Women Spies and Genderbent Playwrights – Excerpt Edition

This is the third post in an ongoing blog series talking about aspects of the novel I’m writing (women spies and genderbent playwrights!), set in London in 1600. A novel I’m crowdfunding to buy time to write. You can find the first blog post about the novel here. And the second here.

When last we checked in on the novel, I spent some time acquainting everyone with the book’s origin and protagonists. There was, also, talk of the next blog re the novel concerning itself with spycraft and the twilight of Elizabeth I’s reign. And while that blog post is coming (July was a busy month with some surprises I’m still attending) I’m going to put up an excerpted chapter from the novel instead.

I’d not originally planned to do excerpting, but my S.O. brought up the possibility of doing so, and I rather like the idea at this point. Especially as it lets me give everyone a better sense of the project itself, in addition to all the talking around it I’ve been doing in support of the crowdfunding.

For those not up on what exactly the novel’s doing (if you’re just wandering across the project, say), the links at the top of this post will give you more background. And a fairly basic distillation of the project can be had with this logline: A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets RED.

(Hence some fun had using Helen Mirren’s performance as Prospera in Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest as the header of this post, given Mirren’s crossover with both RED and Shakespearian work.)

I will note two things before we get to the actual excerpt. First, I rarely title a project until it’s done, which is why I keep referring to the book as “the novel” or as the “Anne and Kit book” in these posts. This noted in case you were wondering. I’m not intentionally leaving you in suspense as to the title; when there is a title, I’ll share it. Second, the following excerpt is a first draft — with a little polish on it or I’d not be putting it up — but consequently still quite rough.

In that light and knowledge, I invite you to sit back, relax, and allow me to introduce you to Anne and Kit:


Newington — London, Middlesex, Surrey. Early Summer, 1600.

“I just don’t understand how you can not want to bask in the adoration of your work. To take it as your due and … revel,” says Kit. Her close-cropped curls a softer cap to the mud-slicked black of her man’s raiment. The alehouse filled wall to wall with bodies, its wood drowned in the reek of beer and sweat and muck.

“You revel enough for the both of us,” says Anne, sloshing the ale in her mug. Her own raiment far simpler, softer in its muted greens and dun whites; she drawing far fewer eyes, aided by the shadow in which the two of them sit at the back of the room.

“Well that’s true.” Kit leers at a passing dark-skinned serving girl with long, flowing hair, who blushes and hurries on. “And the rewards have always been delectable.” Kit’s eyebrows laugh for her as she drinks from her own mug.

“Must you flirt with all of them?”

“Honour bound,” nods Kit. “But tell me true:”–she leans in–“regardless, good man that he is, how can you still stand to live in Will’s shadow? What comfort’s to be found in never being known for your playcraft?”

“I much prefer being able to venture safe these streets without my name nor face known than take to stage and bow. To be hemmed entire by that crowd, let alone the ones in the streets…. I have not your love for it.”

Kit waves the thought away. “All in past. And now you’ve a talent for eliding notice almost as good as mine.”

Anne rolls her eyes. “Your swagger notwithstanding.”

“Incumbent. How else do you think I move so free through the ranks of these delightful gentlewomen. Even in this attire.”

“I’ve seen you free enough in other garb these past years, Kit. Are you not afraid of being recognized like this?”

Kit shakes her head. “A full seven years since any saw me thus. And they recall my work, Anne, not me — foul a thing as that is to me to own. But still: the women are willing, in this raiment and other. And that is a saving grace more welcome than most.”

“It wasn’t the women I was thinking of.”

A drunken party staggers past, laughing and cheering, giving only the slightest glance to either woman; intent on their own conversation.

These?” laughs Kit. “I’ve no interest in them and they none in me.” Kit lowers her voice. “But in earnest, you’re well and truly missed, Anne. Could do with you under Cecil’s guiding hand. A competent enough man, but no Walsingham. And the Queen suffers for it.”

“You vouchsafe this opinion of your spymaster freely?” returns Anne, equal quiet, more mirth in it than awe.

“And will deny it vehemently should ever such be spake in my name.”

Anne sits quiet, staring into her ale. “I had no love of that life either, Kit. Intrigue, deprivation of even the most basic necessities in the field, appalling pay, exhaustive testing of wit and mettle…”

“So still missing it then?”

“Horribly.” Anne takes a belt from her mug and coughs at the backwash. “But I have Will and the children to think of.”

“A strange life, the having of children. How you can bear to have them, let alone lose—” They both quiet. “Lord, I’m sorry, Anne. I didn’t—”

“It’s all right. I’m made of sterner stuff.” Anne inhales deep and sweeps aside a lock of her hair. “As you may recall.”

