This review appeared in nb70.
I took a deep breath before starting to read The Marlowe Papers. Described as a novel in verse I was somewhat apprehensive as to whether I was up to the task of reading 407 pages of blank verse. I challenged myself to get on with it and now that I’ve reached the end I want to go back and read it all again.
In 1593 the playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl in London, or so the history books tell us. The Marlowe Papers takes this fact and turns it on its head. Suppose Marlowe hadn’t been killed but rather spirited away by his friends and colleagues (he was after all a part of a web of spys and intelligencers). Suppose he went into exile and through his friends continued to supply plays for the London playhouses. Suppose he plucked a name from the air to hide his identity as author. Suppose the name he chose was William Shakespeare.
It would at this point be possible to scoff and say that everyone has it in for Shakespeare. Poor chap, no-one believes he wrote his own plays. The recent film Anonymous, which I didn’t manage to catch at the cinema, but have the DVD on my birthday list, advances the theory that it was the Earl of Oxford who wrote them and now Ros Barber puts forward Marlowe as the likely candidate – not a new theory but one which bears further examination. Barber has recently completed a PhD on the topic and The Marlowe Papers is the creative element of her work. [The critical component of her doctoral thesis ‘Writing Marlowe as Writing Shakespeare’ is available to be read online at http://rosbarber.com/research/dphil-phd-thesis/]
Leave all that aside and judge the book for its other qualities; a book of 70,000 words written in beautiful blank verse, with the occasional sonnet to embellish it further, which tells the story of a man and his exile. Exile not just from his profession, but also for long periods of time from his country and from those he loves - those without whom he feels there is no point to life.
Written in Marlowe’s voice the reader doesn’t need to know his work or that of Shakespeare to enjoy the book and relish the accomplishment of the author. There are notes to many of the individual poems which help to set the context or explain the history so I did read with two bookmarks – one in the text and one in the notes – but found that the words and story mostly carried me along without any need to check references.
The Marlowe Papers may not be to the taste of every Reading Group, but for those who occasionally tackle poetry, or plays, or who set themselves the task of reading a classic, those who enjoy sharing historical fiction and discussing it with reference to real life events, groups who relish beautiful writing and those who simply want a ripping good read, The Marlowe Papers is a must for your future programme.
The proof copy I read is already battered with rereading. I will be buying myself a hardback copy when it comes out. Don't buy it on an e-reader, buy a proper copy and hold it lovingly as you read.