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The Folger Spotlight

Words, Words, Words: 'Learwife' by J. R. Thorp

The Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words returns on Thursday, September 8 with a discussion of Learwife by J. R. Thorp. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this unique perspective on Shakespeare’s epic tragedy.

What is Learwife about?

Inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, this breathtaking debut novel tells the story of the most famous woman ever written out of literary history.

“I am the queen of two crowns, banished fifteen years, the famed and gilded woman, bad-luck baleful girl, mother of three small animals, now gone. I am fifty-five years old. I am Lear’s wife. I am here.”

Word has come. Care-bent King Lear is dead, driven mad and betrayed. His three daughters too, broken in battle. But someone has survived: Lear’s queen. Exiled to a nunnery years ago, written out of history, her name forgotten. Now she can tell her story.

Though her grief and rage may threaten to crack the earth open, she knows she must seek answers. Why was she sent away in shame and disgrace? What has happened to Kent, her oldest friend and ally? And what will become of her now, in this place of women? To find peace she must reckon with her past and make a terrible choice – one upon which her destiny, and that of the entire abbey, rests.

Giving unforgettable voice to a woman whose absence has been a tantalizing mystery, Learwife is a breathtaking novel of loss, renewal and how history bleeds into the present.

Critical Reception

“In luscious prose, Thorp explores the nameless queen’s untold story, one that — in keeping with the spirit of Shakespeare’s original — is rife with cruelty, betrayal and passion. Learwife is gorgeously written, its language ornate and heady. The novel’s crest and denouement are artful and moving… a beautiful triumph.”—The New York Times

“I ended Learwife feeling utterly involved: moved and exhausted.”—The Guardian

“Intriguing, illuminating. Thorp places her bet on psychological complexity that evolves into more psychological complexity as the story unfolds. I believe it is worth it.”—Washington Post

Why did we pick this book?

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection explores not only Shakespeare’s life and works, but also the plays’ historical context, source material, critical and performance histories, and the ways in which they inspire and are adapted by contemporary novelists.

Thorp’s novel imagines a character absent from Shakespeare’s story, offering a new perspective on one of his most famous tragedies. With moments that echo the plot of King Lear, Learwife gives readers an opportunity to consider the stories that are waiting to be told.

Content Transparency

This book contains references to an implied sexual assault.

About the author: J. R. Thorp
From her Janklow & Nesbit UK

JR Thorp is an Australian currently residing in Cork, Ireland. She was a Clarendon Scholar at Oxford and did her PhD with Vona Groarke and John McAuliffe. She won the London Short Story Award in 2011, had creative work published in the Cambridge Literary ReviewManchester ReviewantiTHESISWave Composition and elsewhere, and has been shortlisted for the BBC Opening Lines prize. She is also a lyricist and librettist whose works have been commissioned by the Arts Council, the Wellcome Trust and St Paul’s Cathedral, 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 Dr Marie Carmichael Stopes (1880-1958). Her music website is at

Meet our Bookshop Partner: East City Bookshop

This month, we are thrilled to once again partner with East City Bookshop, an independently run, woman-owned, community-minded bookstore on Capitol Hill. Check them out at

Order online, by phone (202.290.1636) or email Pickup is available at the shop, or they ship (almost) anywhere!

You can also order this title as an e-book or download an audiobook version of this title from


Make a plan to join us on Thursday, September 8 to discuss Learwife. Visit our website to register and stay tuned for additional Folger resources to enrich the conversation.

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: