Michelle Butler Hallett on the Origins of Her Fifth Book, This Marlowe

In short, she found the reputations of “Kyd the splenetic sourpuss, and Marlowe the over-reaching atheist,” to seem “simple, pat, too easy,” and got to writing the book.

In Michelle’s new novel, it’s 1593, and two spymasters plot how they can control succession upon the death of an aging Queen Elizabeth.

Their scheming depends on one man: Christopher Marlowe, a cobbler’s son from Canterbury, who has defied expectations in becoming an accomplished poet and playwright, trained in intelligence and espionage.
The author says she was drawn to the Elizabethan era “By accident, really.” She studied Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd during the last year of her undergrad studies, and learned that “at some point, Kyd and Marlowe shared lodgings. Where, precisely when, or for how long, is unclear.”

In 1587, after Cambridge University refused to award Marlowe his degree, rumours emerged that Marlowe had run off to the Jesuit university at Rheims. “I asked myself: an atheist studying divinity and either considering or infiltrating the Jesuit order? And why is the Privy Council defending some nobody [against Cambridge], some cobbler’s son?”

The third tidbit to tie her novel together was this: “in May of 1593, someone posted a piece of xenophobic doggerel to the door of a London church used by Protestant refugees. Many Londoners felt overrun by Protestants fleeing persecution in other countries and resented their presence. The poem, later known as the Dutch Church Libel, criticized England’s foreign and domestic policies, complained about interlopers stealing money and jobs (this sounds horribly familiar) and threatened violence in response.”

“The governing bodies took the Dutch Church Libel’s threats seriously. On 11 May, the Privy Council issued a harsh proclamation, demanding search and seizure of anyone even suspected of writing the libel, and, if necessary to get a confession, torture in Bridewell.”

That May, Thomas Kyd was arrested, charged with authorship of the Libel, and he wrote afterwards that he suffered ‘undeserved pains and tortures.’ While in Bridewell, Kyd accused Marlowe of owning a document considered seditious and irreligious. The Privy Council issued a warrant for Marlowe’s arrest, and on May 20th, Marlowe appeared before the Council, on suspicion on atheism — which did not quite mean to the Elizabethans what it means to us, though there is overlap. Marlowe received instructions to appear before the Council each day, which seems oddly lenient, given the charges against him.”

In short, she found the reputations of “Kyd the splenetic sourpuss, and Marlowe the over-reaching atheist,” to seem “simple, pat, too easy,” and got to writing the book.

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