With A Dead Man in Deptford, Burgess concluded his literary career to overwhelming acclaim for his re-creation of the Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe. In lavish, pitch-perfect, and supple, readable prose, Burgess matches his splendid Shakespeare novel, Nothing Like the Sun. The whole world of Elizabethan England-from the intrigues of the courtroom, through the violent streets of London, to the glory of the theater-comes alive in this joyous celebration of the life of Christopher Marlowe, murdered in suspicious circumstances in a tavern brawl in Deptford more than four hundred years ago.
Anthony Burgess was no stranger to Elizabethan England having written a thesis on Marlowe’s Dr Faustus at university and published in 1964 his “historical” novel: Nothing like the sun: A story of Shakespeares love life. A Dead Man in Deptford tells the story of the last six years of Malowe’s life. He died on 30 May 1593 at the age of 29 years; killed in an upstairs room of a tavern after an altercation with some known violent characters. There is much conjecture that Marlowe was employed by Francis Walsingham the Elizabethan spymaster, there is no doubt that his outspoken views on religion (he was named as an atheist) caused him to be marked as a suspicious character and he was arrested in 1593 after being named by fellow playwright Thomas Kyd as a writer of heretical letters. It was at a time when the Elizabethan government were nervous about a foreign invasion, nervous about threats from both the Puritans and the Catholics and concerned about unruly and riotous behaviour around the London theatres and so Marlowe with his reputation may well have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. However Burgess spins a much more exciting tale of espionage, plots against the government and murder. He surmises that Marlowe was an agent for Walsingham, spying on the catholics in Rheims, and those around the court of James VI in Scotland. He also describes a meeting with John Penry who was hung drawn and quartered for setting up a printing press for the scurrilous Martin mar-prelate puritan pamphlets. Like many agents at the time Marlowe would have been blackmailed into serving the state. He also imagines Marlowe as being part of the coterie that met at Sir Walter Raleigh’s house addicted to the “nymph” (tobacco smoking). Much of this is conjecture, but as Burgess says it is all grist to the mill in the “flat footed affirmation of possibility as fact”.
The story is told by a young actor and sometime lover of Kit Marlowe who says he knows a little of the story, but proceeds to tell a whole lot more. The story then starts in the first person, but there are passages of imagined conversations involving Marlowe that change the point of view. Burgess has fun from the first sentence when the boy actor addresses the “fair or foul reader, but whats the difference” and then plays around with the syntax of his sentences and phrases to give an impression of how the Elizabethans may have spoken to each other. It would seem to me that Hilary Mantel may have gained much from reading this novel in developing her own style for her Wolf Hall novel.
Burgess describes Marlowe as a violent man, quick to take offence and an easy maker of enemies. His education and reasonably humble beginnings equip him to slip in and out of all levels of society and as a successful and notorious writer and poet more doors are open to him than would have normally been the case. His careless talk, religious views and homosexuality made him both a dangerous character to know as well as an exciting companion for the more adventurous. He was certain of his own talents and disparaging of others, when it would have been advisable to hold his tongue, he could not bring himself to do it. He was a man who easily got himself into trouble. Burgess imagines him having an affair with Thomas Walsingham cousin of Sir Francis, of working with Thomas Watson the poet and translator and having to collaborate with Thomas Kyd the playwright and then there is young Tom the actor - all these Toms Burgess says “a world of Toms like a night roof top” It is a typical aside because Burgess’ writing appears as undisciplined as the character he is describing, not being able to resist a quip, perhaps letting his pen run away with him, but always showing his love and knowledge of the period. The use of alliteration was a favourite ploy of many Elizabethan poets and playwrights and Burgess has fun imitating this style as well as dredging up some arcane words. Here is Marlowe holed up in Newgate jail with his friend Tom Watson and reflecting about the rats in their cell:
“ We could catch one, Tom said and eat it raw. Though rats are as they say inesculent. The learned word bounced hollowly.
A man should not play with these things. jails and privation and death. I sit comfortably with my pen penning men into pens of this kind. I did not think I could be so short of breath.”
It is always advisable to have access to a dictionary when reading Anthony Burgess and I realised that I have led a sheltered life, having to look up irrumatio and torchcul.
