These two books, set in the final decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, feature Nicholas Marlow, an ancestor of the Marlow family of the Kingscote books, as a young man running away from home and joining a group of theatrical players. The final chapter shows him going away to sea, which if I recall correctly is mentioned in one of the Kingscote books, but the rest of the story shows him as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – a friend of William Shakespeare, an acquaintance of Walter Raleigh, and an associate of the Earls of Essex and Southampton.
This, of course, is the period of Essex’s Rebellion. I’m afraid that I’ll always associate it primarily with Essex barging in on Elizabeth before she’d put her make up on, but obviously the fact that he did actually plan to seize control of London and force the Queen to dismiss Cecil was rather more serious than that. Well, probably. I hate to be seen with no make up on. There’s so much focus on the events of the late 1580s, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and, of course, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, one of the defining moments in English history, that the period from 1588 to 1603 tends to be rather neglected, so it was an interesting idea to set the books at this time. And it’s rather convenient that Christopher Marlowe’s surname was very close to that of the Marlows, and that Essex’s steward shared the surname of Merrick with the Marlow’s neighbours.
There genuinely was a link between the theatre and the rebellion, and that’s what we see in these books. The Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron, and a performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men of Shakespeare’s Richard II, showing an anointed monarch being deposed, did cause a fair amount of controversy.
The GGBP editions of these two books have a number of forewords, one of which was written by the late Joy Wotton. I was fortunate enough to know Joy via Facebook, and to meet her at the Harrogate Book Fair a few years ago. She was a lovely person, and it was quite poignant for me to read her words. Hilary Clare’s foreword points out that Antonia Forest got some of the historical details, notably the relations between different social classes, wrong, but that she got the actual course of events spot on. What we don’t know is where Shakespeare actually was during the 1590s. I go with the idea that he was at Hoghton Tower – OK, OK, spot the Lancastrian! – but we don’t know, and he may well have been with a group of players.
I can’t say that these are the greatest historical novels that I’ve ever read, and I doubt if I’d have read them had it not been for the Marlow connection, but they’re not bad at all, especially bearing in mind that they were meant for children/young adults; and, as I’ve said, this period of Elizabeth I’s reign tends to be neglected. Nicholas came across very well, and the lives of real people and fictional people were interwoven pretty much seamlessly. They also give a fascinating picture of theatrical life at a crucial time in the development of English theatre. I rather enjoyed them!