Reviewed by Cecilia Busby
Available on Kindle
"Christopher Uptake" is a curious book. I have an original copy of it, illustrated with a picture of a rather serious young Elizabethan man, bending over some writing in a dark room, illuminated only by a candle. The newly issued Kindle cover has an immediately recognisable portrait of an altogether more confident character, gazing at the viewer with a hint of challenge in his eyes.
Christopher Uptake is clearly based on Marlowe - yet strangely that link is not made in the blurb for either the original or the re-issued book, despite the portrait on the front. Nor do any of the Amazon reviews mention it. It seems odd. Uptake, like Marlowe, is the son of a tradesman, a grammar-school boy who wins a scholarship to Cambridge, an atheist who takes to writing plays, and who gets mixed up in the Elizabethan secret service, spying on the equivalent of Second World War fifth columnists: the English Catholics. Yet Uptake is not Marlowe; his trajectory is, finally, very different. Rather than taking to the business of spying with gusto, Uptake is riven with doubts. He suffers from stabs of conscience and from guilt at the thought of what his spying may lead to for the Catholics taken and tortured by the Elizabethan secret police. Uptake is a reluctant spy, caught in a net where his cooperation is ensured by threats to himself and his family. He is represented as a miserable collaborator with a harshly repressive state regime.
Reading "Christopher Uptake", I wondered whether Susan Price had set out to write about Marlowe and then found that she couldn't make it work. Simply couldn't find a way "in" to a character who was so obviously intelligent and free-thinking and yet came to work as a spy for the government, betrayed those he had feigned friendship with, professed a Catholic faith only to entrap and incriminate others. Perhaps she just couldn't prevent the guilt and the doubt overwhelming her Christopher, unlike the historical one, to the point where he had to become Uptake rather than Marlowe. It seems curious, otherwise, to stick so closely to the original and yet give her character's story such a different resolution. Certainly the book made me think much more deeply than I have before about what it would have been like to live in the time of Elizabeth I, what it really meant to be surrounded by such a strong network of spies and agents provocateurs, to live in the middle of rumour, plots, counterplots, agents and double-agents. It would have been, I think, a little like living in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Uptake is a young man who wants to be left alone, doesn't want to do anyone any harm; yet in such times it's hard to stay neutral, and Christopher struggles in the sticky webs laid by the Queen's spymasters.
I was really gripped by Christopher's predicament, by his moral dilemmas and justifications, as well as his attempts to limit the damage he has done. Price does an excellent job of making his world believable, making us care about Christopher, making us desperate for him to escape the clutches of the sinister spy, Bagthorpe. It's a book that lives on in the imagination after it's read, and it certainly made me think again about the real Christopher Marlowe and what he may or may not have done in the service of the unscrupulous Sir Francis Walsingham (pictured).
I think there are ways to understand Marlowe's role as a spy, particularly when you remember that England at the time was a small and insecure island, surrounded by great Catholic powers simply waiting for a chance to invade. It was a crueller time, life was more fragile and more contingent. But Susan Price's Christopher is a fine creation that certainly serves as a challenge to anyone who admires the playwright: what made Marlowe choose differently from Uptake?
Cecilia Busby writes as C.J. Busby
She is the author of Frogspell, Cauldron Spells, Ice Spell and Swordspell
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