It is a rare and lovely treat, to pick up a book certain that you will love it but with no knowledge of what it will hold.
I spotted this book in the closing-down sale of a lovely local second-hand bookshop. I didn’t recognise the title but I did recognise that name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone, and so I had to buy the book.
Online research confirmed the book’s existence but nothing more. I went back to the library to see if it was mentioned in Elizabeth Jenkins’ memoir. It wasn’t. The contents of my book were still a mystery.
It sat on a shelf in a bookcase where I keep interesting old books for quite some time, until it caught my eye a week or so ago and I decided that it was time I started to read.
With the world as it is right now, we need to be kind to ourselves and to the people around us, and for me one of the things that means is reading some of the ‘special books’ that have been waiting for exactly the right moment.
The story opens on a September afternoon in Elizabethan London. The Queen’s barge is sailing down the Thames, as part of the celebration of victory over the Spanish Armada. A group of actors is watching from a high window. They include the leader of their company, Mr Edward Alleyn, an exceptionally tall man with a remarkable presence; Mr Edward Juby, a flamboyant actor who always played the leading lady and loved society; Mr Thomas Tallis, a good-natured family man and a consummate professional; and young Nicholas Pavey, who Mr Alleyn had to lift so that he could see the scene on the Thames and who would grow up to be a great actor.
It was only when they turned their attention back to the new play that they were rehearsing – a play that followed the fortunes of a shepherd named Tamburlaine – that I realised that there was at least some fact mixed with the fiction and thought I should look it up to see where I was in the life of Christopher Marlowe, because my knowledge of Elizabethan theatre is sketchy to say the least.
I found out where I was, and I found out that each and every character I had been reading about was a real historical figure. I wasn’t surprised, because I knew that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote non fiction about the period, but I was impressed with how real and alive she made her story.
Mr Philip Henslowe was a theatre owner, an impresario and a good friend to the company of actors. He was an intelligent and ambitious man, a widower whose home was managed by his two step-daughters. Bess was gregarious and loved to play the hostess, while Joan was content with the company of her small family and happiest when she was at work in the kitchen.
When Mr Alleyn made an offer of marriage to Joan he was delighted; not simply because the role of Tamburlaine had made him a star, but because he could see that he was a kind and modest man, unspoiled by his success, who loved Joan as much as she loved him.
They would be wonderfully happy together. He had the wisdom to settle close to her family home, so that she would have their company when he was away, and she blossomed.
Bess loved her sister, she loved seeing her so happy, but her own life was less successful. She escaped an unwanted suitor by answering a request from a playwright she had met as a guest of her step-father to go to Newgate Prison to make the payment he needed to be released. What she experienced that night shocked her, as did learning more of the man she had admired; and her family were horrified that she had gone out alone and at the possibility that she could have brought the plague home with her.
This is not a plot driven book, it is a book that follow the lives of the Henslowes and the Alleyns over a period of years.
It is beautifully written, there is not a single false note, and I particularly loved that way that Elizabeth Jenkins evoked the period and the lives lived without having to pause for description. Every detail was right, nothing was forgotten, and every character’s story was managed beautifully.
At first I thought that this was a good book, but as it went on I was so engaged by the character that I decided that this was a very good book and that it would be lovely if it was reissued.
Elizabeth Jenkins’ work is very diverse, and maybe that makes her a hard sell in this day and age, but she deserves to be remembered for more than her two works currently in print and this book deserves to be much more known than it is.
Christopher Marlowe reappears. There will be more plays and there are rumours that he works for Francis Walsingham. There is a visit to John Dee, who tells fortunes for Joan, Bess and their friend Eleanor. And there is a dinner where Francis Drake and Christopher Marlowe are both present and the conversation is a joy.
Even better than that was the illumination of the different courses the life of a gentlewoman could take, through the stories of Joan, Beth and Eleanor, who marries a much older man, not for love but because it is the best of the limited choices open to her.
I loved that, I loved the evocation of Elizabethan London, and I loved the human story.