“Vividly. Still…” starts Kit, and trails off, reconnoitring the room with a glance. Anne waiting on Kit to come back to the moment. “I do miss their knowing that a greatness walks among them.”

“At least your modesty is constant,” says Anne, grateful for Kit’s change of subject as she sips at her ale. Kit studiedly oblivious, still watching the raucous crowd, every muscle straining to be engaged.

“I miss them seeing me, Anne. Now they do me greater honour than ere I lived, but none of it in the flesh.”

“Take you no tribute in flesh, then?” smiles Anne. Kit can’t manage more than a momentary slitting of her eyes at Anne before her grin returns. “Be honest with yourself, Kit, they only venerate your work because they think you dead.”

Kit sniffs and leans back. Posture straight as the blade at her side. “Yes, well, their fool luck they’re wrong.”

“Don’t take it so hard. Playwrights are never entirely respectable enough for fierce veneration until we’re in the ground.”

“Oh another gem for the ages, that,” counters Kit, waving her hand airily. “Almost as good as ‘All the world’s a stage.’ You know once that’s performed it’s going to be the line they remember you for. Even had you not had it plastered across the entrance of that monstrosity of a theatre you convinced Will to build.”

“I certainly hope not. I’d much rather they thought of me for something like ‘Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand…’” Anne begins dramatically, halting at Kit’s smirk. “…You know how it finishes.”

“Oh would but that it did. And enamoured as you are of your Titus, therein you’ve given them a far better epitaph: ‘Methinks I do digress too much.’”

“You ass.”

“And you love me for it,” smiles Kit.

“Always,” says Anne, colliding her mug with Kit’s. Their laughter rising to meet the ruckus that fills the alehouse.


Anne and Kit stagger drunkenly out the door of The Hawk’s Feathers and down along a plank toward the muddy, cobble-pitted street, the waft of London’s sun-warmed reek strong in their nostrils. Wooden towers several storeys high around them pen in the smell of horseshit and vomit mingling with the scent of ale and wet wood from recent rains. The open sewer in the middle of the street to which all the waters run possessed of its own heady bouquet.

Kit drags Anne out of the way of falling effluence from chamberpots emptied out windows overhead, and Anne returns the favour by waving off beggars in the gutters and hawkers arrayed along walls and between doors. The two women wading their way through the thick river of the crowds.

“What I don’t understand,” slurs Anne, shouldering past several passersby in their way, “is how you can choose to live in London. Mud and shit everywhere.”

“It helps not to wade through it with kirtle and gown’s hem,” answers Kit, shoving a protesting man aside. “Be glad you’re not sporting a farthingale as well under all that ruck.”

“And I don’t suppose your reversion to men’s clothes has anything to do with why you called me here. Or,” adds Anne more quietly, and far less inebriated than she appeared a moment past, “that we’re being followed.”

Kit grins at Anne, and slips the barest glance at the two women slipping through the crowd in near-perfect unison a street’s length behind them. “I was wondering when you’d notice. They were on the other side of the alehouse. They’ve been my shadows for days now. Since a day or two after I sent for you.”

“Any particular reason you didn’t mention this before?”

“You’d have just been upset.”

“Do you at least know why?”

“Doubtless an infiltrator among Lord Cecil’s network.”

Anne doesn’t break stride. The tension in her shoulders the only sign anything’s wrong. “What have you brought me into, Kit?”

“I’ll tell you once we’ve dealt with these two. We just need a suitable venue for the coming show.”

“The alley at the end of the street? A surfeit of shadow. High, thin, but enough room to manoeuvre.”

“I prefer them slightly more muscular myself. But you always did know the bulk of my preferences, Anne.”

“It’s a miracle I’ve still not killed you,” mutters Anne.

“And lose my continued tutelage toward your craft?” Kit grins and pretends to stumble, loosening her sword in its sheath as they cross the lip of the narrow jumble between two buildings hewn from rough wood and girded with stone. The alley little more than a crossway, span barely broad enough to fit two abreast.

“Near a score plays produced, Kit, and the toast of London.”

“Yes, well, I managed that with six.”

“Not all of them yet as famous for you though, are they?”

“As though everything you’ve ever laid quill to dripped gold. Two Gentlemen of Verona still doing well for you, is it?” Kit kicks a gaggle of beggars huddled in the muck to spur them elsewhere. She lets slip a glimmer of her blade as they protest and the beggars leave in a hurry, rousting their fellows at the other end of the alley as they go. “And I’ve time. Once we’ve seen the lot of my works in publication, they’ll all of them have their due,” she adds. By the time the two women who’ve been following them round the corner and halt, not having expected their quarry to have stopped so soon, the crossway is clear save for Anne and Kit.

