The Marlowe Society
11 October 2012

Marlowe Papers Delivered

Ros Barber talks about her new verse novel

The latest Marlowe Society lecture was delivered by Ros Barber who talked about her new book The Marlowe Papers to a rapt audience at The Rose theatre in London at the end of September. As well as discussing the story behind her novel, her inspiration for writing it, and the lengthy process of producing it, Ros also read a number of excerpts from the book that left a very moving and strong impression. But perhaps even more stimulating was a lengthy question and answer session with the audience that was only finally ended when a team arrived to prepare the venue for the new production of Pericles that started a couple of days later (and which runs until 28 October).

The Marlowe Papers is, somewhat unusually, a novel in verse form, albeit with 25 pages of historical notes and a lengthy bibliography. The inspiration for the story is Marlowe's reported death in Deptford on 30 May 1593, and the suspicious circumstances that surround that event. Our poet is portrayed recounting how "his 'death' was an elaborate ruse to avoid his being hanged for heresy. He was instead spirited across the channel to live on in lonely exile, longing for his true love and pining for the damp streets of London. He does however continue to write plays and poetry, hiding behind the name of a colourless man from Stratford - one William Shakespeare." The book was joint winner of the 2011 Hoffman Prize before being published in May by Sceptre, who describe the work as "memoir, love letter, settling of accounts and a cry for recognition as the creator of some of the most sublime works in the English language; this is Christopher Marlowe's testament - and a tour de force by an award-winning poet: provocative, persuasive and enthralling."

Appropriately enough, Marlowe's Papers are mostly penned in blank verse written in the iambic pentameter, interspersed with the occasional sonnet. The language and spelling employed is broadly modern, "in order to avoid cod Elizabethan and strike a balance between authenticity and readability." Ros has however achieved far more than mere readability, if the audience reaction to a varied selection of excerpts read from the book by the author is anything to go by. She began with a piece (Death's A Great Disguiser) in which Marlowe muses somewhat morosely on his forced, feigned death: "Corpse-dead. A gory stab-hole for an eye; / and that's what they must think. No, must believe". Other excerpts find Marlowe pining for the friends and great love that he has left behind in England, but we also caught up with the exile in France with his current lover. Miss Ide du Vault, real name Lucille, is pushing Monsieur Le Doux to reveal the secret of his true identity which she is sure he is hiding from her. Lucille, with "skin, so biscuit brown", will go on to attain anonymous immortality according to The Marlowe Papers as 'the Dark Lady' in the sonnets that Marlowe will later publish under the name of Shakespeare.

Ros Barber (centre right) with members of the Marlowe Society after her lecture at the Rose
The Marlowe Papers: Ros Barber (centre right) with members of the Marlowe Society after her lecture at the Rose, including Society President Mark Rylance (centre left) and Chairman Valerie Colin-Russ (second from left).

In the subsequent fascinating question and answer session, Ros talked about many aspects of writing the book, including the various paths her historical research had taken her down, and the many people she had met in the process of writing it. She did not believe in all alleged sightings of Marlowe after 1593 that she had come across, but did largely believe that Marlowe had survived Deptford. History is often a subjective interpretation of the limited evidence available she noted, and even then some of the evidence is not always to be trusted. Sometimes, unsubstantiated happenings are repeated often enough in the history books until they are perceived as historic fact. Similarly, events may be widely and repeatedly dismissed by historians and other commentators even though there is a certain amount of plausible evidence to support their truth. In this latter case, Ros cited the hypothesis that Marlowe was a tutor to Arbella Stuart, a claim that is rarely mentioned in modern Marlowe biographies, but one which she believed may have some evidential substance to it.

The arrival of the Rose production crew unfortunately sounded time on an absorbing discussion, and undoubtedly left a queue of questions unasked. Ros Barber was given a warm round of applause by an enthusiastic audience represented by all sides of the Authorship debate. Whether or not you believe Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare, this is still an innovative, stimulating and hugely rewarding read, and it is also well worth listening to Ros talking about her book if you get the opportunity.

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