Greer Gilman’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear was published in 2014, preceded by Cry Murder! In A Small Voice in 2013. These are historical novels published by the estimable and alluring Small Beer Press, in saddle-stitched chapbooks of high quality and good design (e-book versions are also possible). They share a protagonist, the English playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637), friend of Will (Shakespeare), Alleyn (the actor), and of the long-dead Kit (Marlowe). Jonson’s voice is the point of these novels, because Gilman writes in perfect, believable seventeenth-century English. She is extremely well-read in Shakespeariana, with the writerly skills to make us believe that sentence structures and vocabulary over four hundred years old mean something now. Half of the wonder of these novels is their poetic beauty, how Greer creates meaning and impact so effectively in a lexical style I associate with being in a respectful theatre audience or teaching in a literature class. The other half is the gripping storytelling.
Cry Murder! In A Small Voice is a detective novel in which Jonson has realised that someone is kidnapping and killing young pre-pubescent boys of the theatre. He travels to Venice to find the clues to the monster preying on the playhouse boys, and buys a weapon that has to be smuggled into the murderer’s presence in very dangerous circumstances. Only his chosen boys are allowed near him, and have to be prepared and dressed for the occasion. This murderer has very particular tastes, which is why the playhouse boys, with their particular skills in acting as virgin maids and experienced matrons, are at risk. Jonson finds a boy willing to act as a decoy, but once this boy is out of his protective reach, will he survive the murderer’s den?
The narrative style is impressionistic, since we’re seeing the action through Jonson’s perspective. Only crucial actions and reactions are described, often with even the padding of pronouns removed, so the narrative has the trimmed and taut verse structure we are used to from blank verse, in which every syllable is used to force an impression of natural, casual or formal speech. Each line is precise, no words wasted and nothing there that does not work several ways at once: for meaning, for rhythm, for sound effects, for echoes of classical and rhetorical patterns that are simply glorious to listen to. I love Gilman’s perfect economy with beautiful words that work hard.
There’s a reason for this story being told in this way. Jonson was a Jacobean playwright, writing in the reign of James the First and Sixth in the period when John Webster and Thomas Middleton (and Shakespeare) were producing stage dramas that we now categorise as ‘Jacobean tragedy’ for their characteristically violent plots of revenge. Cry Murder! is also a violent, bloody tale of murderous revenge, told in a most fitting idiom. The sociological element of how men saw boys of the period, especially playhouse boys trained to act and dress as women, is important for the plot. Their power was potent, both men’s power over boys, and boys’ power over men. Gilman’s story of Jacobean men explores how sexuality draws on gender-driven relationships. This may sound a bit lit-crit-theoretical, but these terms do the best job of pinpointing how Gilman twists a detective novel into a dark gender-queer fantasia. These boys speak the playwrights’ lines of sexual and emotional experience that they have never felt themselves, and – in this story – many of them never will.
Exit, Pursued By A Bear is set in the same world, some years later, in Jonson’s London, where Will Shakespeare wears the king’s livery and Jonson is struggling not to lose his temper with the pompous, pretentious genius Inigo Jones over a court masque. Jonson has written the plot with a stunningly good role for Henry Stuart, the Prince of Wales, who is to play Oberon, king of the fairies and Titania’s lord. His anxious younger brother Charles, Duke of York, is to lead the bears in the procession, and he is beside himself with excitement about this. These are imported polar bears, kept in a cage in the Palace of Westminster under a bearward’s fond care: what could go wrong? Gilman has moved this sequel out of detection into fantasy, good and proper, because Titania, queen of the fairies, has asked Kit Marlowe – dead, to be sure, but bored out his mind in Arcadia – to procure her a new boy to play with. He arrives at the bedside of the young and very malleable Charles one night – the sleepy boy thinks he is an usher – to groom him with promises, and has everything set up for a supernatural kidnap of royalty. But earthly plotters also have plans to disrupt the masque, and Charles is going to be dreadfully disappointed about the bears.
This too is a beautiful, magical novel, because of how it is told, but I felt it worked rather less well because of the supernatural elements. I’d like to hear a great deal more about Kit Marlowe in Arcadia (I’m sure there’s a Joan Aiken story about the gods and heroes being bored in Elysium: perhaps he could go and find adventure there), but Ben Jonson needs to stay grounded on earth, in his stinking sweaty, familiar London, without any fairy nonsense messing up his plans.
These novels are miracles of poetry and scholarship, and thoroughly entertaining: go buy them immediately.