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June 21, 2012 / Mathew Lyons

Out now in paperback: The Favourite

The Favourite, my book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Ralegh, is now out in paperback through Constable. The new edition includes a lengthy afterword taking the story through to the end of Ralegh’s life in 1618.

‘The Favourite is wonderful. Elegant and intriguing – a seductive portrait of a fascinating relationship. I couldn’t put it down.’
Helen Castor, author of She-Wolves and Blood and Roses. Helen also chose The Favourite as one of her books of 2011 in The Telegraph.

‘It is a compelling and beguiling read, full of little known details for the general reader. Like Ralegh himself, Lyons has a magical turn of phrase that compels the reader to turn the pages to find out what happens next…’
Susan Ronald, author of Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire

‘Stunningly researched, The Favourite pulses with the lethal intrigues of the Elizabethan court. Above and apart stands Ralegh, the adventurer who wanted to give his queen a new world. A moving portrait of two fiercely independent individuals and their intimate, secret bond.’
Barbara Kyle, author of The Queen’s Lady

‘Impeccably researched book by a real enthusiast for the subject, revealing the true story behind the relationship between Elizabeth I and the great Sir Walter Ralegh.’
Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

‘A beautifully-written, imaginative volume (and the prose really is superb)… very entertaining, eminently readable.’
Jonathan Wright, Herald Scotland

‘The Favourite offers an intriguing and perceptive understanding of a relationship that continues to fascinate down the centuries.’
Lucinda Byatt, Historical Novels Review

‘A vivid picture of the glitter and hazards at court, with its jealousies and intrigues.’
East Anglia Daily Times

The Favourite was also selected as a History Today summer read by historian Linda Porter.

The Favourite is available from Amazon, Waterstones and all good bookshops.

October 6, 2014 / Mathew Lyons

History Today column: Lost in translation

We are all familiar with the opening life of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Like all elegantly expressed truths it quickly became a cliché. And, as such, like all clichés, it obscures as much as it reveals. It is difficult not to look on the alienness of the past as indiscriminately and equally estranged from us; just as the ancient Greeks were indifferent to the infinite distinctions among those they labeled barbaros, ‘barbarians’ – which in essence means ‘those who cannot speak Greek’ – so the past can begin to seem homogeneously foreign, lost in translation. Indeed, perhaps our search for continuities is in itself a tacit acknowledgement of the voids and spaces we try so hard to ignore as we peer behind us to the vanishing horizon.

But it is easy to forget that, for all but a handful of our ancestors, most of their world was no less foreign to them than it is to us, a place of wonder, discomfort and fear where misapprehensions could quickly proliferate like flies in the heat. This, at any rate, was the thought that occurred to me as I flicked through an example of one of the least explored literary genres of the early-modern and medieval world, the pilgrims’ travel guide.

The book in question, Informacion for Pylgrymes unto the Holy Londe, based on the travels of a group some forty English pilgrims, was published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498. It was by no means the first of its kind. Pilgrim itineraries survive from the fourth century, including one written by an Abbess Etheria from Gaul who crossed both the western and eastern Roman Empires to reach Jerusalem before continuing on into Egypt. And as the crusades inevitably reopened pilgrimage routes to the east so they brought forth many more examples of the genre – most notably, perhaps, those ascribed to Philippus Brusserius Savonensis in the fourteenth century and Felix Fabbri in the fifteenth.

One of the most striking things about such guides, to the modern mind, is the lack of a sense of history. The landscapes and sites that are described are those of the Bible itself: numinous, immemorial and unchanged. A bow-shot from the city of Hebron, says Philippus, is “a cave or crypt in which Adam and his wife did penance for a hundred years after the death of their son Abel”. The house where Mary went to school in Jerusalem is hard by the house of Pilate, where her son received his crown of thorns. De Worde can direct you to the place where the Jews cast lots for Jesus’ clothes. Such things reminds us that, for even the most religious among us, the immediate living presence of the holy and sacred has ebbed from much of the world.

But De Worde’s book is more recognisably a guide book in the modern sense. Some of his advice would not be out of place in a Rough Guide today. Of traveling by sea, he says,

“chose you a chambre as nyghe the myddes of the shippe as ye may, for there is leest rollynge or tomblynge to kepe your brayne and stomache in tempre.” Always beware of thieves: “Take gode hede to your knyves… for the Sarracyns wol go talkyng by you and make gode chere, but thei woll stele from you if they maye.” And at the back there is a surprisingly practical glossary of useful phrases – “It’s raining”, “Where is the tavern?”, “You will be paid tomorrow”, and so on.

The very familiarity of the form makes the sense of estrangement from the way his pilgrims understand what they are seeing all the more acute. The juxtaposition of a genre that seems wholly familiar to us and a world – indeed a world-view – that is centuries dead somehow makes the latter more comprehensible and human, its reality more tangible. The pilgrims have made a journey through foreign lands where they have to learn how to talk and how to live to reach a destination that feels intimately known to them but is also wholly unknown. In this sense, at least, they are entirely like us as we work to understand them, these people we want to feel kinship and common humanity with, but who continually surprise us with their stubborn, resisting alienness.

October 6, 2014 / Mathew Lyons

History Today column: All was not feigned

In May Brighton College, an independent fee-paying school, announced its intention to make the study of history compulsory for all pupils through to 18. Whatever one’s view of the decision, the fact that it was considered unusual and innovative enough to make the national newspapers should give us – and anyone interested in the practice and pleasures of history – pause for thought.

Should it not be obvious why the past is worth studying all the way through school? And, if it is not obvious, do we make the case for our subject’s virtues with sufficient force? What, indeed, are its virtues?

For me history isn’t really about the past. It is about how we engage with the past, which isn’t quite the same thing. That is what makes it such an excellent educational tool: to read history is to be constantly aware of the struggle between certainty and doubt. Indeed ‘bad’ history – poor research, weak methodology, clumsy arguments and so on – can be just as instructive and illuminating as its counterpart, precisely because it draws attention to the processes and techniques that all historians use.

All history is selective. But where, then, is its truth? One way to answer that question is to consider the areas in which history is most unlike itself, the margins of the discipline where it clearly shades into other traditions of thought, where facts are at best unstable and often largely absent.

I am thinking in particular about the way in which English history in the early modern period was in the process of awkwardly coming to terms with how earlier writers, most notoriously Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-55), had filled their narratives with fables. It has always struck me as fascinating how the potent nation-forging narrative of Holinshed’s Chronicles could be acute enough to encourage vigorous censorship from the Privy Council and yet capacious enough in its understanding of history to include Monmouth’s pagan English kings and their descent from the Trojan prince Aeneas, through Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain.

Lear is the most famous of these, but the story of his father, which appears to have been Monmouth’s invention, is altogether more fabulous.

His name was Baldud. He began his reign in the 385th year of the world. Practised in the arts of astronomy and necromancy, he used his skills in the latter to establish both the hot springs and the settlement of what became the city of Bath. Such was his intellectual ambition and self-belief that he fashioned himself a pair of wings and leapt to his death from the tower of the temple of Apollo in the city of Troynovent, as London was styled in the Brutish mythos.

Other chroniclers embellished the tale further: that Baldud spent many years studying in Athens, bringing back a number of learned men to create a university at Stamford, for example.

It is easy to mock these stories, but are they so different to today’s fashionable counterfactuals? And what do such mythical tales, and the fact that they were once found nestling comfortably in history’s arms, tell us about what history is for?