Kit bends over and makes as if retching, using the opportunity to signal Anne to stand clear. Anne takes a step back as the two women redouble their advance, noting the plain nature of their dresses, and the indiscriminate nature of their features — studiedly so.

As their pursuers come within a body’s length, Kit wheels in one drunkenly fluid motion, sword in hand, and hooks it beneath the chin of the taller of the two women. Her blade just tickling the woman’s throat. Neither Kit nor Anne surprised to find blades already naked in the hands of the two women now confronting them. “And who might you be? I assume The Zealot’s sent you in her stead,” Kit slurs at the woman dancing on the edge of her blade’s tip. Anne’s eyes go wide at the name on Kit’s lips.

The agent snared by Kit lowers her weapon to rest, and signals slowly for her companion, the shorter of the two, to do likewise. She complies, but glowers at Kit, then at Anne, her body tensed to spring.

Anne moves another foot back to give Kit room to work, watching the contest more intently now.

“If you know hers, then my name’s of no consequence to you, lady Marlowe,” says the agent in a soft, Scottish burr.

“Oh, we’ve moved past introductions then? Good. I’m in no mood to prolong this evening’s play.” With a single flick of her wrist, Kit slits the agent’s throat and leaps for the other.

The littler agent raises her sword in time to parry, screaming at Kit in rage as her fellow’s body collapses into the mud. She fends off Kit’s first flurry of blows, and manages to rally. But she’s outmatched, and Kit breaks her guard and thrusts through her heart — the agent’s cry cut short as Kit twists her blade and pulls it out.

Anne sighs as she goes to stand over the first dead woman.

“Is that disapproval I hear?” calls Kit over her shoulder, cleaning her sword’s blade with a dirty linen before sheathing it. “And here I thought that went rather well.”

“You might have given me time to question them,” says Anne, bending down to rifle through the kirtle of the first agent. “I would have liked to know why they didn’t keep a better distance, or more ably avoid discovery, or how they knew about you in the first place and by name no less. And I’d have welcomed the opportunity to pressure them into giving up the name of The Zealot’s agent among Cecil’s men if they knew it – and thank you, incidentally, for not warning me that The Zealot was involved in whatever you’ve caught me up in. Nor indeed informing me she still lived.”

“They came at us blades bared, Anne. They’d not have been convinced to betray their Lady. And I can’t help what they know or not. Save by silencing them.”

“Yes, that’s going to work splendidly. Assuming you find the whole of her network and ‘silence’ the lot of them.” Anne frowns. “Nothing. No papers of any kind. She knew she wouldn’t live through an encounter if caught. Though—” Anne halts a moment, drawing down the bodice of the woman’s dress as she catches sight of something peeking up above the agent’s collar. She bends in closer and draws down the fabric further, squinting.

“Be glad we’re alone,” mutters Kit, “given the vaguely unsavoury air of your actions.”

Anne ignores her. “She bears a full tattoo of a woman in miniature, body broken but her face arrested in bliss. From the position of her hands and the lay of the body, a depiction of a saint maybe? Though not an iconography I recognize.”

“That bodes not ill at all,” grumbles Kit, slurring the words. The slowing of her speech enough to prompt a concerned glance from Anne before she goes to the other body, examining first her chest, then digging about the rest of her person.

“The same?” asks Kit.

“Aye, her too. The same mark tattooed above her heart, and naught else on her person. The lack of proof will not go well with us.”

“What proof do we need? They admitted to being in service of The Zealot.” Kit staggers, and reaches out to the wall for support. Blinking rapidly to clear her head.

“I was thinking more of their pursuit and interest in us aiding your proof of The Zealot’s presence in London; or at least that of her agents. But now, what of when someone finds their bodies?” says Anne, crossing her arms.

“By then we’ll be long gone. And who’s to speak to us having been in this place?” Kit gestures wide with the arm not supporting her against the wall: “A better-suited site we couldn’t have found with malice aforethought.” Kit coughs and clears her throat. Then doubles over and retches into the alley.

Anne looks away in disgust. “And here I thought you were faking inebriation.”

“As ever”–swaggers Kit, pushing herself off the wall–“I am nothing if not a high functioning drunkard.” She bows from the neck, mock-formal rigid, then stiffens truly and topples full-bodied into the mud of the alley. Muffled snores bubble up from the alley’s soft bed.

Anne rests a hand across her eyes and sighs in resignation. Then bends down to gather up Kit’s sullied form. Kit starting awake at Anne’s touch.

“What? What did I miss?” asks Kit. Wiping ripe muck from her face with her sleeve.

“High functioning sot, indeed,” mutters Anne. Kit exhales in her face. “Oh god.” She angles Kit’s face to the side before hoisting her up by the shoulders. “Where to, Kit? Where are you living this time?”

