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A Trilogy Complete, A Past Recaptured

ISSUE:  Winter 1991
Entered from the Sun. By George Garrett. Doubleday. $19. 95.

With Entered from the Sun, George Garrett completes the remarkable trilogy of historical novels he began with Death of the Fox (1971) and continued with The Succession (1983). Since he said that it took him 20 years to finish the first, the whole trilogy must have occupied him, off and on, for almost 40 years. He has been, he says in his Author’s Farewell, a “persistent kind of tourist” to the world of the Elizabethans, and found them, on the whole, more interesting than we are; but he adds, with characteristic humor and skcepticism, that of course “I never had to live there all the time. That might have changed my tune.”

I have discussed the two earlier novels at some length in VQR in 1985 (reprinted in my American Ambitions, 1987). I tried then to show that they “exhibit the novel operating at so high a level, with such variety of styles and perspectives, with such easy mastery of the “historical” aspect—of all details of time and place—and so deeply meditated in their study of the relation between the individual life and the history, that they are really something new. . . . They are beautiful, profound, and deeply moving works of art.”

Garrett’s method in these novels is, he has said, to “make a work of fiction, of the imagination, planted and rooted in fact”: after mastering all the facts, soaking in all the details, he must imagine the novel, create it from scratch, but staying within the limits of what is not only possible but most probable historically. This will be the “imaginary past,” but the past conceived by a rigorously disciplined imagination, and faithful to the facts. It will be based not only on a thorough knowledge of what historical facts and documents are available but, more importantly, of the writings, both literary and personal (letters, most especially), of the period. So this kind of historical novel is, in a sense, a kind of communal product, not based entirely on the limited scope of one man’s imagination, but on the productions, fictional and real, of many people’s minds: a kind of collective reality created by all of them together. But it is finally dependent on the unifying imagination of a single author.

Perhaps the place to begin now is with the sense in which the novels constitute a trilogy. Each is entirely self-sufficient, and there are no interconnections; characters do not reappear (with a few minor exceptions) and there are no allusions or cross-references. There is absolutely no resemblance to the popular three-decker “trilogies” which chronicle three generations of a family, house, or town. Chronologically, the time-sequence is reversed: Death of the Fox is focused primarily on Sir Walter Ralegh’s execution in 1618, The Succession on James I’s succession in 1603, and Entered from the Sun on 1597 and Christopher Marlowe’s death four years earlier. The three make up a trilogy only in that together they form both a portrait of an age and an image of human life.

Entered from the Sun is much shorter than the other two, and in many ways more accessible and more obviously attractive than they are. Both the others were centrally concerned with historical figures—Fox with Ralegh and Succession with James I, most obviously—but, except for a brief scene in which Ralegh appears, all the characters in Sun are purely fictional. (This is not to say that they are merely moderns in period costume, as in popular historical novels; they are profoundly and fascinatingly of their own time, not ours. But they belong to private life, not on the stage of history.) Finally, Sun is a murder mystery, and exploits all the legitimate appeals of that genre (which includes, of course, Oedipus the King and Hamlet). Since the chief characters are all investigating the murder of Christopher Marlowe, which involves dangerous political and religious issues, there is plenty of narrative suspense and violence as well as logical deduction. Even sex and a touch of the supernatural are involved, not merely as added attractions but as central to the plot.

The most important factor, however, in making Sun more immediately appealing than the other two novels is that its cast of characters is much smaller—only three, plus two persistent ghosts—and these characters, being private and low in social status, can be more fully developed than any in the other novels. The three main characters are both highly individual and representative of very different parts of the Elizabethan world; they interact unpredictably at the same time they complement and contrast with each other in their historical aspects. Joseph Hunnyman is a minor actor who lives by his wits, handsome and clever, but something of a plausible rogue. He lives with, and would like to marry, Alysoun, a young and beautiful widow who carries on her husband’s business as stationer (printing, publishing, and bookselling). William Barfoot, a tough old soldier, monstrously ugly but a man of conviction (a Catholic) and honor, becomes involved with them because both he and Hunnyman are employed to investigate Marlowe’s murder. (Marlowe had certainly been a spy, as well as an atheist and homosexual, and though the facts of his murder—killed in a tavern brawl over the reckoning—were no mystery, the question of its significance remained—and remains—open. It was a time of intrigue and power struggles between various factions, each with its own spies.)

