ENTERED FROM THE SUN By George Garrett Doubleday. 349 pp. $19.95
NOVELS with historical settings are not yet a moribund genre. Far from it. We have lately had Rose Tremain's Restoration: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century England, telling of Robert Merivel at the court of Charles II; obliged to marry the king's mistress, Merivel falls dangerously in love with her. Entered From the Sun concludes George Garrett's trilogy of novels about Elizabethan England. The first two are Death of the Fox, dealing with the life of Sir Walter Raleigh (who also puts in an appearance towards the end of Entered From the Sun), and The Succession, about events surrounding James VI of Scotland's accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth as James I of England.
Garrett fans, of which I expect there are many, will not be disappointed with the third volume. Towards the end of it, Garrett fleetingly touches on the Earl of Essex's end -- "But that is all another story." Will Garrett tell it? Will the trilogy thus become a quartet? The prophetic mood is not on me, but, as a poet once said, "Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new." Meanwhile, sliced bread and Tolstoy these goodies aren't. But you don't happen upon a War and Peace every year. Rest content with what we have. We have a good deal.
Entered From the Sun takes place in London in 1597, as a great century was winding down and a great queen's reign was nearing its end. Christopher Marlowe, the focus of the novel, has been dead for four years, and efforts are being made to determine how he died. Marlowe was the Canterbury shoemaker's son who became a brilliantly innovative poet-playwright in London and died violently at a party at the widow Eleanor Bull's house of public refreshment in Deptford, a little village not far from the Bankside playhouses, in the company of three unsavory characters, Skeres, Poley and Frizer, the last of whom ended his days as a churchwarden.
At the time of his death Marlowe -- born in the same year as Shakespeare -- was only 29. Was he murdered? Maybe. Was he engaged in espionage or counter-espionage? Maybe. One thing is certain. Marlowe quickly attained a mythic resonance. Shakespeare extolled him as the "dead shepherd" in "As You Like It," his only unmistakable allusion to a contemporary English poet. Marlowe also became a cautionary example. His identity is, indeed, rich in contradiction. He was excoriated as atheist Marlowe, yet no play is more suffused with religious sensibility than his "Doctor Faustus." Twenty-five years after his demise, he was featured with others in a collection melodramatically entitled The Thunderbolt of God's Wrath Against Hard-Hearted and Stiff-Necked Sinners.
The historical presences in Entered From the Sun include Simon Forman, magus, sexual athlete and unlicensed medical practitioner, who during plague time probably killed fewer patients than did many established medics. But the principal personages of the novel are fictional: young Joseph Hunnyman, a common player; Captain Barfoot, "a creature of fire and ice, blood and thunder, he is, as allowed, a rusty, much wounded soldier home from the wars"; and the enticing young widow Alysoun. The novel builds to its inevitable climax when Barfoot beds Alysoun.
A latter-day poet inspired the title. "Doom is the House without a Door," wrote Emily Dickinson, " 'Tis entered from the sun." But the author mainly draws upon passages from writings of the period -- royal proclamations, pamphlets, legal declarations, the Book of Common Prayer, sermons, Marlowe's writings; you name it. These are spliced in in separate brief chapters. Happily, the author's prose is not studded with forsooths and mayhaps. A Philip Roth Garrett isn't, nor was he meant to be; he is a lucid, unromantic and unsentimental historical novelist.
Marlowe is frequently alluded to, but never appears as a fictional personage, having of course already departed the scene. Best, anyway, to avoid making a great poet a character in a contemporary novel. Anthony Burgess managed to make WS (so he is called throughout) the hero of Nothing Like the Sun, and got away with it; but there is only one Anthony Burgess.
The scholar and the artist are sometimes at odds with one another. Not so in the case of Garrett, who holds a chair in creative writing at the University of Virginia. The last few pages of Entered From the Sun are given over to the "Author's Farewell." In it he generously pays tribute to the scholar. "I am not, never have been, and never will be a proper scholar of those times," Garrett writes. "Nevertheless how greatly I admire them, one and all, the scholars, living and dead, who have so carefully performed their duty and service of hard labor, against huge and discouraging odds, often in the face of no little indifference and even less reward from and respect of others, to preserve our past, to keep that lost past time available for us, accessible to us."
That he has profited from the scholars is evident on every page of Entered From the Sun, which testifies to the happy symbiosis of learning and art.
S. Schoenbaum is director of the Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies at the University of Maryland.