Further Discussions on Women Spies and Genderbent Playwrights

Sir-Joseph-Noel-Pato (A Midsummer Night's Dream)

As you may have already heard I’m writing a novel about women spies and genderbent playwrights, as told through an alt/secret history narrative. Set in London in 1600. And am crowdfunding to buy time to write that novel.

But why write about England in the 1600s?

Especially since much of my short fiction is set in the present; aside from the SF stories, most of which are set in the near future and on down the line. And since I prefer to have women and PoCs front and centre, why write about a country classically depicted white — up to and including the nobility quite literally painting themselves snow-driven with ceruse (white lead) — and run by men? Elizabeth I exists as the reigning monarch in that year, yes. But the majority of her courtiers and ministers are men and almost entirely white.

Except … there’s a vast difference between the wealthy England of the royalty, the courtiers, and the landed gentry, and the England of the working class and poor. And I’m interested in some of the narratives concerning the latter. Namely the narratives of Anne Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe, by virtue of playing with their histories and proposing yet another in a long, storied list of delightful conspiracy theories about them and the period. Hence the use of the terms alternate and secret in relation to this history.

Specifically, in my case, casting Kit Marlowe not only as a woman, named for her mother (Katharine), who pretended to be a man (Christopher) to get an education and live her life as a man because she’s queer (still a seducer of women in the name of the crown in her role as spy and rake, just in a more queer context; and genderqueer as well), but also biracial. In this case choosing to have some of her maternal family be Moors. And choosing to have Anne not be illiterate as is so often the depiction, not least of all because it’s much more interesting to look at the themes and choices of Shakespeare’s plays if you consider them as written by a woman (which lends an entirely different light to the frequent genderbending, disguising of women as men, and the already layered meanings of many of the lines spoken by women in Shakespeare’s plays). Also moving away from the idea of having Anne be illiterate because in the narrative I am writing both women as recruited fairly early on as spies in the service of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s most successful spymaster. A spymaster who tended to think outside the box, and had a habit of recruiting from working class members of England’s citizenry and penniless students who needed money. (The practice of recruiting spies from among students at Oxford and Cambridge a practice that continued up through the modern era.)

And for all my interest in changing the circumstances of certain factors of the characters with which I am working, the fact remains that Kit, Anne, and Will as well, all historically came from what were then middle class families, or families who worked in trade. Marlowe’s father was a cobbler. Anne’s father was a farmer. And Will’s father a farmer who became a trader (of his own father’s crops), then a leatherworker, and later a money lender.

Those narratives of the working class and poor in London are where one actually, actively, gets to broach England’s diversity during the period. While also addressing the appalling state of daily life in London. Because if you were not a member of the royal court or the nobility (and sometimes even if you were depending on whether your standing was high enough to warrant being housed in Elizabeth’s many palaces when she moved between them — as she did frequently; and I’m not even go into the disgusting, entirely practical reason why here — or whether you were forced to find lodgings in London elsewhere), the London of Elizabeth’s time was a fucking nightmare:

London in 1600 is a filthy, overcrowded metropolis, with beggars on every corner and the city streets unpaved muck. There’s a lack of potable water because the Thames is polluted from the runoff of tanneries, sewage, and a lack of drainage and general sanitation in the city — this still being a period in which the common practice was to pitch the contents of a chamber pot out a window into the mud of the street below. And proclamations from both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I have successively, owing to various factors, by that time led to the mass eviction and disenfranchisement of London’s poor, leaving them to spill into the streets.

The ongoing influx of citizenry immigrating from other nations and protectorates has led to a swelling of the population. (Which is part of what will aid us in discussing population diversity momentarily.) In 1600, London’s population has risen to 200,000 (a conservative estimate), having quadrupled from somewhere in the vicinity of 50,000 in 1500. (The rise being exponential, with an estimated 80,000 citizens in 1550.) By the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, that number will have more than tripled again up to nearly 700,000. This tempered by the fact that between 1665 and 1666 an estimated 100,000 Londoners die of the Great Plague of London. The spread of disease and overcrowding exacerbated by narrow streets, the aforementioned lack of sanitation, and the cramming of bodies into high, narrow apartments built, in many cases, wall to wall or with narrow alleyways and causeways between them. Even London’s proper streets are narrow, and London’s haphazard growth leaves it a maze even to many of those who live in it, with some streets named, others not.

