Canongate has snapped up a debut literary novel, which imagines the life of King Lear's wife in the "vein of feminist alternative histories such as Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad or Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls".
Commissioning editor Jo Dingley acquired world rights including audio to Learwife by J R Thorp from Claire Paterson Conrad at Janklow & Nesbit. Learwife will publish in May 2021.
Taking inspiration from two lines in Shakespeare’s play, in which the queen is a character only mentioned twice, Learwife gives voice to "one of the most famous female characters ever written out of literary history", said the publisher.
Set in Medieval Britain, Lear’s queen has been in exile in an abbey for five years, since the birth of her youngest daughter, for an unknown offence,. After discovering the devastating deaths of her husband and daughters, the queen encourages the women of the abbey into a competition for her approval, a competition which quickly devolves into savagery.
Dingley says Thorp's first novel "reads like her 20th. It’s hard to believe that it has taken over 400 years for this vital female character to be given a voice, but Jen is just the writer to do it."
Thorp was born in Australia and is now living in Cork. She gained her PhD at the University of Oxford, where she was a Clarendon Scholar. Thorp won the London Short Story Award in 2011, has had creative work published in the Cambridge Literary Review, Manchester Review, antiTHESIS and Wave Composition. She is also a lyricist and librettist and her scores have been published by OUP and Editions Peters. She wrote the libretto for the highly acclaimed recent modern opera "Dear Marie Stopes" about the life of the birth control advocate and sex-advice writer.
Paterson Conrad said: ‘Whether you know the play or not, Learwife is one of the most exciting literary debuts that I’ve read in years."
Thorp said: "Centuries after these characters were first written, Lear and his trio of daughters still fill the stage, in theatres worldwide. But there has always been an absence: where is Lear's queen? What did she know, and why was she cut away from the famous narrative? Out of that mystery came this book, and its exploration of grief, tenderness and powerful, thwarted women."