In fact it is not difficult to discern a range of still active contemporary approaches, from the almost homiletic lesson-learning, to profound questions about identity and ancestry that our subject still inspires. And then there is the mesmerising clarity of narrative itself, the desire to order and make sense of human life which history, a fact-based discipline that requires the insights of art to flourish, is perfectly placed to do. History can seduce us, even, perhaps particularly, those narratives that, in Milton’s evocative phrase, can be ‘exploded for fictions’.Yet history also equips us with the tools to undeceive ourselves.

It is worth quoting Milton’s own justification for including mythical and quasi-mythical narratives in his history of Britain:

Ofttimes relations heretofore accounted fabulous have been after found to contain in them many footsteps and reliques of something true … All was not feigned.

Footsteps and relics: the relics of the past are countless in number. But, to paraphrase Dryden on Ben Jonson’s use of the Classics, when we try to make sense of them, we find our own footprints everywhere in their snow.

October 6, 2014 / Mathew Lyons

History Today column: How chances it they travel?

One of the many criticisms leveled at Michael Gove’s revision of the history curriculum was that is would reduce lessons to little more than the recitation and memorializing of facts, to what Sir Philip Sidney called ‘the bare was’ of history. But the simpler a statement of fact is, the more it deceives us of its certainty – and particularly so when facts are strung together like prayer beads to form a providential narrative of national greatness, as Gove’s vision did.

The problem we have as historians is that such narratives – themselves almost indistinguishable from myths – have a tenacity that genuine history with its caveats and lacunae struggles to overcome. And in practice the seductiveness of their clarity only serves to provide the past with a more subtle oblivion than mere erasure. Once the glass is cloudy, it is impossible to clean.

English literary history, bound up as it is with ideas about both national greatness and transcendent artistic expression, seems to be particularly fertile ground for romantic and ahistorical assumptions, and nowhere more so than in discussion of Shakespeare’s theatre and the emergence of purpose-built theatres in London out of the itinerant performing culture that had preceded them. Actually, even that word ‘preceded’ is problematic. While perfectly true in itself it implies a Whiggish progression, an evolution that, in Shakespeare’s time at least, was far from evident. The purpose-built theatres existed as part of the economy of the touring players and, in fact, would not have been financially viable without them. Indeed, it was the Globe and its rivals in London that were the anomalies: theatre, as Shakespeare would have understood it, was a mobile art. And, as such, a lucrative one.

The late Barbara D Palmer, medieval and renaissance drama scholar, constructed a narrative out of the tangled Clifford family accounts at Londesborough in Yorkshire’s East Riding for Shrovetide 1598 which perfectly exemplifies the complexity and sophistication of this forgotten convergence of commerce and culture. At some point previously, the family had engaged Lord Derby’s players to entertain them and their guests over the week. The troupe, perhaps 15-strong, arrived on the Saturday and began its schedule of performances. So far, so commonplace. What is eye-opening is the apparent fact that a second troupe arrives at the house on the Monday afternoon also claiming to be Lord Derby’s players. After what one must assume was a certain amount of heated debate, they were sent away again – but not without payment. In the meantime, Palmer argues, one player had left for another engagement and another arrived from the Lord of Westmoreland’s troupe to take his place.

Evidently, a performing economy which could support a fake playing troupe alongside its authentic namesake was by no means a poor one. Nor could it have been as hazardous or haphazard a business proposition as literary scholars are still inclined to think. The common presumption remains that touring was what players did when they couldn’t perform in London, that it was a necessity, not a choice. Hence Ian Donaldson in his superb recent biography of Ben Jonson, writes, as many others have before him, ‘All of the major theatrical companies traveled regularly, especially… at times when plague forced the closure of the London playhouses’. But this presumption is based more on the idea that a theatrical base in the capital is the sine qua non of artistic life – that is, on the intensely metropolitan parochialism of our elites – than it is on what data still survives.

But history, no less than society, deals uneasily with fluidity and indeterminacy – and with mobility in general. We think in social strata. We think in fixed polities: the court, the City, the church. Gove’s reductive ‘bare was’ approach is a simplification of a cliché; but it is an intellectual silo not so very different in kind from those we all tend to work in. The truth is that our conceptual Elizabethan England is more centralised and London-centric than Elizabeth’s ever was.

The itinerant performing culture of early modern England culture is mostly lost; its energy derived from pre-Reformation ideas of festival and performance, its currency was aural, its trade experiential. But given that, there is perhaps a case for saying that it provides an excellent metaphor for the quiddity of history, for those essential protean contradictory truths we try to construct from what scant data remains scattered through archives and libraries.

Each individual fact tells us little. But handled with sufficient delicacy, dexterity and imagination they can be shaped to force the merest of cracks in an oblivion that will, in time, entomb us all. For me, that is the strongest argument for the study of history there is.

June 9, 2014 / Mathew Lyons

John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship: an interview with Andy Kesson

Lyly coverLast week saw the launch of Andy Kesson’s brilliant new book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, which makes an eloquent and powerful case for both the quality of Lyly’s work and its importance to early modern literature as we understand it. It is full of fascinating insights into literary and print culture and commerce and I urge anyone who is interested in the period to read it.

Born in 1554, Lyly is best remembered today for Eupheus, the Anatomy of Wit his 1578 prose fiction which seems to have taken London and the court by storm. “All our ladies were then his scholars,” it was later said, “and that beauty at court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.”

But that fashionable success has in many respects served to damn him for generation after generation of literary critics. Lyly would abandon prose and become arguably the most successful playwright of the 1580s, writing under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford for the boy companies at the Blackfriars and later at St Paul’s. His reputation though, more than most, suffers from his not being Shakespeare: in literary history Lyly is usually cast simply as a writer whose superficial popularity and wit was superseded by Shakespeare’s greater art. It reflects a dismally Darwinian approach to culture, to say the least; but it is one which Andy’s book is sure to help rectify.

I wasn’t able to make the launch – fittingly held at the Globe Theatre – but a couple of months ago Andy was kind enough to sit down with me over a coffee or two in Paddington for a wide-ranging discussion about Lyly and early modern culture.

ML: I was reading GK Hunter’s article on Lyly in the DNB before I came. I must have read it before but I was struck this morning by the thunderous snobbery of its tone. There’s a moment when Hunter talks about Lyly’s reputation towards the end of the sixteenth century and, to support his thesis that Lyly was no longer fashionable, he has to dismiss Lyly’s evident continuing popularity with the reading public by, essentially, dismissing the entire reading public itself. “Euphues continued to be reprinted (twenty editions of the two parts were printed before the end of the century), but its admirers were no longer at the top of the social scale.”

When you look at it, the way Hunter attempts to hide those twenty editions in parenthesis is sleight-of-hand of the lowest order.

AK: Lyly’s modern editors still say [that sort of thing] very frankly. Scholars of rhetoric say that sort of thing all the time. It’s being read; but it’s being read by the wrong sort of people. It is extraordinary.

ML: Why do you think they say that?

AK: Hunter says elsewhere that Lyly’s tragedy was that he descended into the market and made a fool of himself.

ML: Is it just academic snobbery?

AK: It’s a way of defending the literary canon that scholars prefer to sanction. I think the reason people say that sort of thing goes back to the nineteenth century. There’s a very clear reception process for Lyly. In 1632 Edward Blount edits six Lyly plays, the six core comedies, and writes a preface which claims how important Lyly was to the Elizabethan period.