Not helped by the fact that in 1600 the practice of establishing suburbs among the outlying parishes of the city proper is still a fledgling one, and so the populace of London continues to grow. Devouring outlying regions as it does so, but never quite keeping up with the demands of its exponential population growth. And the rapid rise in population brings with it another problem: a swelling of the ranks of thieves guilds owing to the rising number of potential targets and growing number of citizens unable to find other work. The thieves guilds engaging in a highly lucrative, territorial industry, while the guilds prey on commoners and wealthy alike.

But among a small swathe of the nobility and gentry and primarily among the working class and poor of London is an interesting history:

The influx of foreign nationals that helps swell London’s population to that 200,000 citizens in 1600 includes Scots, Jews, Huguenots, Flemish, Africans (from West and North African nations), Moors (in that era a catch-all term referring variously to Muslims, North Africans of various ethnicities, and Arabs of various ethnicities — the term often used interchangeably with “blackamoor”), Persians, Indians, and Bengals (at that time cited in parish records as East Indians). By this point there are several thousand black people recorded living in London (with more elsewhere in the nation, and some also in Scotland), and that accounts for only a portion of the people of colour in residence.

Their vocations are many: Dignitaries (as members of foreign delegations to Elizabeth’s court), traders and merchants, wrights and craftspeople of various strains, entertainers (musicians and dancers, primarily), servants, prostitutes, and even in one case a famed brothel madam (Black Luce). They are none of them slaves under Elizabeth’s rule, and intermarriage with white Britons is not uncommon during that period, nor prohibited. Though in the years preceding 1600 racial tensions rise and boil over owing to a fairly sudden increase in the presence in the country of freed blacks and Moors formerly held captive by the Spanish:

Following the failed invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English have intermittently been sinking or capturing Spanish ships. Which, among other recoveries, has meant freeing and providing lodging for black and Moorish former galley slaves and servants. From 1600-1602 Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley, has been formulating measures to, on Elizabeth’s behalf, enact “repatriation” of that influx of black and Moorish individuals.

That tension though? That particular tension doesn’t come from the citizenry. That tension comes instead from the crown. (Elizabeth historically blames it on her citizenry, yes, but the racial tensions and racism existing in England don’t foster along those lines as fiercely until British colonialism is in full swing under later monarchs. The tensions of Elizabeth’s reign, be they of skin tone or otherwise, are more primarily rooted in religious dispute and the fervours to be found therein.) Elizabeth’s irritation being that her government is now paying for the lodging and feeding of a not insignificant influx of citizens she had no expectation of providing for. The demands on the royal purse already heavy in multiple directions in 1600, and so as ever Elizabeth’s policies are driven by the cold calculations of economic necessity. (Though no less appalling for being so.) Hence the attempts to vanish the “excess” population to the Barbary coast by virtue of merchant ships. A plan out of which little appears ever to have come, since no such repatriation is recorded among Cecil’s papers, though they contain plain reference to the planning.

There’s a distinct disparity between the royal considerations of the existence of people of colour in London at that time, and the citizenry’s approach to their presence. Non-white Britons were still considered, in many circles, exotic. Up to and including being the subject of fetishizing narratives casting them as lone figures in the midst of whiter populations. But the fact remains that they existed alongside and as part of communities inside England, primarily in London. And in larger numbers than are generally depicted in historical fictions and dramatizations.

For my own purposes, in the novel I’m writing I’m further upping the historical numbers of people of colour in Elizabethan England. And focusing almost exclusively on women in the telling. Partly because it’s entirely possible to tell a story without the presence of men, or with fairly few in direct spotlight, even in an age in which many of England’s nobility were men. Partly because I’d rather focus on telling stories with a heavy presence of people of colour, and frequently protagonists who are people of colour (or in this case split between one protagonist of colour and one white protagonist). And partly because I’m much more interested in writing about competing networks of women spies than I am in writing a narrative of court intrigue. Spy networks that also happen to be separated along religious lines, with Kit and Anne representing England’s Protestant nation, and The Zealot and her attendant network a Catholic concern bent on the destruction of Protestant England. Plans contingent on supernatural means of devastation.

Because this is me and I’d much rather write a supernatural spy novel than one grounded entirely in the mundane.

Also because there’s a story about how this one got started and what the narrative’s lambasting as an adjacent act, aside from everything else I want to do with the book.

But that story, and the broader story of this book’s conception, will have to wait for the next post. ;)

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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One Response to Further Discussions on Women Spies and Genderbent Playwrights

  1. Pingback: Women Spies and Genderbent Playwrights — Inception and Protagonists | Michael Matheson | A Dark and Terrible Beauty

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