“Not home,” groans Kit. “Bolthole’s better.”

Where, Kit? Is it at least in Newington?”

“Walk and talk,” nods Kit. Doing her best to stay upright as her legs slide out from under her.

“When I think of all the times I saved your life…. I don’t know why I bothered given how hard you work to throw it away.”

Anne doesn’t see the third figure — hovering at the edge of the alley, concealed in shadow, brushing unruly thick locks of black hair out of her face. Nor does she see her follow them at a better distance than her compatriots managed.



Do you love women spies, genderbent playwrights, and alt/secret history novels? Then you should totally consider clicking here to go help with the crowdfunding to support writing this book. And/or feel free to spread the word. I’m easy.

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August Updates and Five Years of Blogging

Yup, five years of running this blog. For some reason it always comes as a surprise when August rolls around and there it is, another year of blogging logged.

I feel like the following image appropriately encapsulates this experience:

And now for your (ir)regularly scheduled August updates:

Well, quick notes on things, really.

First update out of the gate is that I’m going to cancel the Intent and Impetus – Writing Goals and Support Mechanisms workshop that was to be held on August 14th. I’ve had only minimal response to the workshop and given how close we are to the date with little sign of more interest, I’d rather spend that time focused on other projects needing doing this month. The next workshop down the line will be the writing (technique and craft) one in October — I’ll be working out a date for that one a little down the line, and closer to the event itself.

Second, there’s another blog post for the novel-in-progress coming up. The novel draft constituting almost 45k written at this point (and climbing), and there being more elements of it I’m looking forward to talking about while I continue to work at writing it.

Further to discussion of the blogging around the novel, the crowdfunding to buy time to write it is still ongoing. And if you want to pitch something in toward getting that done, you can do so here.

Everything helps. Thus far it’s been grocery money, and believe me that is incredibly helpful.

Speaking to money brings us to the third update:

I’m still looking to bolster this month’s freelance work. The website talking about the freelance work I do (Matheson Freelancing) being here. If anyone needs work done (editing, copywriting, ghostwriting, and other services), or knows someone who does, I appreciate any and all aid in that regard, including something as simple as signal boosting.

More updates on these and other topics as they come in. :)

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New Story Sale – Shimmer

As the contracts are now in place I’m comfortable announcing that I’ve sold my story “And In That Sheltered Sea, a Colossus.” Said story will appear in an issue of Shimmer in early 2017.

Which is awesome (for me, anyway; YMMV) for a couple of reasons:

First, because the story is part of a series that includes “Until There is Only Hunger” which sold to Monica Valentinelli & Jaym Gates’ Upside Down anthology. There’s another two stories set in that universe still on submission, and it’s fantastic to see these start to find homes.

Second, it took me 6 years and 21 tries (including the story that just sold) to make it into Shimmer. So you could say this is something I’ve been working for for a while. :)

Let this also be encouragement to those of you concerned about continuing to send to a market that’s rejected your work. And I say this as an editor as well: If they say they want to see more of your work, they mean it. Even if they don’t, unless people actively ask you to stop sending to them, keep working at it. Especially if it’s a market that matters to you.

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Freelancing Cancellation – Open Slot Needs Filling

I’ve had a cancellation of a July/August freelancing contract, and need to make up that shortfall with a new contract(s) before the end of the month. My freelance website is here: Matheson Freelancing. Rates as well as services are listed on the website.

And for anyone not already familiar with my freelancing services, I do editing, copywriting, and ghostwriting primarily. I also do consultation work, assessment, and critique. I work across fiction, non-fiction, technical writing, and academic work.

Given the timing on this, I appreciate any and all signal boosting. :)

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Given everything that’s been going on in the last couple of weeks and the rising body count be it in large-scale attacks or individual murders, I’ve been mostly off the blog and pulling back on social media. Aside from the usual signal boosting of the voices who should be heard that I do when the world goes to shit. And 2016 has been consistent at doing that, hasn’t it?

I had planned to post about things going on on this end (workshop runup and what have you), and post another blog toward the novel writing and the attendant fundraising. But I’m on overload at this point given what’s going on with the world, and it feels incredibly trivial promoting those things while there are more important things to talk about. So I’m leaving promotional posting for later to step back a bit, take some downtime, and focus mostly on my freelance work and the writing of the novel.

For those curious about how things are going with the latter, the book’s sitting at about 30k, and since the project started I’ve written another 15k+ of notes and scene/plot blocking toward it. A combined ~45k then of writing on the project since it kicked off. Still a ways to go at this point, but not bad given that I’m doing all of this around the paying work, and that my time’s split between research and writing.