Lyly is then essentially not read for a hundred years.

In 1744, Robert Dodsley writes about Lyly but very clearly either hasn’t read Lyly or has read the Blount preface much more carefully, and he repeats with outrage how successful and popular Lyly was in the age of Shakespeare.

In 1810, again after a long period in which no-one really looks at Lyly, Walter Scott comes across exactly the same material – both the Blount and the Dodsley – and republishes Dodsley’s edition and its negative assessment of Lyly himself. And then in 1820 Scott writes a novel with a Lyly character in it, someone who has not only read Lyly but clearly is meant to be Lyly. This character has a doubly phallic name, Sir Piercy Shafton, and is constantly trying to flirt and have sex with women in an inept manner while spouting lots of silly rhetoric.

And, from then on, the word euphuism is the lynchpin word for denoting empty popularism, constantly being contrasted, as you can imagine, with Shakespeare’s natural genius. Lyly is affected, and that affectation, unfortunately, was a corruption, to use one nineteenth century word for it, or a poison, an illness. There are no positive terms for it.

So we have this nineteenth century cluster of terms, all of them negative, all about illness, denoting popular literature and popular forms of rhetoric for people to trot out. So there’s quite a specific through-story and it’s still there in Hunter, when he talks about the accumulation of sneers that accompany Lyly’s work, that his work becomes less popular the moment Shakespeare starts writing. There’s no evidentiary basis for any of that, except occasionally in a couple of Jonson plays, where Jonson has people he’s mocking celebrating Lyly. But that of course is another version of his popularity…

ML: But then Jonson also describes him as “our Lyly” in his prefatory poem to Shakespeare’s Folio, which is warm praise coming from Jonson.

AK: Absolutely. That word “our” is very important. That notion of “our Lyly”. And is that Shakespeare and Jonson’s Lyly? Is that England’s Lyly? It’s a very interesting pronoun I think.

ML: I read it as being a writer’s “our”. Digressing to talk about Jonson for a moment though: the idea that hangs around Lyly is the notion of a humanist courtier poet, with courtier being pejorative, yet no-one forced himself into court work as much as Jonson, and he is the antithesis of the kind of person Lyly is projected to be. He doesn’t get tainted with that kind of brush. Is that because he has a defined persona outside of the masque work?

Lyly is caged by the rhetoric that is used to define him. Going back to the popularist tag, there’s a kind of doubleness about it, whether its a term of approbation or condemnation, Hunter seems to be saying, “Lyly was popular which was great; and then he carried on being popular, but in a way that wasn’t great.”

AK: Hunter and a bunch of other scholars made exactly that point.

ML: So what was it that attracted you to Lyly?

AK: I really liked the combination of the rhetorical self-consciousness and the issue of his popularity, both his contemporary popularity and the total spurning from the canon thereafter. It was that cluster of characteristics about not just his work but his work’s reception that really fascinated me.

I started the project with a fairly clear sense that he was probably a playwright who wouldn’t be worth staging today. What I saw when I first started reading Lyly as a lack of linear narrative I now see as rhetorical self-consciousness. I wasn’t very interested in staging the plays; I was simply interested in the plays in their own time. But I learned a very valuable lesson during the process because just from doing some very perfunctory staging I realised that Lyly’s work was fantastic on the stage. I’ve witnessed so many actors and directors fall in love with him over the last four or five years. It’s been an additional, massive bonus to the project and certainly something that I discovered along the way. It’s a great example of how much academics have to learn from theatre practitioners.

ML: Why wasn’t it obvious that it would work well on stage?

AK: In my eyes, it’s because it’s so different to the Shakespearean dramatic paradigm. So it’s in prose. It’s short. And the other thing I always bang on about is the centrality of female characters. Both the number of them and the size and power of their roles. All of those things make Lyly seem very different on stage.

And his use of narrative is really interesting. Sapho and Phao is about a virgin queen whose virginity offends Venus. Venus tries to force her to fall in love with the local boy Phao and at the end of the play, Sapho kidnaps Cupid in order to take control of love. And then the epilogue comes on stage and says, ‘this is the end where we first began’.

People like Hunter say this is typical of Lyly: nothing happens in Lyly. So you get a word like static being a favourite term to describe his dramaturgy.

On the contrary, though, everything has completely changed. Sapho is now in charge of Cupid and, more importantly, Phao goes off into exile at the end of the play, whereas the play begins with Phao saying, ‘I’m very happy, I’m a ferry boy, Everything’s fantastic. Thank God I’m not a courtier.’

He then gets forced into the court and forced to fall in love by Venus and then when he’s spurned by Sapho he’s forced by love into exile. So the play is really bookmarked by the second of the two protagonists clearly having a traumatic life experience. But then the Epilogue says, ‘Nothing has happened in this play, there’s nothing to see here’. It’s a really good example of how Lyly is being clever and careful with narrative. So again that was a big lesson for me. What looks on the page like a lack of narrative turns out to be dynamic and exciting on the stage.

ML: We tend to talk about prose and drama in very different terms culturally. Almost as a hierarchy. How does Lyly sit with that? Does he subvert it, for example?

AK: He only subverts it from a modern perspective. It’s a hard question to answer from Lyly’s perspective. I suppose I think of the forms being in a continuum. It’s an easier question to answer from someone like Greene’s perspective because he’s moving between the two forms all the time. Whereas Lyly does seem to have a structure built into his career: prose fiction and then plays.

But take the example of Galatea, which gets reworks by Lodge as Rosalind which gets reworked by Shakespeare as As You Like It. It’s a great example of a play that becomes a prose fiction which becomes a play, whereas scholarship tends to think of that process as unidirectional: prose fiction becoming a play.

ML: One of the banes of Shakespearean scholarship is the hunt for sources because it’s a very reductive and limiting way of looking at any work, but in particular creative work. And that’s also a unidirectional process: everything ends in Shakespeare. It never adequately reflects any kind of cultural dialogue for want of a better phrase. I really like those kinds of cultural continuities. There’s a resistance to looking at these things as stories, as narratives which might even have a life outside of print.

AK: Absolutely. And the early printed plays look like prose fictions. Very very few plays across the period have a Greek subject matter. But the earliest plays to be printed all have Greek titles: Galatea, Campaspe, Sapho and Phao – and in that sense they look like prose fiction. Euphues, Greene’s Menaphon, Munday’s Zalauto. these prose fictions were characterised by their wacky Greek titles usually followed by a colon and then some explanation of some kind.

Even Tamberlaine looked like prose fiction. These books are all roughly the same size, even, and probably similar in price. This is something I’m suggesting in the book. One of the reasons Euphues was popular is that it’s such a different book to the earlier prose fictions, such as Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, which is a large book compared to a short prose fiction which is about this guy called Euphues or whatever. It’s on this model that plays can start to be published too.

ML: Did people look at a playscript in print and look on it as something different to a dialogue, say?

AK: I suspect different people treated the material different ways. It is like a dialogue. It’s even like a prose fiction. Painter’s Palace of Pleasure has marginalia guiding you from speech to speech. If you want to, you don’t have to read the narrative descriptions between the speeches at all. Very useful if you are dramatising a story of course. Greene’s Pandosto – the source for The Winter’s Tale – actually turns into a script at one point, as if it is recording a moment in Greene’s compositional process where he thinks he’s writing a play. The line between the two forms in print is finer than people like to think of it.