Alysoun (the name calls up delicious memories of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Miller’s Tale) is sexy, intelligent, and independent; she is psychically sensitive, and, in some sense, possessed by Marlowe’s ghost, and the suggestion is that Marlowe’s spirit, which had always wanted to be in a woman’s body, is satisfied and appeased by her intercourse with Barfoot and giving birth to his child.

As in the other novels, Garrett employs multiple narrators, picturing them as ghosts speaking to him in their own voices. In Sun, however, there is a complication: the narrator who presides, and of whose presence we are regularly reminded, is a failed minor poet who has known Marlowe, is employed to investigate his death, lusts after Alysoun, and through a misunderstanding is almost killed; he ends his life as a drunken beggar. His soliloquies provide a different point of view, that of someone contemporary with the main characters and like them but unlucky and unsuccessful. He fits in with the gloomy aspect of the book (the title comes from Emily Dickinson’s “Doom is the House without the Door—/’Tis entered from the sun, /And then the ladder’s thrown away/ Because escape is done”), and the pervasive feeling of the Elizabethans, which we tend to forget, that the world is decaying, that theirs are the last days not only of the century but perhaps of the world.

As in the other novels, Garrett does not attempt to provide new solutions to historical mysteries or new interpretations of what historical characters were really like. There are no backstairs revelations about Ralegh, Marlowe, or the School of Night; instead, there are marvelous distillations of the life of the time, glimpses of the notables as they would have been in 1597: Shakespeare discouraged about the stage and planning to retire to Stratford (though Alysoun says he never will), Ralegh playing his dangerous games, Essex playing soldier, Marlowe’s ghost reliving his violent death scene.

Hunnyman, clever and lucky and unscrupulous, looking out for himself alone, outlives the others; he marries a rich widow and lives to a ripe old age in the country. Barfoot is killed in Ireland; Alysoun and her young husband die of the plague. But her son (fathered by Barfoot in the flesh, but spiritually Marlowe’s child) may have lived; the narrator’s ignorance leaves hope.

Garrett’s rendering of the Elizabethans’ sense of time—so different from ours—is impressive here as in the other volumes—the rituals and ceremonies, the interweaving of the agricultural and the ecclesiastical year, the public and the private. For example: “It is Blood Month in England, time for the slaughtering of beasts before winter. And not far from here . . .animals are dying amid much groaning and squealing. Throats are cut and then the bleeding beast is hung up, hoisted by the heels to be gutted and cleaned. Oh, all that red and blue! All the slime and shit of it! Never mind. Come this Christmas and that boar’s head will be brought in to music on a huge platter. Smiling.”

This is a story of spies, of whom Barfoot writes to his brother, “All that can be said for certain about spies, in this our age of spies, is that we can never truly know where their loyalty and allegiance may lie. I conclude that the best of them must be assumed always to have played on both sides in everything. Duplicity is the essence of their craft. And I cannot imagine that they ever believe in much more than the craft they practice . . . Knowing that Christopher Marlowe was a spy has helped me, not so much to understand him as to understand that there is much about him that neither I nor any man will ever know.”

It is a story of doom and fear of death; as the author says in his Greeting, a dark story of clenched fists: “Here we meet with malcontents, with the disenchanted and disillusioned. Here are murderers and secret agents. Here are bitterly ambitious and lost souls.” But the remarkable thing is that the other side is never forgotten: “Not to forget, now or ever, the long-lost brightness and shine, the hope and glory of those times. But likewise to remember, keeping in mind, the other side of it. Strong discontent, cold despair, end-of-the-world indifference.” And at the end the author returns to this image: “Christopher Marlowe’s death may have been sudden and brutal and sordid and, finally, mysterious. But the greater and deeper and very joyful mystery is how, beyond all the known facts of his life and death, beyond the boundaries of the age he found himself living in, his living words, as best we can still recollect and resurrect them, thrive and flourish even here and now—shining! Shining in and out of darkness.”

When reviewers every week hail the publication of new masterpieces in language of the most extravagant hype, what is one to say when a real masterpiece comes along? Of this one, it is enough to say that it is fully as good as (though in many ways quite different from) its two predecessors. The trilogy as a whole re-creates an age—from Marlowe’s death to Ralegh’s, 1593—1618—with wonderful vividness, completeness, and accuracy, and also, by implication, interprets it in relation to our own. It tampers with no facts, fictionalizes no history, but creates living characters who represent both their own time and the universally human in any time.


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