Saturday, 6 February 2016

My literary hero - by Cecilia Busby

Every week in the Saturday Review, the Guardian runs a feature called 'My Hero', where they invite a literary figure to write about someone who inspired them or whom they particularly admire. Recently, Lady Antonia Fraser chose George Wiedenfeld, who gave her her first job after chatting to her mother at a posh dinner party - such were (are?) the routes to employment of the well-connected...

I have occasionally wondered what figure I would choose, in the way you sometimes mull over what music you'd choose for Desert Island Discs (or is that just me?). Anyway, thinking about it recently, I decided that one very strong contender for my hero would have to be Christopher Marlowe.

I have loved Marlowe since I was about fourteen and discovered my dad's battered copy of Marlowe's Complete Works, which included as an Appendix the Baines Note, the document that, lodged with the authorities a few weeks before Marlowe's death, roundly condemns him for various heresies and treasons and may have been the reason he was killed at Deptford in 1593. Historians have cast some doubt on the veracity of Baines' testimony, but as far as I was concerned at fourteen, this was from the mouth of the man himself, and I found the Marlowe portrayed in Baine's report of his wild and no doubt drunken ravings irresistibly cool. Like a good Marxist 300 years before his time, he claimed 'that the first beginnings of religion was only to keep men in awe', as well as various other blasphemies, and amusingly claimed 'that if he were put to write a new religion, he would undertake both a more excellent and admirable method and that all the new testament is filthily written'.

As well as the denigration of religion, he denied the power of the crown, arguing that 'he had as good a right to coin as the Queen of England, and that he was acquainted with one Poole, a prisoner in Newgate, who hath great skill in mixture of metals, and having learned some things of him he meant through the help of a cunning stamp-maker to coin French crowns, pistolets and English shillings.'

This made me laugh. It was so obviously the kind of thing you say when rather inebriated, making grand and ridiculous plans with your mates to make your fortune without (crucial, this) having to actually do any real work. Add the atheism, the hints of homosexuality, the low-life brawls that saw him arrested and chucked in Newgate, and his shady role as a spy for Francis Walsingham, and you have the perfect reprobate, guaranteed to appeal to a teenager. And just look at that bad-ass, truculent stare in the portrait he had painted when he graduated from Cambridge at the age of 21. When I heard that he was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, and that he'd got to Cambridge on a scholarship on the condition he joined the church, but had proceeded to become a spy and a drunken playwright instead, my admiration was complete. And then there was the tragedy of his death. So young! Such a waste! Stabbed to death in Deptford, supposedly in an argument over the bill, and buried before he was thirty.

But it wasn't just his character I fell in love with, and he'd be a pretty poor literary hero if it was. My love for Marlowe was first and foremost for his words, and I was reminded of this when I randomly picked up my daughter's 'Oxford Book of English Verse' and came across excerpts from his Hero and Leander. I was instantly transported to my teenage years, rolling the wonderful sounds of Marlowe's verse around my mind. There is such resonance in his verse, such fantastic rhythms. There is nobody like him. Listen to this, from Tamberlaine, the first of his plays I read, and one that absolutely floored me:

If all the pens that ever poets held,
Had fed the feelings of their master's thoughts,
And every sweetnes that suspir'd their hearts,
Their minds, and muses on admired themes:
If all the heavenly Quintessence they still
From their immortall flowers of Poesy,
Wherein, as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit,
If these had made one Poems' period
And all combin'd in Beauty's worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads,
One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest.

There are so many other quotes I could fill this with - but you can find them for yourself (and probably have your own favourites). I will just finish, though, with a recommendation. Ros Barber recently wrote a marvellous book based on the idea that Marlowe didn't die in Deptford, and that he went on to write the plays and poems assumed to be by Shakespeare. You don't have to agree with her to enjoy the detective story she lays out, and even more to appreciate the wonderful sonnets she writes in the voice of Marlowe post-death. It's called The Marlowe Papers, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize as well as winning the Desmond Elliot prize.

So there you are - my literary hero. Who's yours?

Cecilia Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)


Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I've read some fiction indicating that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's work, including one in which "Shakespeare" returns home late in his life and it turns out that the real Shakespeare was a nasty piece of work who was the one who died at Deptford, and the Shakespeare who returns home - a decent man - is in fact Marlowe. I doubt it, frankly; their styles were so different. Even the differences between The Jew Of Malta and The Merchant Of Venice, for example. Shakespeare just couldn't create a two dimensional villain - couldn't! Shylock is diddled, no matter what you think of him, such as his daughter running off and exchanging her mother's ring for a monkey(as my uni tutor suggested, she symbolically exchanges chastity for lechery). He has some redeeming qualities. Whereas Barabas is - truly horrible. And two dimensional as far as I'm concerned.

Richard III may be a villain, but he has the charm to suck you in, even as he tells you what he's planning, and even he, at the end, has some loyal followers.

I think Shakespeare's early work was inspired by Marlowe, but later - different.

Still, Marlowe is fascinating for his lifè alone(I researched it for my children's book about spies)and I know what you mean - I think I was discovering Shakespeare around the same age you were discovering Marlowe, from my sister's old school copy of Julius Caesar.

Have you ever read Harry Turtledove's Ruled Britannia? In it, the Spanish Armada succeeded and nine years later Marlowe is still alive and writing plays.

C.J.Busby said...

No, I haven't read that - will have to check it out. I'm not sure I am convinced by the Marlowe is Shakespeare argument, but I would love it to be true. I do think, though, that comparing Jew of Malta to Merchant of Venice is a red herring - the second was written much later, by an older, wiser man. Early Shakespeare (the Henry VI plays) are very close to Marlowe. And what we have of the Jew of Malta is quite corrupt. I still enjoy the absolute villainy of Barabas though - the totally unrestrained evil – as well as his perfectly valid criticisms of the hypocritical Christians. It's a younger man's play - more black and white, and comic, more of a satire. Actually I think Richard III is a dead ringer for that kind of out and out comic villainy.

Emma Barnes said...

Marlowe makes an appearance in children's fiction in "The Player's Boy" by Antonia Forest, when he semi-abducts the 10 year old protagonist - it's a very intriguing and ambivalent portrait, and she doesn't downplay the bits of his character and beliefs that might be considered strong meat for young readers.

I also enjoy the scene in "Shakespeare in Love" where various actors are auditioning in front of Shakespeare, and almost all of them choosing Marlowe's speech "Was the the face that launched a thousand ships..." much to Shakespeare's disgust!

The Marlowe papers sound fascinating.

Penny Dolan said...

Dud you know that Ros Barber & Nicky Hayden made The Marlowe Papers into an one-person play, Celia? It's just finished a run in Brighton(ended Jan30th)and is currently planning to tour. I've heard good reports so it might be worth watching out for, and you can find details on Ros's website:

Thought it might be worth spreading the word, especially as a tour of the south is often more likely for such things than a northern trip, bar Edinburgh.(Guess where I am!)

C.J.Busby said...

Hi Penny - yes, I'd love to see it. Currently trying to get my local arts centre to book it!