And they can certainly be treated in similar ways. These are fictional stories. They’re usually about class and gender – and transgressions thereof. And that’s really all they’re about. Possibly transgressions of knowledge as well. They are very, very similar forms. And the Greekness of the early printed plays at a time when prose fiction is also Greek – think of Sidney’s Arcadia for example – is very interesting. Maybe they become more distinct as the purpose-built theatres become more self-confident places of business.

ML: So when Euphues appeared in 1578 it was a major innovation?

AK: It was a really new kind of book. And depending on your definition of the novel, it represents a very important stage in notions of the novel. It’s a shorter, smaller book with a longer story about a single person. The Palace of Pleasure is an anthology.

But the response to Euphues is immediate. Within months you’ve got Munday publishing Zelauto, which also has Euphues in the subtitle, and Greene’s Mamilia, and so on. The anthologised story just disappears over night and it is replaced by this new form. You get one further reprint of the Palace of Pleasure in 1584 and that’s it.

ML: Is Euphues a new kind of character too?

AK: Yes, I think so. In the sense that there’s not a lot of character there, in traditional terms. Both he and his narrator seem to really delight in his ability to shift for the moment. There’s quite an early speech where he boasts that he can be any countryman of any nationality and everyone would want him. He can embody any stereotype. He’s a very strange kind of character. A revised version of the book is printed in 1579. Euphues was reprinted four or five times in one year alone and Lyly starts to revise it. And what he does is to take out most of Euphues’ stable characteristics and replace them by celebrating his uncertainty. Then when the sequel comes out, Eupheus is a different character altogether. He is younger and there are lots of strange things going on about identity.

ML: In a period where identities are very structured and people’s identities are very tied up with family, trade, location, gender, and so on, the idea of someone who could be anything is very thrilling: all those frissons of difference.

AK: It’s a bit of a clichéd phrase itself, but Lyly talks of him as being like wax. He could be made into any form he wished. Which is the same thing he said about his actors and his characters in his plays. He’s very keen on that idea.

ML It strikes me there are a whole cluster of reasons people get snobby about Lyly. As a general rule, literary scholars don’t feel very comfortable with the idea of fashionability. It automatically connotes a kind of shallowness. And there’s the prose – and the fact he wrote so much for the boy companies is another black mark against him for a lot of scholars.

AK: I’m sure that’s right, although it doesn’t seem to attach to someone like Marston, that I can see.  Certainly Marston isn’t patronised by writing for boys. But the later boy companies had a very different reputation: they are satirical, they are subversive. I think it’s about politics again: Marston doesn’t look like a royalist.  Lyly looks like a royalist to the 19th century and after.

ML I was thinking, coming in on the train, that the Malcontent is kind of like Euphues’ chippier younger brother. He’s really pissed off and sour and sardonic about the world and the smooth manners and cultivated airs of those, such as Euphues, who have succeeded in it…

AK: I really can’t get my head around how the Elizabethan’s read Euphues. I take comfort in the fact that whenever people like Greene and Lodge refer to the Euphues narrative, his fictional story, they always get it wrong. So I think he’s someone who is always being mis-read. When Lodge writes a continuation of the Euphues story, he’s got the characters married to the wrong people and in fact assumes there’s a marriage where there isn’t one.  The point to the story is that Philautus fails to get married at the end of Euphues and his England and Lodge just has Philautus married to his lover in his continuation.

Bo0cMUcIcAAnYWgML What do you think Lyly’s current standing is?

AK Not great, I think. It has perhaps got a little bit better in the last couple of years.

I’ve certainly encountered lots of snobbery and maybe fear is too strong a word – but a sense of worry, condescension or being troubled that anyone would look at Lyly. I get less of that now, but maybe that’s because I’m no longer a PhD student or maybe attitudes are just changing generally. I think the Globe has been formative for that. And Perry Mills’ boys company at the King Edward VI School, in Stratford. And the Revels editions I’m sure have had a big impact too.

My only worry is that in 1902 when R Warwick Bond edited the complete works and in 1962 when GK Hunter published his John Lyly: the humanist as courtier, they both announced that Lyly was being rediscovered and was about to become central again. And both were wrong. So I hope history isn’t about to repeat itself.

ML: It’s hard to see why Hunter wrote the book because he doesn’t seem to like Lyly particularly… Anyway, I’m really pleased you’re now working on the 1580s. I did an English degree and the more I think about it the more wrong-headed it seems to have been. I think the whole idea of close-reading mitigates against an understanding of how literary culture operates. You don’t get to read any stuff in fourteeners; you don’t really get to read much of what writers and their contemporaries themselves were reading. So you have no chance of really understanding how, say, Lodge had his own Euphues. The 1580s is a great lost period.

AK: Yes, I agree. Especially if you’re interested in the theatre. It’s the first decade where we have a significant witness to what was on stage. Lyly is so important because his entire corpus is 1580s so it’s the only surviving corpus of work from one writer from that decade.

ML: I’m quite fascinated by men like Thomas Watson, too – like Lyly an associate of the Earl of Oxford. Watson is invisible to us as a writer really, but I find the idea of someone who was clearly influential but who has to all intents and purposes vanished off the literary map very compelling. I think we don’t pay enough attention to the gaps. Is there much of Lyly’s work lost?

AK: I suspect there is loads. Both of the boy companies he wrote for were closed down. And I suspect there are quite a few works lost certainly from the second company because of the plays they were putting on,. It’s possible, of course, that there are works still to be discovered.

ML: Tell me about Lyly’s later career. He did fade didn’t he?

AK: Well it depends what you mean by ‘fade’. He stopped writing, as far as we can tell. And he becomes an MP. He had four or five different seats around Yorkshire. I suppose I resist the idea that he faded because I don’t know what evidence there is to support it. The work sells better in the 1590s than it did in the 1580s and it’s still selling at a significant rate. By Ian Green’s definition of popularity in Print and Protestantism Lyly was still popular in the 1630s. So his work is still very influential and in print. His work is around.

He dies poor. But then so did almost everyone who wrote for a living apart from Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s money doesn’t come from playwriting. So I’m not sure that he does fade. He does seem to stop writing or to write differently and that seems to be connected to the companies closing down.

ML: Did he ever make any attempts to write for the leading adult companies?

AK: Not that we know of. It used to be thought that Woman in the Moon was an adult play because it was in blank verse…

ML: That’s an interesting assumption.

AK: Yes. But Leah Scragg has shown convincingly that it was for the boys company.  I’m also fascinated by the fact that he doesn’t continue to write prose fiction. Those two prose fictions are the best-selling fictions of the period. There is nothing that challenges them. And there are so many sequels and spin-offs being written by Munday, Greene, Lodge and so on. Why doesn’t Lyly write more? Given that he dies poor. So the move away from the theatre and from prose fiction is very interesting. And I suspect reflects a typical unease about a writing career.

ML: So he died in 1606 and his work was still selling. Would he have known that?

AK: He seems to be involved in the process of printing his works, perhaps even as late as 1601. Lyly’s hand feels to be quite close to the plays that are in print. Everyone of his editors has suggested that this is material that has been looked at in press by the author.

ML: When did the plays get into print?

AK: Between 1584 and 1601, which is Love’s Metamorphosis. But in particular through the 1590s. He may have been involved in the 1601 production, but certainly up to 1594 he seems to have been involved in the printing of his plays. And again I’m arguing in the book that those editions of the plays are really significant, that those are the beginning of the market for print plays.

