday Night Live and co-screenwriter of Coming to America, Boomerang, and The Nutty Professor

"Everything about the book is right. . . . It’s brilliant."

- Kathleen Wallace King, author of Maybelleen: A Novel and The True Life Story of Isobel Roundtree: A Novel

"Mixing the past and present, the facts and fiction, the literary memoir Ghostwriter approaches the history behind a controversial literary theory from an intriguing perspective."

- Julia Dillman, Foreword Reviews