‘A Dead Man in Deptford’ by Anthony Burgess. Hutchinson 1993

If you find Christopher Marlowe fascinating, you’ll find this book fascinating. If you don’t, well… I am really sorry about your cultural impoverishment. My sincere condolences.

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

Anthony Burgess

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!

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