That said, the only exception to not doing anything promotional I will make in this post is that though I’m doing some ongoing July work for a couple of clients, if anyone wants to book some editing/copywriting/ghostwriting for the back half of this month I’ve got the time and could definitely do with another job or two this month in terms of finances. All the information around that’s over here at the Matheson Freelancing website. And/or everyone can just reach me directly at “mathesonfreelancing@gmail.com”.

If anyone needs me for anything else I’m still here. I’ll just be a little quieter the next little while.

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Next Workshop (in August) Details

The next workshop in the ongoing series, “Intent and Impetus – Writing Goals and Support Mechanisms,” is scheduled for Sunday, August 14th at Bakka Phoenix.

As always, you can buy tickets online (at the link above) or pay at the door. For the latter I’ll make my usual request that you let me know you’re coming in advance via e-mail at “adarkandterriblebeauty@gmail.com”.

This workshop is the first half of a paired set dealing with aspects of writing. “Style and Substance” (which I expect to run some time in October; the date’s not yet set) is the other half that will deal more directly with the mechanics of writing in different forms and at different lengths. “Intent and Impetus” prepares the way for that workshop by first looking at intents and goals on an individual basis, and the support mechanisms available to writers that make those goals possible. (More info at the link above.)

Both workshops are broad in terms of their focus, and there’ll be a fair amount of in-class discussion as always.

All attendees get a 10% discount coupon that can be used for same day purchases at Bakka, and people are welcome to bring samples of their work to discuss during the workshop. As usual there’ll be a Q&A following.

If you have questions, by all means ask. :)

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Women Spies and Genderbent Playwrights — Inception and Protagonists

Aveline (AC)

This is the second post in an ongoing blog series talking about aspects of the novel I’m writing (women spies and genderbent playwrights!), set in London in 1600. A novel I’m crowdfunding to buy time to write. You can find the first blog post about the novel here.

Last time round we talked about worldbuilding elements of the book in relation to the period, and how that factors into the portrayal of people of colour in England in 1600. Or, rather, why that was a good start, but that I was upping the representation of women and people of colour from the historical representations.

All of which ties into how I started writing the book in the first place. And to do that, let me tell you a story:

A little over a month ago now, within the space of a couple of days two things happened.

First, someone on Facebook shared a Tumblr thread. You’ve probably seen the one about the full genderflip of the Bond films’ approach to gender narrative, and how what we really need is Helen Mirren doing a Bond-style role, with Lucy Liu as her agency partner and an expanded supporting cast of amazing women kicking ass and getting to engage in a male gaze inversion of the female gaze the Bond films are famous for. It is a brilliant concept, and I am 100% behind this as a film (and/or series).

After I shared that post on my own FB wall and noted that I wanted this to exist and someone should write said narrative, the joking response was that I should do so. Which wasn’t quite what I meant when I said someone should bring it to life. ;)

By itself that idea wouldn’t have amounted to much. Except, close on that delightful Tumblr thread’s heels came the trailer for Shonda Rhimes’s Still Star-Crossed:

The latter of which was fantastic because of the representation of people of colour in the series, and the fact that I am onboard for what the series is doing in general. (I’ve not yet read the Melinda Taub book the series is adapting, but the general concept is one I’m quite looking forward to.)

But watching that also got me thinking about how Shakespeare not only occasionally worked in representations of people of colour (Othello, yes, though not solely there), but how Shakespeare’s best work focuses frequently on gender fluidity and gender play; and often on the assumption of other gender roles by principal characters. Which got the ball rolling thinking about how Shakespeare’s body of work makes much more sense if viewed through the lens of having been written by a woman — not least of all in terms of discussing one’s own alternate gender performance, but potentially that of a friend’s as well. A friend and mentor/rival like Kit Marlowe, per se.

Combine that with there being strong evidence for Kit Marlowe having been a spy in service of Queen and country under Francis Walsingham, and all of that delightful gender-flipping play from the Helen Mirren Bond-inversion Tumblr post falls entirely into place in a rather different usage. In part because women spies have long historical precedent and their stories are frequently fascinating.

Take as but one example this brief overview of some of the members of the Special Operations Executive in WWII; a body of women spies working for the British. (And with a nod to Noor Inayat Khan that we’ll pick up again below.)

Tackling a story of spies and playwrights involving Anne and Kit specifically also allows for two distinct mentor/student relationships; each an inversion of the other, and creating a balanced dynamic in terms of mentor/mentee. Specifically, Anne mentoring Kit as a spy, and later Kit mentoring Anne as a writer. The difference in their respective ages one of eight years (Anne born in 1556, Kit in 1564), so Anne the first to be recruited as a spy, taking Kit under her wing after Anne was an established figure in Walsingham’s organization. The writing reversal of their mentor relationship occuring after Anne ceases to work as a spy in 1882 because Anne is with child — Anne marries Will Shakespeare three months pregnant with their first daughter, Susanna, as was the custom at the time. (More on that last point later, in among the fuller discussion of Anne below.)

