In amongst all of the PhD redrafting and the #NaNoWriMo project that now feels like it was months ago (although I need to get back to it soon…), I have tried to find time to read. In particular, I was really excited to read Ros Barber‘s The Marlowe Papers, a novel in verse that is, in part, about the Shakespeare authorship question.
I was really excited to read this book, as I love novels in verse. I didn’t realise when I bought the book that Barber had written it while completing her PhD on the authorship question, so the book is erudite and filled with historical footnotes.
And yet, they weren’t really needed. I read them only after the whole of the novel was through, as Barber works hard to keep her fiction standing on its own two feet, with her historical work and literary argumentation a foundation that we can investigate or take for granted at our lesiure.
The debate about Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays only a small part as the seed of the novel. On the premise that Kit Marlowe was the author, the novel runs with a beautiful and melancholy reflection on exile, romance, and love of the written word. The Marlowe voice that Barber develops is strong and engaging; he is a man in love, with his life, with his friends, with his work, with his country. Moreover, the sense of contingency that haunts the life of a ‘new gentlemen’ like Marlowe, the son of a cobbler, is very real and moving. Having overreached himself and made enemies, we feel a strong pathos for a man whose existence becomes contingent on others to keep his secret, help spirit him away, and keep him in work while in exile, both writing plays and “intelligencing”.
There are some really beautiful moments that spoke to me as someone in a period of (thankfully temporary) self-imposed exile. I want to just quote a small part, from fairly early on in the novel, that has a particular bearing on 2016, though, as a sort of proof of plus ça change…
Blame anyone, blame anyone but us.
Blame foreigners for eating bread and ale,
fot speaking words we cannot understand.
Blame women for the looseness of their tongues,
for doing work we wouldn’t do ourselves.
The page is sent to get a literate man
who’s paid to keep his secrets. ‘Make a verse
condemning foreigners. Make them the plague.
Then have it written neat enough to read
and post it on the wall outside their church.’