So Alan Farmer and Zachary Lesser have been trying to work out where the market for printed plays come from in their work on the popular play, and they can’t work out why 1594 is such an important year. And neither could Peter Blayney and neither could Pollard all those years ago.

Farmer and Lesser call it a boomlet – which may be my favourite word ever – but none of them think to look before 1594. They are all looking for reasons for this explosion of plays in 1594 itself. So they say that the reopening of the theatres meant that the theatres want to readvertise their wares. That might explain why the theatres want anything out there, but it doesn’t explain why the publishers do.

And I think what is happening is that in 1591-2 and again in 1594 loads of Lyly play editions come out – five editions of Campaspe and Sapho and Phao and five new plays in 1591-2. Along with the 1590 edition of Marlowe’s Tamberlaine and a couple of other plays that seems to be the beginnings of this market. It’s a really important moment.

ML: What’s the relationship between his contemporary reputation and the print market? Euphues was a big hit, but how popular were the plays in print?

AK: Hunter would say not popular.Whereas I would say they were very popular given the lack of market for that kind of book. So Hunter and after him David Bevington both note that the prose fiction is sold and resold – republished – and the plays tend not to be.

But for my money what’s significant is that the same publisher is publishing a series of Lyly plays and in fact Joan Brome, the 1591-2 publisher, specifically says in the first publication that she is going to publish a series of Lyly plays: ‘see what you make of them’, she tells her readers. So she thinks of them as a series. Some of Lyly’s plays get reprinted – and are the first to be reprinted in this manner – and even when some of the plays aren’t reprinted, they represent new investments in the author himself at a time when other playwrights simply aren’t being printed at all. The fact that she’s still investing in Lyly plays through that period, that seems to be where the significance is.

And Campaspe is the first Elizabethan play to be reprinted, Its reprinted three times in one year. There’s nothing else like that until Jonson comes along with Every Man In His Humour nearly twenty years later.

ML: Was that success something to do with his works having been written for the boy companies and therefore being seen as more exclusive. Almost as if there were an aspirational market for the plays?

AK: Boys, Elizabeth and Lyly are what’s selling those plays I suspect. Boys and Elizabeth get advertised on the title page. Interestingly they were published anonymously, but there’s loads and loads of evidence that people knew who wrote the plays. And it’s only Lyly’s plays that are getting printed and reprinted. Again, I’ve made the argument in the book that bibliographical anonymity is not the same as cultural anonymity. I could be wrong about that but it looks to me like Lyly is an important part of selling these plays.

For example, there’s a moment in Menaphon, the 1589 Greene prose fiction, where the narrator says a girl had studied Euphues and Sapho and Phao in order to learn how to flirt. So there’s a continuum between the two works. Lyly is the place to turn to in order to engage in convincingly sexy language, even where his works appear, on the title page, to be anonymous.

ML: What did Greene think of Lyly? Do we know?

AK: Well, we know how Greene represented himself thinking of Lyly. Greene wrote the most number of Euphues spin-offs. And even in his prose fiction which isn’t a spin-off he’s using Lyly work again and again and again. So he’s steeped in it. I think there’s a prefatory poem to Menaphon in which he says ‘Of all the flowers a Lyly once I loved’ which is always trotted out by the Hunter brigade to represent Lyly dropping off. But that is in a book subtitled Camilla’s Alarum to Slumbering Euphues in his Melancholy Cell at Silexedra, where ‘slumbering’ refers to Euphues not only sleeping but about to die: Greene is trying to kill off Euphues even as he reuses him. So there’s an anxious relationship with Lyly. It’s important to the composition and marketing of the book. And it’s also something that Greene is repudiating and trying to show that he has moved beyond.

John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship is currently available in hardback from Manchester University Press.

April 27, 2014 / Mathew Lyons

Sex, money and morality: Thomas Middleton’s A Trick To Catch The Old One

Trick posterFew people would disagree that Shakespeare’s shadow has served to obscure a great number of superb plays and playwrights. But Thomas Middleton has a good case for being the most unjustly neglected of them all. I was delighted to discover, therefore, that Mercurius, the independent production company run by my friend Jenny Eastop, was planning to stage Middleton’s rarely performed 1608 comedy A Trick To Catch The Old One at the Rose Theatre this May.

Jenny kindly agreed to take time out from rehearsals to discuss the play, the production and Middleton’s reputation generally.

For those who don’t know about Mercurius, could you give me some background to the company and its aims?
After 20 years as a director, being given plays to direct, I had a list of my own choice of plays I wanted to direct and the only solution seemed to be to start my own company. So I set up Mercurius in 2012, launching the company with a collection of Chekhov’s Vaudeville sketches translated and adapted by Michael Frayn at the Brockley Jack. This was successful enough for us to transfer it to Jermyn Street Theatre in 2013 and return there with it, as a co-production with Jermyn Street, in January 2014. In between Mercurius also produced Moliere’s School for Wives in a great modern version by Neil Bartlett at The White Bear in 2013 which received two Offie (Off West End Award) nominations for Best Director for myself and Best Actor for the lead Tom Barratt. A Trick to Catch the Old One is the fifth outing for Mercurius and our first time at The Rose Playhouse which is a fascinating venue, being performed in and amongst the foundations of the 1587 Philip Henslowe playhouse.

What attracted you to A Trick To Catch The Old One?
I specialised in Renaissance Theatre at university and did my thesis on Thomas Middleton so I’ve always been fascinated by his very modern, satirical take on life and his vibrant language. I particularly like his city comedies and edited A Trick to Catch the Old One some years ago for the National Theatre Studio, workshopping it for an in-house performance with some of the National Theatre company which was a great experience and made me determined to direct a fully staged version one day. It’s taken a while but I was delighted to revisit the play and my edited version.

Can you tell me something about the production?
I have made some pretty drastic cuts to the text. Partly to reduce the size of the company and cut down on potentially confusing doubling and partly to reduce the length of the play, this version runs at 1 hour 25 minutes without an interval. The cuts have removed the subplot involving Dampit and Gulf (which is a shame as the play shows arguably the first alcoholic on stage) and the peripheral characters of Lucre’s wife and Hoard’s niece’s suitors and the battle to net her. In cutting it the play does lose a little of its texture but it focuses much more clearly on the wild central plot to pass the Courtesan off as a rich widow as it spins out of Witgood’s control. I’ve updated the play to the modern age but placed it in the late 1940s during the days of rationing and desperate black market dealings to bring out the power of money and the gullibility of those who pursue it running through society in an age when so many were in a desperate scramble to survive and prosper.

What attracted you to the space at The Rose?
There are some very interesting performance spaces in London but The Rose really does hold a trump card. I like the simplicity of the wooden three sided stage that means the production has to be plainly staged, allowing the power of the story and the experiences of the characters to be the central focus. I also like the intense atmosphere of the dark underground flooded ruins, it feels unlike any other stage space. But above everything is the very moving sense of creating something amongst the foundations of Philip Henslowe’s 1587 playhouse. It is hard not to feel the baton being passed down the generations of theatre when you see something at The Rose on the very site where so many of our greatest plays were first performed.