By the time the novel takes place in 1600, both women are around forty. There are a number of reasons I set the book in 1600, rather than earlier, but that’s one of the principal ones. I’m much more interested in a narrative of mature figures engaging in spycraft and swash and buckle. Both dealing with grief and loss in different ways. Both extremely intelligent women, their wit sharpened and honed by the events of their own lives. It allows for a more mature conversation of the characters and their experiences, as well as a more diverse one. Especially since in the AU/AH (alternate universe/alternate history) narrative of the books, I’m making Kit Marlowe half-Moor, in addition to her being queer — the latter not actually a switch for the historical Marlowe when you come right down to it (though there is an ongoing dispute around the veracity of this aspect of Marlowe’s life); but I’m just applying it after the genderflip as well.

And here we break from more general discussion to move to talking about the figures in the book more directly; to underline Anne and Kit themselves, as well as touch on the larger conversation about people of colour in England and the role and anonymity of many women as well. Because this is a book entirely about women. A few men in evidence, yes. Though more in discussion than presence in the book, outside of a few figures.

The Protagonists (in Broad Discussion)

Kit Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe – Assumed, as painted by an unascribed artist

Left is the (assumed) depiction of Christopher Marlowe. Found in 1952, the painting was executed in 1585 during Marlowe’s tenure as a student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Both the inscriptions on the painting potentially point to Marlowe: that of the sitter’s age (21 in 1585), and the latin motto “QVOD ME NVTRIT ME DESTRVIT” (“That which nourishes me destroys me”). But regardless of whether or not this painting is the historical Marlowe, this is not the Marlowe of the novel’s AU depiction.

That Marlowe is a combination of the influence of three figures: The historical Christopher Marlowe whose life and exploits form the grounding of the depiction, Noor Inayat Khan’s life as a biracial writer and spy as a member of the SOE, and La Maupin (Julie d’Aubigny) whose exploits as queer swordswoman, duelist, and opera singer are the stuff of legend.

Noor Inayat Khan

Noor Inayat Khan

Noor(-un-Nisa) Inayat Khan (right), was an intelligence officer in the SOE. But she was also a poet and writer of children’s stories, as well as a student of child psychology and music. Born in Moscow in 1914, Inayat Khan was a child of mixed heritage, Indian and American. Raised Sufi and principally pacifist, she nonetheless joined the British war effort during the Second World War, working with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where she was trained as a radio operator. From there she was recruited by the SOE owing to her fluency with languages and her communications training. Despite her pacifism, Inayat Khan proved to be an effective spy; her training rushed by some accounts, but still involving, as Shrabani Basu puts it in the link below: “classic spy school; she was taught to handle guns, explosives, to break locks, to kill silently in the dark, to find sources, to use dead letter boxes and live letter boxes, to practice sending letters in code, and to improve her Morse code.”

Further to that quote, a brief, excellent overview of the highlights of her life can be found here. Other elements of her life are focused on in varying detail in additional places, including Noor’s Wikipedia entry.

La Maupin - as illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, based on Théophile Gautier's fictional novel of her life

La Maupin – as illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, based on Théophile Gautier’s fictional novel of her life

And while Inayat Khan may have been a pacifist before her enlistment, La Maupin (left) was anything but. Born Julie(-Émilie) d’Aubigny (possibly, her given name is disputed) in 1673, later to take La Maupin as her stage name, d’Aubigny was taught the way of the sword, reading, and writing, by her father, Gaston d’Aubigny, alongside the royal pages under her father’s care. Because her father’s master was the Comte d’Armagnac, King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, in charge of the Grand Écurie, or Great Stables. I think this passage from the Rejected Princesses page on La Maupin sums things up rather well:

“[S]word-slinger, opera singer, and larger-than-life bisexual celebrity of 17th century France. Her life was a whirlwind of duels, seduction, graverobbing, and convent-burning so intense that she had to be pardoned by the king of France TWICE.”

Oh and La Maupin spent most of her life wearing men’s clothes and beating the living crap out of anyone who displeased or offended her. In addition to being, as the saying goes, the very devil with a blade. (Said saying may also just be misquoting a line I recall vaguely from a film I can’t name right now. I have a head cold, so could go either way, really.) La Maupin’s life was, in every way, extraordinary, and makes for phenomenal reading as well as storytelling. As many have done with it over the last three centuries (many of those depictions broad, and some not entirely faithful to the spirit of her life, leaning instead more toward a moralist fable structure. But many are still intriguing without being curiously revisionist.).

