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. :)


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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