Middleton seems to be slowly receiving his due as a writer for the stage. What do you think is distinctive about his work?
I liked Middleton from when I first came across him for his very modern attitude to life and human relationships. He uses very direct language with little poetry and few similes. His city comedies in particular really do hold a clear mirror up to the everyday audience of his, and our, time. Alongside Jonson he presented vice and immorality on stage in order to comment on what was happening in society, but unlike Jonson’s more obvious use of grotesques he pursues a much more naturalistic, ironic tone. He never applauds immorality but neither does he roundly condemn it, in Women Beware Women Leantio explains his behaviour by claiming “though sin be death, I had died if I had not sinned”. Middleton seems to understand the difficulties and complications of life.

What challenges have you found in staging A Trick To Catch The Old One?
The joy of a Middleton play is how clear the language is, how naturalistic and believable the characters are and how modern the dilemmas that fox them so the challenges in staging it are no more difficult than with a modern play. The only real challenge is making sure we tell the story clearly enough so the audience can follow the twists and turns of the various fiendish plots.

Why do you think Middleton – and A Trick… in particular – has been neglected for so long?
Middleton was viewed suspiciously for many years because of his down-to-earth, direct approach to the way people live their lives. His serious plays were neglected because they had no grand sweeping sense of tragedy and the profound importance of what was happening to the characters. The Revenger’s Tragedy had its first production in centuries as late as 1966 because it was seen as too farcical to be taken seriously. But this is precisely why I like Middleton, he is almost Chekhovian in his acknowledgement of how ridiculous life can be and how something tragic to the person involved can seem unimportant farce to an onlooker. His comedies suffer similarly in not carrying a message about how we should judge the characters but simply presents them and their lives as normal.

For those who don’t know the play, what have they been missing?
Firstly the play is very funny. The plot is incredibly inventive and subverts lots of our expectations of how people will behave and what will be the outcome. It is satirical and ironic but contains at its heart a real warmth towards its characters, they’re conning each other viciously but in the end they are family and neighbours; however outrageously the characters behave it is hard to end up hating any of them.

The play is – very broadly – about the scrabble for status and financial security in a dog-eat-dog world of debt and deceit. Everyone is complicit; no-one is innocent. The Victorians, in particular, thought the play amoral. Is that your take on it too?
Middleton was seen as very immoral for a long time because he didn’t write messages of moral indignation into his plays and openly condemns no-one, he has no righteous characters who act as spokesmen for morality. His characters are realistic and drawn from the world the audience would know well, there are none of the stock comic characters of the time, the stage-usurer or greedy father/uncle are shown as real people here. At the end of the play bad behaviour goes unpunished and the revealing of foolishness is merely accidental, not done in order to bring anyone to a realisation of their folly. It would be easy to see this as Middleton embracing immorality and celebrating greed however his ironic detachment and dispassionate presentation of vice allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. The very realism of the characters brings home to the audience the acceptance of vice as normal and leads to powerful satire, arguably a more successful way of conveying a message than open indignation.

How difficult are the play’s sexual politics for contemporary audiences?
The women are seen as commodities to be chased for financial gain in the play, which could be uncomfortable if they weren’t very strong characters in their own right. The Courtesan revels in the power her supposed wealth gives her over her suitors and is as much, if not more, in control of the wild plots to get Witgood’s money and land back, she is in places the one driving Witgood on. Even Hoard’s Niece, chased by so many of the characters as a golden prize, sees a chance to use Hoard’s feast as her wedding dinner and seizes it to save money. The women use the only possession they have, their availability for marriage and sex, to give them real control over their destiny. Each of the characters use all means at their disposal to prosper, and at the end the women and men in the various marriages seem like well matched equals.

What are your ambitions for Mercurius?
At the moment I’m just really enjoying the chance to direct those plays on my list that have built up. In the near future I’m hoping to revive the production of School for Wives, possibly at Jermyn Street Theatre, and direct another Middleton City comedy. In the longer term I’d like to be able to get proper funding for Mercurius, either through subsidy or private sponsorship, to be able to extend our creative vision and be more artistically adventurous, something that needs a bigger budget than we have at present!

A Trick To Catch The Old One runs at the Rose Playhouse from 6th to 24th May. Please click here for more information and to book tickets.

March 31, 2014 / Mathew Lyons

History Today column: In search of lost time

If we think of time at all, it is as a dimension: something we travel through, an abstract and universal measure against which we mark our progress, and against which we are judged – from minute to minute, from hour to hour, from day to day, from birth to death. It dominates our lives; and like life under all tyrannies, we are so immersed in the ubiquity of its oppression we don’t notice the constraints. Where I sit now, I can see the time in three places. If I cared to, I could find it in four more without moving from my chair. The computer I am writing this on can, with a little effort, be made to measure time in micro-seconds.

I can think of no practical use for that level of knowledge; but it’s difficult not to feel the anxiety of its influence. Quick is good. Fast is better. Speed is everything. And most of us, I suspect, mark out our working days – and too much of our private lives – in the fine-sliced minutes of deadlines, alarms, appointments and schedules.

But the ability to dissect time in such detail is a relatively recent phenomenon; clocks didn’t have minute- or second-hands until the late 1600s. Hence there are no seconds in Shakespeare; and minutes are mostly metaphor. The shortest practical unit of time in his plays is the quarter hour, as in the length of time Lady Macbeth has been seen trying to scrub the imagined blood from her hands, or that Prince Hal boasts it would take him to learn how to speak like a tinker.

But what would it have been like to live in a world so heedless of the passage of time? One answer is that one’s relationship with it becomes far more subjective and personal. The Greeks recognized two kinds of time: chronos – the scientific measurement of its passage – which is the sense we have retained; and kairos. Kairos is more epiphanic, opportunistic and experiential; it was, and is, also the Greek word for weather.

Even Renaissance science had to resort to more ad hoc, human measures – a quality of experience we can savour in this weather-related story. Among the papers of Thomas Harriot, the English mathematician and sometime scientific advisor to Walter Ralegh, is the record of a rainy afternoon in his room up beneath the leads in Durham House, Ralegh’s magnificent London home on The Strand, overlooking the Thames. Presumably at a loose end, Harriot decided to calculate how much rain would have fallen in his room over a 24-hour period, were it not protected by the roof.

But he had no means of measuring the passage of minutes or seconds. So he used his pulse, assuming that each beat of his heart equated to a second.

This was poor science, of course. But I think it points to an understanding of the world which we can no longer share: time wasn’t only, or even principally, an external measure but also something to which our bodies, and our experience of our bodies, our sense of ourselves, could be wholly aligned.

There is a similar story about the counter-Reformation Cardinal and Jesuit, Robert Bellarmine. Bellarmine was one of the judges who sentenced Giordano Bruno to be burned at the stake, and was the man who told Galileo to abjure Copernicanism. But he was not in any sense anti-intellectual and had always had a deep personal interest in astronomy and science. He simply refused to accept that it couldn’t be reconciled with doctrine.

On one occasion, he set out to measure the speed of the sun’s rotation about the earth by sitting on a beach in western Italy – most likely in Calabria – and timing the sun set. With no means of measuring time, however, he fell back on an intensely familiar, regular, unvaried unit of time: the recitation of Psalm 51, the misere, ‘Have mercy upon me, Oh God…’ It is, I think, an acutely poignant image, the very measure of time he used embodying both the futility of his actions and the devotional passion of his certainties.

