There’s pleasure and pain in reading well-written historical fiction. The pleasure is in time-travelling to the past, and the better the writer does her job, the more thoroughly the reader is immersed in the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of a vanished world. On this score, Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe is a huge success, transporting the reader to an Elizabeth England rife with blood, grit, plague and fleas. Everything from descriptions to dialogue — Butler Hallett has recreated the dialogue in Elizabeth English that somehow manages to sound both authentic and immediate — tells us that we are in a place and time far from our own, among people who love and hate and bleed as we do, yet whose motivations are driven by values and beliefs we can’t fully appreciate.
The pain in reading good historical fiction is in already knowing how the story ends. If a writer creates imaginary characters to people the world of the past she gives herself some leeway, though there will still be historical events to navigate around. But a writer who chooses, as Butler Hallett has done here, to bring to life a real historical figure like Kit Marlowe, has to work within the limitations of what actually happened to that character. This novel opens in 1593, and if you know your Elizabeth dramatists, you know that Marlowe died in 1593. So no matter how invested you get in his character, his story, his tangled relationships with those around him as a lover, a writer, a friend, a spy … you know Marlowe’s not getting out of this novel alive. There will be no happily-ever-after for Christopher Marlowe, and four hundred years later, we’re all going to be reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays, while only the drama geeks will remember Marlowe.
Here, too, the novel succeeds brilliantly, because the real trick — the hardest trick, I think — is to make readers care so much about the character that we want to bend history; we want the story to end differently from how we know it has to end. I read through this book quickly, fully immersed in Marlowe’s world even when I didn’t fully understand the political intrigue that swirled around, but always wishing it were possible to write a different ending. It isn’t. But for a writer to be able to awaken that hope is a great gift.