But what of the Kit of my own novel?

The Kit Marlowe of the novel is, like Inayat Khan, biracial. Like La Maupin, a woman spending her life in the role and circumstance of a man, and just as queer (though the Kit of the novel is lesbian rather than bisexual). Otherwise utilizing the historical Marlowe’s background. Save for a few … changes.

An instance of brain injury leading to an inability to create new prose work prompting her to fake her own death and leave behind the identity of Christopher Marlowe is one difference, certainly. And it does inform the character in the novel (both in her sense of loss and her controlled rage). As do other factors I’ll not go into now. But Kit’s AU heritage in the novel is a much larger influence on how the character exists in the narrative, and the things it opens up for discussion:

In the novel, Kit’s matrilineal descent is Moroccan. Her mother, Katharine (her mother’s anglicized name; originally Kawthare) having married Kit’s father, John (a Briton), and converted to Protestantism to do so. Her mother the one who taught Kit to speak Arabic and about Islam — though the Kit of the novel follows the historical Marlowe’s more atheist approach to religion and spirituality, rather than adopting either Protestantism or Islam. Katharine’s father, a Moroccan merchant, having relocated the family to England, specifically Dover (where Katherine Arthur’s family resided in the actual history), not long after Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in 1558. All this relying on a change to the historical timeline; specifically something triggered by Elizabeth’s excommunication by the Catholic church, which in the novel is set earlier.

See, historically, in 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I on grounds of heresy and persecution of English Catholics. This owing to a series of factors, including Elizabeth’s overturning of her predecessor Mary’s Catholic rule and Mary’s persecution of Protestants, as well as Elizabeth’s establishment of the English Protestant church (what would later become the Church of England) as a driving force of mandatory worship (though it adopted many of the Catholic observances and became a balance between the two) in English life. But as the very fact of Elizabeth’s rule as a Protestant monarch and her repudiation of Mary’s religious affiliation in favour of Protestantism would have been enough to foster that charge, it’s feasible to move that excommunication back to Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in 1558.

That change directly affects the dates in which Elizabeth begins seeking alliances with Morocco, the Ottoman Empire, and Safavid Persia; a complicated triumvirate of national politics to embroil England in (given that those three states were periodically at war with each other across shifting lines), but a political climate Elizabeth’s ambassadors managed to navigate well enough to establish trade treaties in. Those treaties ventured after Elizabeth’s excommunication because she had been treading carefully around the papacy, afraid to risk further displeasure on the part of the Holy See owing to the, by then, nearly two century extant ban on trade with various Muslim nations as well as the Turks and Romanians. A ban mostly enforced by the papacy, the Spanish, Austrians, and the Knights of Saint John of Malta. There had been some envoys despite the ban, but that trade was largely illicit (and thrived as a highly profitable enterprise despite the ban, for both merchants and privateers), when there was trade to be had.

Moving the establishment of these open pathways for trade and immigration ups the number of Muslims coming to England from 1588 on, which is part of increasing the number of people of colour in the worldbuilding of the novel, but also does one more thing rather specific to Kit Marlowe’s benefit in this timeline: It allows Katharine’s father to bring his family over from Morocco around 1560 in time for Katherine to meet John Marlowe and for them to marry in May of 1561 as per the date of their marriage in the actual history.

Thus, though Kit is of biracial descent and a mixed religious upbringing, Kit belongs to the large and diverse body of people of colour in Elizabeth’s London. A body even then fetishized in a country whose courtiers and nobles literally whitened themselves with ceruse, but a body that nonetheless exists as a part of England’s larger community, intermarried and invested financially and socially in the future of the country. And in Kit’s case, hers is a heritage that leaves her light-skinned and able to pass in multiple communities. An ideal state for a spy, and in this case part of the basis of her recruitment to Walsingham’s secret service. Said service cause for some of the large gaps in her history. Much as with Anne:

Anne Shakespeare

Anne Hathaway (later Anne Shakespeare), as sketched by Nathaniel Curzon

Anne Hathaway (later Anne Shakespeare), as sketched by Nathaniel Curzon

Although both Anne Shakespeare (right) and Kit Marlowe have broad histories with large gaps, Anne’s is the less historically fleshed out of the two. This leading to a variety of portrayals, when she comes up at all. Much like Will, there’s little to no portraiture of Anne. Even the sketch to the right dates from 1708, 85 years after Anne’s death. Curzon’s sketch possibly traced from an earlier Elizabethan-era depiction.