On some level, then, the emerging tension between chronos and kairos was also the struggle between empiricism and, for want of a better word, spirituality. It is not the right word: the shadow of these tensions fall across Henry IV. Prince Hal’s destiny, his royal inheritance, is the arrow of time pulling him forward towards history. Falstaff is all kairos, life in the moment, to whom the measure of minutes and hours is superfluous. “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?” Hal asks him in their first scene. Falstaff – surely no-one’s idea of spiritual – has no answer.

But then, what is the answer to the demands of chronos?

March 13, 2014 / Mathew Lyons

Divided Souls – a review of God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England by Jessie Childs

God's TraitorsThe daily lives of catholics in England under Elizabeth I and James I have long been neglected by historians. True, much as been written about the various attempts against Elizabeth during her reign – most obviously the Babington ‘complotment’ which resulted in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – and, of course, the Gunpowder Plot against James I, which we still remember every November 5th. But did such outbursts of violence really reflect the views of the faithful? Was the government right to fear a catholic uprising against the Elizabethan settlement? How did catholics experience the narrowing of their rights and prospects over the course of Elizabeth’s reign? How did they reconcile their loyalty to Rome, to their faith, with the loyalty they owed to their country and its crown?

These and many other questions are addressed in Jessie Childs’ superb and groundbreaking new book, God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England. Childs charts the catholic experience of those decades through the turbulent history of the Vaux family, prominent landowners in Northamptonshire and by any measure a family of considerable status and means when Elizabeth came to the throne at the end of 1558.

While not sharing Elizabeth’s religion there seems every reason to suppose they and most other catholics viewed her accession with something approaching equanimity. There were some, no doubt, who viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate and the daughter of a whore to boot – Anne Boleyn was, to put it mildly, far from popular in the catholic community – but the future course of the English church was far from certain. Who knew if Elizabeth would live, for one thing? And what would happen if, as seemed likely, she married a catholic prince?

At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, then, there was little to genuinely trouble most consciences. As Childs’ points out, Elizabeth and most of her ministers had conformed under Mary I. They were no doubt aware of the irony of their position – and aware too – how could they not be? – that conformity was not the same as acquiescence. Certainly there were fines for non-attendance at church but there seems to have been little appetite on the part of the government to demand much beyond outward conformity. And even if they had wished to police religious orthodoxy more aggressively, they cannot have been assured of taking the country with them. In the early years of the reign, Sir William Cecil, for one, believed protestants to be in the minority in England.

Many, perhaps most catholics simply swallowed what reservations they had and did as the government and its new church required. Some bowed less willingly to the pressure and joined public acts of worship under the Elizabethan settlement while also hearing mass at home. Others families would divide their loyalties: the husband, who was the primary target of the penal laws, went to church and conformed while the wife stayed home and heard mass with their children.

Other schemes were pettier still, highlighting the depths of indignation felt – but also perhaps the triviality of the stakes. One wealthy recusant built his own chapel, which had its own entrance, within his local church; another would openly read a book during each sermon. Some ostentatiously kept their hats on while their fellow parishioners prayed for the queen; one simply blocked his ears with wool each time he went to church.

If the government was content to tolerate such transgressions in the belief that the old religion would slowly wither and die with the aging Marian priesthood it was soon to be disabused of such complacency. In short succession, the rising of the catholic Northern earls in 1569, the issue of the Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1571 – which charged English catholics with the moral duty to overthrow Elizabeth – and the exposure the same year of the Ridolfi plot – which sought to put Thomas Howard, fourth duke Norfolk on the English throne alongside Mary, Queen of Scots by way of a Spanish army – made clear that the status quo was not a safe option. (Regnans in Excelsis was still being referenced as an example of what not to do by the Vatican in the 1930s as it considered its advice to catholics in Nazi Germany. I have written in more detail about the Ridolfi plot here.)

But then, what was safety?

In a sense, the catholic experience in England after Elizabeth’s accession is a kind of tragedy. There is an inevitability about it, with the actions of all parties, all actors inexorably leading to a tightening of the vice, a limiting of freedom, of room for manoeuvre, for the ordinary mass of catholic men and women. The lack of freedom was, by the end of the reign, quite literal: from 1593 a ‘statute of confinement’ forbade recusants – those who did not attend church – from traveling more than five miles from their homes without a licence.

Most of us quite happily lead lives of quiet contradiction on one level or another; it is part of our charm. No-one much asks us to account for ourselves or charges us with hypocrisy or deceit. But the activities of the English government and the catholic church alike – and of their most zealous adherents in particular – brought an impossible level of scrutiny to the lives of catholic England, and with it a bright and unforgiving spotlight on the contradictions of their position.

Thus, what had perhaps been a tolerable existence of mild dishonesty became a life of privation, evasion and fear. The English catholics were forced to choose: but the choice they were offered was not one with which they could live.

Not all of their brethren seemed to care about such dilemmas.

The arrival of Edmund Campion and Robert Persons in England in the summer of 1580 as the first members of the catholic church’s English mission transformed the terms of the debate.

If anyone had intended the two men to slip into England unnoticed, they clearly hadn’t briefed Campion and Persons about the matter. On their way from Rome they made speeches at Bologna and Milan and tried to provoke a disputation in Geneva. The two men – as many fellow English missionaries would after them – had a magniloquent sense of martyrdom and destiny. “It often happens that the first rank of a conquering army is knocked over,” Campion said, grandly. The military metaphor, had it reached Elizabeth’s ears, would hardly have soothed her concerns.

The mission to England claimed to be about religion, not politics. But the passion with which it was proclaimed in its early years made the distinction largely a semantic one. It was equivocation avant la lettre. At the very least, Campion and Persons challenged the laws of the land – that is, challenged the authority of Elizabeth I and her government. If they weren’t explicitly involved in plots to assassinate Elizabeth, as Burghley and others alleged, they certainly helped nurture a climate of thought, a culture of resistance, in which such acts became not just permissable but – eventually – necessary.

It was a difficult and delicate situation for the Catholics in England and most were still trying to find ways of easing their consciences through the thorns without shedding blood. As Childs shows, the line between low-level civil disobedience – or dissent – and sedition was a perilously fine one. Each bled into the other. And it was a line Campion and his successors in the English mission were determinedly oblivious to. The missionaries had all accepted the prospect of martyrdom; some clearly relished it. They were – as Campion himself noted – dead to the world already. Those they ministered to had made no such peace; but they had the choice foisted on them no matter what.

When Campion was captured, the government went out of its way to charge him with treason under the statutes dating from the reign of Edward III. That is, they wanted to ensure his crimes were seen as political, not theological. And that would continue to be the frame through which the state defined its actions.

In its simplest expression, this became known as the ‘bloody question’: in the event of an invasion, of war, whose side were you on? Would an English catholic choose God or Caesar, conscience or crown?

Lord Vaux was one of those accused of having aided Campion. But did that make him part of a catholic fifth column? Where did the dictates of conscience become seditious opposition? What were public protestations of loyalty to the queen worth if those making them also welcomed members of the English mission into their homes, succoured, fed and supported them? Where did treason begin?

Then as now, there is no simple answer.

Campion’s death did not deter other missionaries. Indeed, it may have encouraged some. But it raised the stakes for everyone, and dissimulation – casuistry and equivocation – became the calling card of the catholic mission, in the eyes of the English state at least. And these slippery intellectual practices – necessary though they were for those of tender conscience – also helped to further taint catholics trying to stay loyal to both God and Caesar, further eroding their apparent trustworthiness and straining the sense of faithfulness and honesty which made social cohesion possible.

