The Marlowe Papers – Ros Barber

Elbows against a schoolboy’s desk, I learnt
the dead can be conjured from their words through ink,
that ancient writers rise and sing through time
as if immortal, the poet’s voice preserved
like the ambered insect some see as a scratch
but I’d imagine flying, brought to life.

And so to precious paper I commit
the only story I can never tell.

What if Christopher Marlowe hadn’t died in that bar brawl? What if Christopher Marlowe had been exposed as an atheist and forced into exile? What if Christopher Marlowe continued to write plays and send them back to England to be performed under someone else’s name? What if that name was William Shakespeare?

Those questions form the basis of Ros Barber’s superb ‘novel in verse’ The Marlowe Papers. Marlowe is in exile. He writes poems to his lover to which we are privy:

To fool intelligence
we hide our greatest treasures in plain sight.
This poetry you have before your eyes
the greatest code that man has yet devised.

We follow Marlowe as he attempts to find somewhere safe to stay, always aware of the danger that he is in:

                           …one destiny is crouched
still ready to spring: the cell, the lash, the rack
the gibbet and the noose. The vicious slice from the throat
to belly; my intestines gentled out
by a dutiful executioner, my prick
hacked off and crammed into my mouth.

For Elizabethan England is a dangerous place. As Marlowe tells us the story that led from him beginning to make his way in the world to the point when his murder is faked, we are shown just what it takes to survive. It seems as though everyone is spying for someone, all afraid that something they do will upset the Queen which will lead to their imprisonment and execution. Rumours abound as to who is in allegiance with whom and what the Queen’s thoughts are today.

Marlowe, apparently, has been accused of atheism following the production of his play Faustus. A charge that he denies but reveals to us is true.

Barber uses Marlowe’s story to explore ideas surrounding religion, language, power, disguise and love. It is a story with many twist and turns and one that has us gripped, hoping that Marlowe survives both the noose of Queen Elizabeth I and the enforced distance between him and his lover.

The use of verse to do so is one that some readers may find off-putting but I’m hoping that I’ve quoted sufficiently to show that the style doesn’t detract from the story, nor make it difficult to read.

This is an unusual book in terms of its style and ambition. It well deserves its place on the Women’s Fiction Prize longlist and I hope it gains a greater readership because of it.