As in Anne’s case, it’s the lack of primary depictions of Will Shakespeare that have so long fuelled the legend of others writing under his name. Up to and including the herein most amusedly noted (given the parallel nature of the novel I’m writing) theory that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays after falsifying his own death.

The AU approach to Anne in the novel considers her historical role as nebulous figure as an act of intention owing to several factors:

First, the nature of her former work as a spy under Walsingham, where anonymity would be key. Second, as the writer of the plays for which Will takes credit (with Anne’s blessing), painting her background not as that of the illiterate woman she is so often framed as, but as a woman of languages and letters in her own right, benefitting further from Kit’s facility and tutelage.

What we do know of Anne, historically, is that she was born a Hathaway, the daughter of a yeoman farmer (a freeholder who owned his land) who looked after her siblings. The Hathaway family holdings being in Shottery, near Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. Her marriage to William Shakespeare has been cast in different lights, sometimes as a love match, sometimes as a match for monetary gain on Shakespeare’s part. The Hathaway family was in better circumstances both financially and socially than the Shakespeares by the time Will married Anne, it’s true (Anne’s dowry being ensured to her by her father’s will). And the timing of her father’s death in 1581, along with other factors addressed momentarily, has been used to perpetuate the argument of Shakespeare chasing her for her money. But some of the more recent and occasionally the modern investigations too into the nature of their relationship forget the normative practices of the period:

Anne is three months pregnant when she and Will marry. Rather than unusual, or leading to a shotgun wedding, pre-consummation was common practice during the period, and it was expected that a couple would conceive their first child before marrying and that first child be born somewhere around six months after. What was unusual about their marriage was Will’s age.

Anne was 26 at the time of their marriage, which is not an unusual age for marriage during Elizabeth’s reign. Marriage was, then, expected to be entered into during one’s twenties. But Will was only 18 when he and Anne were married. Not terribly below the lowest end of that expected age, but still far younger than normal to enter into marriage. The mentions of Anne in Will’s sonnets and the way in which Will describes her therein, as well as leaving her the second-best bed of their household in his will (a token of affection and familiarity rather than a slight — the best bed of an Elizabethan household was reserved for guests, and in Will’s will that went to Susanna and her husband as the executors of his estate because the best bed of a household was a substantial financial investment) among additional factors, speak more to a love match than one purely for financial gain. An approach I’ve taken in the AU of the novel, choosing a supportive partnership as the foundation of their marriage.

A fairly lengthy marriage for the period at 34 years. One during which Anne historically never left Stratford. Which, in the AU of the novel, is an excellent narrative to propagate if you need to visit London frequently. As Anne would have had to do in order to be mentored by Kit and see her generally as they’re close friends, and also to coordinate the performances of her work by Will. Anne’s cultivated anonymity being an asset there too. It’s also a fun way to mess with history — Shakespeare was reputed to have had multiple affairs in London while away from his wife in Stratford. Women who, in the AU of the novel, are all actually Anne while she’s in London. The rumours of his infidelity helping further perpetuate the myth that she never leaves Stratford.

And Anne’s marriage to Will was not only a lengthy one, but it bore three children, the twins Judith and Hamnet following two years after Susanna. Hamnet dying in 1596, possibly of plague (right for the time, but unverified), possibly of injury (the more common reason for the death of children during the Elizabethan era outside of pandemics).

Hamnet being pronounced Hamlet in the Elizabeth era. A fact taken into account in the AU of the novel as a basis for the writing of Hamlet. Though the play is based on earlier works by other authors, the timing of it in history can also be tied to the act of grieving for a lost child through the writing of a narrative of grief and induced madness. Shakespeare’s Hamlet having been first performed sometime before Michelmas (September 29th) in 1600. (The novel is set in early summer, and assumes the play is not yet finished since a play in the Elizabethan era would be put to rehearsal as soon as complete.) So that grief is still fairly fresh, if not as raw as it once was.

As discussed above, by 1600 Anne is in her forties, and has lived the roles of spy, wife, mother, and playwright. During her youth, she was an agent for Walsingham. A country girl with an eidetic memory, able to venture to London without drawing attention, or work in the countryside as necessary. The ability to be invisible in a crowd useful later, too, once Anne retired from her work as a spy to have her children and still needs to transit back and forth to London in support of her work as a playwright; as already mentioned needing to see both Will and Kit to do so.

And useful again once Kit calls on Anne to aid her in one last job in service of Queen and country. Kit capable on her own, but needing her for this, and the two of them a complemented pair; both possessed of exceptional intelligence, but Anne’s other gift her memory, Kit’s the sword.

But further talk of spycraft, as well as the state of Elizabethan England in its twilight and why that matters to the novel, will have to wait until the next entry in this series of blogs. :)


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