Oh yes, there is another one. Same title, but a very different book. Antonia Forest was a children’s writer – and, although this is one of those children’s book that are a pleasure to an adult reader, it’s definitely lighter fare than Bryher’s novel.
The story itself is of the Runaway Boy sort: at eleven, Nicholas Marlow lives with his much older, wealthy and indulgent brother, and studies at the local grammar school… When the pregnant sister-in-law suggests that, once the baby is born, it would be easier for everyone if Nicholas were to lodge with the schoolmaster in the village, the boy feels betrayed. So, to avoid being sent a couple of miles away, he runs off to London, with the help of his brother’s chance guest, Kit Marlowe, as charming as he is alarming. Nicholas’ notion is to find a berth on a ship for the New World – and what could be easier, when his new fake cousin is a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh? Except it’s late May 1593, and Marlowe is stabbed to death in Deptford, leaving Nicholas stranded and alone in London… Enter William Shakespeare, who feels compelled to help his dead friend’s “cousin”, and has him apprenticed with the Chamberlain’s Men. Adventures ensue, and theatre, land lies, and conspiracies… All of it very pretty and nicely written.
On the whole, Forest’s book idealises the Elizabethan era just as much as Bryher’s characters do – only it’s in full swing, colourful and vibrant. And, truth be told, slightly less than realistic at times, when it comes to social interactions.
But perhaps my favourite aspect of this Player’s Boy is to have Shakespeare and Marlowe seen through young Nicholas’ eyes: Kit is charming and dangerous, full of shadows, and ultimately reckless, but able to sympathise with a schoolboy’s unhappiness. Will, on the other hand, is patient, trustworthy and kind, a reassuring presence while Nicholas grows up, and – especially after Hamnet’s death – a sort of surrogate father. And I don’t know just how fanciful this will sound, but I’ve always found this characterization of the two poets and each man’s relationship with Nicholas to mirror their role in the development of English theatre: Marlowe is the daring fellow who breaks with the past and begins a new course, while Shakespeare, once he “inherits” the boy, fosters his growth to maturity…
I can’t help wondering how modern children like The Player’s Boy. I would have loved it as a child, but things have changed since. As an adult, I can say I found it a charming little read – especially interesting when read back-to-back with Bryher’s far more melancholy take on a similar story.