An exploration of Susanna Hall
By Manon Martini
‘Witty above her sex, but that’s not all’: Ailsa Grant Ferguson and the first in-depth exploration of Susanna Hall
University of Brighton Principal Lecturer in Literature, Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson, has been awarded a £300,000 Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Research, Development and Engagement Fellowship to undertake the first ever in-depth study of Susanna Hall (1583-1649) in a collaborative research project with major heritage organisation, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Known primarily for her relation to her father, William Shakespeare, and her husband, the renowned physician John Hall, Susanna has been reduced to a footnote in the historical discourse concerning the men to whom she was related. When she hasn’t been erased from the narrative altogether, she is insidiously portrayed as the archetypal woman that reinforces the patriarchal ideology of the twenty-first century. From the moody older sister in Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet to the arduous daughter in Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow and even the treacherous wife in Kenneth Branagh’s All is True, Susanna’s womanhood is exploited and contorted to underpin the cultural stereotypes we continue to hold about women: that they are weak, they cannot be trusted, and they are inferior to men.
Ailsa’s AHRC-funded project will refute this tiresome narrative- reaching back to the original sources that document Susanna's life to dismantle and reconstruct the way we remember her, rectifying her sideline position within our cultural heritage and uncovering the many different Susannas that may have existed- the mother, the healer, the kind soul and the brilliant mind.
Who was Susanna?
In an interview with Ailsa about the project, she pointed out how sources we now hold documenting Susanna’s life are sparse- as is the nature of early modern documents. This makes it difficult to derive a concrete, singular answer to the question of who Susanna was. Up until now, the documents available have sometimes been manipulated to promote patriarchal gender stereotypes of women as dull or unfaithful. What Ailsa and the Birthplace Trust set out to do through this project is not uncover new documents but instead, return to the available sources to “draw some different speculations about who Susanna might have been.
Ailsa used the example of Cooke’s preface to John Hall’s Casebook, which is considered the only physical account of someone “chatting with” Susanna to demonstrate this speculative approach to historical documentation. The preface recounts how Cook met his match in Hall through a heated transactional discussion over the authorship of some literature that he assumed to be her husband’s. Susanna argued that the writing was not John Hall’s and after some verbal jousting a defeated Cook paid her and left. Whilst the dominant historical discourse concludes that Susanna couldn't even read and was in fact trying to haggle Cook for money, Ailsa ‘flips the script’ through the project’s new perspective to consider whether perhaps Susanna transcribed the notes herself or knew more about their value. Through revisiting this documented account of Susanna, we can move away from the common assumption that she was an illiterate haggler and indulge in the possibility of this intellectually savvy early modern woman, capable of handling money and distinguishing the provenance of paperwork. One can only imagine the impact that this new historical understanding of Susanna might have on modern attitudes towards women. - particularly in the work sphere.
Revisiting original documentation, Ailsa also looks to the Lane/Hall slander trial. In the summer of 1613, a man named John Lane accused Susanna of having an affair with local haberdasher Rafe Smith. For women of the period, reputation was vital to their position within society and Lane’s slander could have been catastrophic for Susanna. The importance of reputation and the early modern cultural fear of being ‘cuckholded’ can be seen even in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Othello, Much Ado About Nothing and A Winter’s Tale all demonstrate these social anxieties around adultery. In a society founded upon the mere assumption that a man's son was his own, we know that the kind of accusations Lane made would have been detrimental for a woman- yet the Worcester consistory court ruled in Susanna’s favour, and she emerged from the trial socially unscathed. Why then, Ailsa asks, do we still insist on presenting Susanna in modern media as the guilty adulteress? Why are we clinging to this narrative even today, even when the evidence is stacked in Susanna’s favour? Revisiting these historical accounts, Ailsa is ultimately exposing our deep-rooted cultural attitudes towards women that infiltrate every sphere of our lives.
Ailsa also touched upon Susanna’s epitaph as a great source for speculation over who Susanna was. Susanna’s gravestone reads:
“Witty above her sex, but that’s not all, Wise to salvation was good Mistris Hall, Something in Shakespeare was in that, but this Wholy of him with whom she’s now in bliss. Then, Passenger, hast nere a teare, To weepe with her that wept with all That wept, yet set her self to chere Them up with comforts cordiall. Her love shall live, her mercy spread When thou has’t ner’e a teare to shed.”
Ailsa highlights how ‘comforts cordial’ could refer to Susanna’s medicinal cures, whilst the line ‘her that wept with all’ is evocative of her kindness and compassion. The epitaph reveals a palimpsest of skills and qualities- Susanna the doctor, the wise woman or even just the kind-hearted neighbour. Ailsa concluded that “What we’ve got is a woman who historically has been noted as quite dull. Who really was she? Well, I don't accept that she was illiterate, and I don't accept that she was adulterous. We have a person who is well-loved, clever, wealthy, educated, potentially treating patients, and potentially writing.”
Why Is this research important?
“This is like bidding for my grant again!” Ailsa exclaimed as we discussed the multitude of social, historical and literary spheres for which this research is vital. “We do not remember early modern women enough. We do not consult them. We do not learn from them”, Ailsa argues. In the broadest sense, this exploration of Susanna is a vital tool in the dismantling of the current social and historical narrative that misrepresents early modern women and supports modern patriarchy.
As well as women’s histories more generally, Ailsa argues that “It’s important that we have histories of women who weren't just the ruling classes”. Those most prominent in our cultural heritage achieve notability due to their positions as aristocrats, countesses and dukes- it is only through her father's monolithic position that we have even come to remember Susanna at all. “So, now we do,” Ailsa continues, “it gives us the opportunity to understand how women of the middling sort lived, and through that help us understand how more people lived”, therefore diversifying our understanding of our country’s cultural heritage through intersectionality.
On a smaller scale, Ailsa considers the individual- Susanna. “We’ve got a woman here whom I find fascinating in herself. Maybe she wrote this amazing epitaph? Maybe she wrote to her mother in Latin? Maybe she wrote or transcribed her husband’s case notes? Maybe she was treating patients? There are a lot of maybes that make her specifically very fascinating.” Susanna is a figure completely at odds with what we have come to assume the early modern woman was.
How has your time at Stratford-Upon-Avon impacted your research?
Ailsa spoke of Hall’s Croft (which is currently closed to the public) and the inaccessibility of the delicate building for those with disabilities or additional needs. She highlighted how “the project always set out to widen Hall’s Croft’s accessibility” both physically and conceptually. This is where Halls Croft’s Garden comes into play as a site of spatial significance for the project. Ailsa described the planned physical outputs of her research as “digital and outdoor” as opposed to actually inside the fragile house. As well as accessibility, the decision to move away from the Halls Croft building to produce an outdoor soundscape stemmed from an ecofeminist perspective concerned with environmentalism and the ways in which we can explore women's history sustainably to promote gender equality effectively. Simultaneously, digital elements within the sensory garden will “create that sense of inclusion, visually and audibly”, and bring early modern women into the twenty-first century for as many people as possible. Susanna’s garden will act as a site of cultural heritage for all.
As our time together drew to a close, Ailsa wondered “If Shakespeare had had an eldest son, would we have heard a bit more about him? Would people have imagined him a great writer, too?” She said she was being contentious- I think she makes a good point! It is projects like Ailsa’s that will begin to undo the years of misogynistic ideology bound up within our cultural heritage and therefore begin to repair the systemic damage within our social landscape more widely. It's projects like this that remind us of the cultural and social significance of our practice and scholars in the humanities- I can't wait to see how it unfolds!