The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Master Skylark (1896-1897)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Master Skylark was written by John Bennett and first appeared as “Master Skylark” (St. Nicholas, Nov. 1896-Oct. 1897). Bennett (1865-1956), an American, was a newspaper reporter and editor as well as an author of historical novels for both children and adults. Once very popular and now forgotten, Master Skylark is a minor gem.

Master Skylark is about Nicholas Attwood, an eleven-year-old living in Stratford-on-Avon in England in 1596. He wants to see the acting troupe of the Lord Admiral's Players, but his brutish and sullen father won't let him, so Nicolas runs away, intending to leg it down to Coventry, see the Players, stay with his cousin, and then return later. En route to Coventry Nick meets the scoundrelly Gaston Carew, who accompanies Nick on the road. Nick makes the mistake of singing as they go, and Carew is thunderstruck by Nick, whose voice is a marvel. Carew is determined to profit from Nick’s talents and puts Nick on stage in Coventry. The audience loves him, so Carew tries to take Nick to London and make money from him there. Nick refuses; he is homesick and wants to return home to his beloved mother, a gentle woman who always tries to defend Nick from his father. Carew kidnaps Nick and takes him to London. The rest of the novel concerns Nick’s attempts to get home, Carew putting Nick on stage and earning great amounts of money from him, and Nick meeting Carew’s daughter Cicely. Eventually Carew is executed by the Crown for murder, Nick and Cicely return to Stratford, and after a conversation with William Shakespeare Nick’s father Simon admits he was wrong in his opposition to the theater.

Master Skylark is one of the best historical novels ever written for children. Bennett’s experience as a poet is put to good use in the novel; although the dialogue is utilitarian, the use of dialect is mild and inoffensive and the descriptions of scenery and people are well-written. The recreation of Shakespeare’s era, of the world of inns and bustling small towns and the theater, is completely convincing. Bennett interestingly defers Shakespeare’s appearance until late in the novel and thus builds up reader interest in him. Bennett’s characterization is deft: Nick is a realistically portrayed child, Carew is a convincing scoundrel, and the women of the novel, Cicely and Nick’s mother, are given depth not often seen in nineteenth century novels written by men. Barrett, in fact, does an excellent job at making his characters three-dimensional and giving them a complexity unusual for the historical romance. Carew has a genuine love for his daughter, and Nick’s father Simon is sullen and brutal but loves Nick “in his surly way.”1 At the end of the story, when Shakespeare has caused a change of heart in Simon, he takes his wife aside and in a moving scene tells her he loves her, something he may never have said to her and which reduces both to tears.

Master Skylark was an advance in a few respects. “A century later it was quite common to employ historical characters such as Sigmund Freud or Stanford White in bestselling works, but the idea of including and representing them realistically was unusual in the 1890s. “2 A critical as well as a popular success, the novel was quickly adapted for the stage, and by 1956 it was included in McCall Magazine’s list of the “100 Best Books of All Time.” More importantly, the slight effeminacy of Nick Attwood, and his relationship with his mother and with Carew, created a gay subtext in Master Skylark which a number of gay and lesbian readers perceived. In the early decades of the twentieth century Master Skylark was a popular read in the American gay community, especially among gay teens, for this reason.

Master Skylark is also notable for the portrayal of Shakespeare himself.

The Victorians had Shakespeare in their bones and blood, so they liked to believe…Shakespeare sometimes seemed the Victorians’ utterance, a language for expressing and explaining themselves and their world, for talking to each other. But what of their own voices? If not a god, Shakespeare was the most powerful of ghosts, and ghosts tend to inhibit at least as much as they inspire and liberate.3 

For the Victorians, especially the late Victorians, Shakespeare had an unshakeable, unquestionable authority, both as a writer and as a person.4 For Bennett to portray the historical Shakespeare as, essentially, a warm-hearted and wise playwright, rather than the divinely-inspired Sage of Stratford-upon-Avon, was a minor step forward in the act of accurately fictionalizing historical characters—and an especially daring step forward, considering how the Victorians felt about Shakespeare.

Recommended Edition

Print: John Bennett, Master Skylark: or Will Shakespeare’s Ward. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.



1 John Bennett, Master Skylark (New York: Century Co., 1922), 74.

2 Harlan Greene, Mr. Skylark: John Bennett and the Charleston Renaissance (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 51.

3 Adrian Poole, Shakespeare and the Victorians (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 1-2.

4 As mentioned in the Gondez the Monk entry, when William Henry Ireland wrote two fake Shakespeare plays, the response from a Shakespeare authority was colossal offense: “You must be aware, sir, of the enormous crime you committed against the divinity of Shakespeare. Why, the act, sir, was nothing short of sacrilege; it was precisely the same thing as taking the holy chalice from the altar, and ***** therein!” Qtd. in Hoeveler, The Gothic Ideology, 128.