Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh / The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

51CA3VQZ2ZL51tDS8KfivL Two very short works of great imagination: Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die breathes life into the final days of Elizabethan poet and dramatist Christopher Marlowe. The Frozen Thames presents 40 fictional vignettes, one for each time that the river Thames froze solid between 1142 and 1895. Welsh is a crime writer, and Marlowe’s killing was certainly a crime: she sketches in the personal circumstances – possible atheist (not a good thing to be in God-fearing Elizabethan England), definite spy, outstanding playwright – and then fills in the gaps with the genre’s staples: intrigue and betrayal. Helen Humphreys spends a lot of time in the 16th century too, when London Bridge’s multiple arches formed a sort of dam, slowing the great river’s progress down to the point where it could be turned to ice by sub-zero temperatures. She is interested in ordinary folk. Two lovers meet during an outbreak of plague. A farmer has to gently persuade his oxen to step onto the ice. Frost Fairs are in full swing, complete with bear baiting and poetry. The only ice Marlowe encounters in May is in the hearts of those who think the world might be better off without him. The London of his time (we are entombed in 1593) resembles Stalinist Russia, with people encouraged – and prepared – to denounce one another. Violence is ever-present (‘His mouth had been slit wide into a harlequin smile’). Heads on pikes, criminals’ guts pulled out in front of perspiring crowds, the threat of state-sponsored suffering for malefactors is very, very real – small wonder that when he is brought before the Privy Council Marlowe is happy to disown his friend and fellow writer Thomas Kyd (‘I hesitated, but hearing no cock-crow went on’). In his brilliant Shakespeare & Co, Stanley Wells points out that Shakespeare was one – albeit a brilliant one – of a number of artists working at that time in London, rather than the pre-eminent man among them. The city was an extraordinary hotbed of creative activity – and something darker. ‘Death wasn’t the same whoever brought it,’ acknowledges Marlowe. Some ways are better than others. The end must come, but you can at least mitigate the pain of it, making it swift, preferably bypassing torture, by cutting a deal. A bleak picture. It is wise to carve an eyehole in the door of your lodgings so you can see who is calling. Having a knife to hand is a necessity rather than a nice-to-have. The reason ‘Tamburlaine’ has to be killed is that someone using the name of Marlowe’s famous creation is leaving defamatory notes around town and it suits the Council to find the playwright responsible. The Frozen Thames contains a number of memorable tableaux, none more than the boy following his mother across the ice from the south shore to the north, as the freeze begins to thaw. Fear means he is never able (as we learn in the next chapter) to return from the north bank, making his life there from then on. Marlowe goes to his destiny in Deptford. He understands, having written Doctor Faustus, how the sort of deals he has been forced to make end. He knows he can’t be saved, but the (true-life) magician Doctor Dee of Mortlake has assured him that his work will live on for 400 years. Even back then, Mortlake’s lake was long gone (‘some stagnant tarn so wreathed in mist and bloated with bodies that the villagers filled it in’) and the creepy place is now a desirable postcode under the Heathrow flightpath. Everything has changed. The vast majority of this excellent, swift novel is conjecture by Welsh (apart from the 400 years bit – it is 421 years and counting and Marlowe’s work is still being performed). It’s somehow pleasing to think that the devious pirate Sir Walter Raleigh was involved in the intrigue, a reminder that these aren’t just names in history books but (at one time) living, breathing flesh. The Frozen Thames has some of the same quality, offering a misted window into what it must actually have been like to feel such cold, with its recurrent descriptions of birds dropping from the sky, frozen to death through the centuries. Tamburlaine Must Die is that thing beloved of readers: the book you don’t want to end. After I closed the cover, part of me – well, that bit of my consciousness that deals in historical reconstructions – is left in 1593. That’s alchemy.

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