One of the many insights Childs offers is into the role of women in supporting the mission, from the education of catholic children to the domestic organisation required to accommodate catholic ritual within the household and, of course, to hide wanted men. On one level, they had greater freedom than men precisely because they were so subjugated: they were highly unlikely to face the punishments faced by men, and were not legally liable  to the same extent. But two members of the Vaux family – Eleanor and Anne Vaux – one widowed and the other unmarried – became central to the success of the mission. The irony of this – given that the missionaries were not meant to spend time with women, particularly unmarried ones – was lost on no-one, and Anne Vaux’s intense relationship with Henry Garnet seems to have caused as much consternation in Rome as it did in London. Its propriety was questioned by everyone, although Childs believes there was nothing untoward about it. It was, at heart, devotional – in every sense of the word.

It is through the courageous actions of women like Anne Vaux that Childs reveals most clearly the depths of faith and conscience that drove many English catholics to disobedience and brought nearly two hundred of them to the steps of the scaffold and the executioner’s knife. Every social norm in early modern England demanded conformity and submission to authority, whether within the family, within the local polity or within the state. And yet Anne and many others like her chose to reject that ‘fast-fettered’ life: the choice was both brave and desperate, but ultimately mortal peril was preferable to denying the immortal soul.

It isn’t possible in the space of a review to do justice to the breadth and depth of Childs’ research and insight; but they illuminate the entire landscape of English life. She demonstrates brilliantly how interpenetrated the communities of recusants, protestants and puritans were within the country as a whole and within each region and shire – and how, therefore, he crisis tainted everyone.

After all, the problems created by the catholics’ increasingly difficult and anomalous position in England were not merely those of conscience. There were also strains on every aspect of their status. Refusing to take an oath renouncing papal sovereignty meant that young catholic men could not graduate from university or hold office under the crown. They could not be magistrates or MPs or command the queen’s forces. For young men keen to advance themselves, loyalty to their faith condemned them to a life of passivity and impotence. It is no wonder, as Childs notes, that second generation recusants were more militant than their parents.

But the schism also played out in marriages and property transactions, in Parliament and on the bench. Class by class, individuals were bound by geographic, social and familial loyalties, by histories of friendship. Marriage, for example, was a key traditional means by which families established status, security and advancement, tying themselves into the hierarchy on which society was built. But recusancy and its after-effects tainted marriage prospects – and narrowed the pool of potential suitors for catholic and protestant alike. It diminished everyone, and weakened every bond. One casuist text recommended marrying below one’s social status over marrying a heretic: it is hard to stress how unthinkable such advice was to the sixteenth-century mind.

And then, of course, there were the fines, which would be impossibly steep by the end of the century. Lord Vaux ultimately forfeited two-thirds of his estate under 1587 legislation that made fines for recusancy cumulative. Sir Thomas Tresham died £11,500 in debt. He had paid some £8,000 in recusancy fines and the marriages of his daughters had cost him over £12,000.

It is worth remembering too, that those who would be required to raid catholic houses were usually neighbours and peers of the suspects, men who the family in question might well have entertained or done business with. The humiliation of such raids – and the sense of breached trust on both sides – must have run deep. Which is not to minimise the terror of such raids: large numbers of men – weapons in hand – poured through the house charged with destruction: tearing down walls, ripping up floorboards, stabbing at every cloth and cushion with dagger or sword. It was not just priests they were after: the furniture of ritual, religious texts, rosaries, agnus dei – everything sniffed of sedition.

Childs unfolds this secret world of priestholes and pseudonyms, of disguises and deceit with an expert eye for detail and an unerring sense of drama. And there is a current of almost psychological horror running through the book, no less in the terror of the hunted than in the tortures that awaited them. Perhaps it is useful to consider the experience of Elizabethan catholics as a whole as a kind or mental and moral torture: the contorted spaces that were built for the missionaries hidden between the skin and bones of each house might stand as a metaphor for the condition of being catholic in England.

And she is brilliant at teasing out the moral and social complexities of these lives. Lord Vaux had been imprisoned in the aftermath of Campion’s arrest and had spent some twenty months in the Fleet for refusing to answer questions about Campion and his mission under oath. The man who arranged for his release – to the extent of drafting Vaux’s submission to present to the queen – was Lord Burghley, as Sir William Cecil became. Why? We don’t really know. But the idea that loyalty to Rome – or Elizabeth for that matter – was the only loyalty that mattered to these men and women is a simplistic one. They regarded themselves as having duties to men of rank and status too; and the wide, all-pervasive networks of family and kinship were bonds of incalculable strength, the importance of which it is hard for us in our atomised world to understand. Everyone had conflicted loyalties; but it was only the catholics who were required to account for them.

It also reminds us that these great ideological struggles were also intensely personal. Burghley visited Vaux in his cell to discuss and arrange the latter’s submission and release. Later, when the Jesuit priest Garnet was in the Tower and being questioned about his role in the Gunpowder plot, he was questioned by Lord Salisbury – Burghley’s son Robert Cecil – and Lord Chief Justice Popham. Garnet and Popham jovially recalled meeting in the 1570s when Garnet had been considering a career in the law. Salisbury apologised to Garnet for making a salacious joke about his relationship with Anne Vaux, putting his arm around the priest’s shoulder as if asking for forgiveness.

The book is studded with moments of intense humanity like this, and they are unsettling because Childs’ sympathetic but acute portraits strip away any instinct we might have to judge these men and women for their choices. She shows us their divided souls, but she does not ask us to take sides.

Even the zeal of the missionaries served to hide complex motives and widely different personalities. At one end of the spectrum there was the handsome and charismatic John Gerard, who lived with the swagger of a gentleman, and a rich one at that, and struggled – manfully, one assumes – with the humility that ought to have suited his calling. Women fell over themselves to help him, he tells us in his autobiography. One Flemish woman learned English simply to be able to confess to him; two noble ladies almost fought each for the honour of kissing his feet in the Tower.

At the other, there was the little-remembered Thomas Lister who suffered from migraines, mood swings and claustrophobia among other neuroses. A priest with a fear of priest-holes must have been a trying companion for even the most saint-like of men.

This is a superlative, flawlessly written book, rich in its detailed evocation of the texture and fervour of the Catholic experience without ever losing sight of the moral and political crucible in which that experience was being tried. It is a joy to read and revelations abound, from the trade in ‘fresh green relics’ – that is the remains of the English martyrs – to the way that the English mission strayed into dramatic demonstrations of the power of their faith which made many fellow believers deeply uncomfortable. Childs’ description of an exorcism at Lord Vaux’s house in Hackney in the autumn of 1585 – which Anthony Babington, among others, was invited to witness – is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever read.

God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England superbly maps the trajectory of catholic England over fifty years and three generations. If we knew a little already about some of the better known figures – Campion, Southwell, Babington, Fawkes – there is much here that will make all of us re-evaluate the much-fabled tolerance of Elizabethan England and deepen our understanding of the English catholics’ long existential crisis of faith. Wise in her judgements and generous in her sympathies, Childs ensures we always see the activities of the Vaux family and its fellow travellers in the wider cultural and political context – teasing out references in Shakespeare and Jonson, for example – and she is as alert to alternate narratives and their possibilities as she is sensitive to the impossibility of the choices many were faced with. This is a book about saints and traitors, certainly; but above all it is about the strengths and frailties that made these people human. They have had to wait a long time, but at last they have found a historian who offers them both justice and dignity.

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