There are quotes from Marlowe’s plays and poems, sometimes quoted inaccurately back to him by other characters and there is a mock pastoral singing contest that takes place in an ale house in Rheims. Burgess portrays Elizabethan England as a dangerous and dirty place, especially for those people like Marlowe living on the edge of the criminal world, however this is not the main thrust of the novel because Burgess is more interested in the conversations, the word play and the invention of a good story. In my opinion it is a book that would be appreciated more fully by a reader already familiar with Marlowe for example there is a running joke about Marlowe’s name: is he Marley, or Merlin, perhaps Morely or Marlin: this all stems from there being only one document in existence signed by Marlowe and this looks like he has signed himself Morely. This is an historical novel and so there are no helpful notes and readers not familiar with this fact might wonder why Burgess continues with this idea. It is all part of the fun, in-jokes a-plenty as Burgess flexes his muscles as writer and entertainer. I was entertained even if:
“Elation made his member swell visibly in his codpiece, and he was thus led to the composing of a poem of love”
A four star read.
A Dead Man in Deptford is a breathtaking tour-de-force through the theatres, spy-rings, noble houses and stews of late Elizabethan England. Narrated by an unnamed actor, famed for his portrayal of Belphoebe as a boy, who observes and speculates about Marlowe's forays in poet-tasting, play-making and spying, the novel brings the reader a richness, both strange and familiar. Most of the university wits and early playwrights make an appearance -- Lyly, Kyd, Lodge, Nashe, Greene -- even a young Will from Warwickshire.
Burgess's Marlowe, the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, is the brilliant, but impoverished scholarship student who is lured into the sometimes profitable, but inescapable, spy ring of Sir Francis Walsingham's "Service." His servitude is sweetened by a passionate relationship with Sir Francis's young cousin, Thomas Walsingham.
Burgess is in love with the English language, most particularly here the language of early modern English with its inventiveness and muscularity. We overhear Marlowe struggling with his "mighty line" -- the blank verse that would serve not only his plays, but Shakespeare's, so well:
The five to the line was not natural. There were no fives in nature save in cinquefoil flowers. No wait, five fingers, but the thumb was of a different make and purpose. He meant that the rhythm of two or four was in nature, for it was the heart beating and the walking legs. So then the line pentametric was unnatural unless its fifth beat was take to be a starting a new suppositious four. To ride in triumph through Persepolis. There was a pause, sure, after that, and a long one, either in the air or in the head. There was a justification for end-stopping and the line as a bludgeon. Moreover.
For anyone interested in the Elizabethan theatre, A Dead Man in Deptford is required reading.
Christopher Marlowe was so many things: a Man-about-town (London) with various acquaintances in high society and in low (very low); a playwright who brought the pentameter line to heights only equalled by his great successor, never surpassed; poet too with at least one poem that will never lose its place in the anthologies (‘Come Live with Me and Be My Love…’). And spy. Not so much known about the ‘spy’ bit, I gather, but aspects of his comings and goings and the people he met strongly point to it. What talent! But what a terrible entry in the annals of Eng. Lit. that he died aged just 39 in a tavern brawl in Deptford.
I’m not a great fan of ‘historical fiction’ and have tried out many a book of its kind only to give up soon enough because of the way the historical characters were made to speak / act just did not ring true for me. Also there’s usually cartloads of ‘atmospheric background’ which smells of hours spent in the reference / research library section and which holds up the plot no end.
Anthony Burgess does NOT hold things up. He goes at cracking pace, and his ‘atmospherics’ are largely carried by the way he recreates an ‘Elizabethan’ English language, and in the way he just doesn’t tell you about the sights and sounds of the London of the time. He takes you out and about in the streets and taverns in the company of the characters and shows you the sights. Some of them are unforgettable, unfortunately. I can’t get out of my mind the executions at at St. Giles Fields where the poor miserable wretches were first half-hanged, then their privates sliced off, then their bellies slit open and their guts pulled out for them to see before they died. And then the executioner and his apprentices set to chopping up the remains and throwing them into a vat to boil. And then… OK. Sorry. Just wanted to get across the authenticity of the writing…
It has to said that I was ready to like this book before I read it. I still remember reading Tamburlaine at UCD ( a very long time ago) and what a great thing it was. I was not alone in being absolutely mesmerised by the Elizabethan Age and its literature, and Christopher Marlowe made a really big impression on me. It was great to be drawn into his world and (in however imaginary a way) brought closer to him. What a read!
a solid "meh".
But is it his controversial plays, his reputed atheism, homosexuality or his spying that will lead to his death in a tavern in Deptford, or will he just be stabbed in a meaningless brawl?
I enjoyed it much more than another novel about the death of playwright Christopher Marlowe than "Tamburlaine Must Die" by Louise Welsh, which I read a year or two ago.