The Cam is a tourmaline river, by the way. Greeny-brown, and shifting with the light. It hasn't any strong distinctive smell, as some rivers do. It smells of green, shallow river. The light doesn't penetrate it far; it is translucent with mud.
The reason I'm on this trip, of course, is both as background research for The Stratford Man and The Cobbler's Boy and their various associated books. And I thought somebody might find it interesting, to see how the process works for me--how experience, in other words, generates fiction.
Because, tromping around Cambridge, I could put myself in the shoes of a young man arriving like a country cousin on a scholarship. He would never have fit in with the noblemen's and gentlemen's sons who made up most of the student body--though he would have learned, fast, how to talk like them and play their games, I imagine--and the town youths and the apprentices were downright predatory towards the students, a hatred that was well-returned. (And learn to court it like a gentleman)
I now can't remember whether I owe this tidbit to Constance Brown Kuriyama, Park Honan, or David Riggs (one of the scholars in question spent months groveling through the Corpus Christi buttery books for every reference to Kit) but we know that pretty much the first thing Kit did was present himself at the college and get something to eat. There was some funny business with the scholarship too--I think the previous holder hadn't vacated it yet when he arrived--so I'm not sure what happened with that. (My reference books being on the other side of a lot of rather deep cold water, currently.)
Anyway, as I was tromping around in my purple high-top trainers, I came to have a picture this scared, hungry, footsore sixteen year old kid straggling out of dust of the road, having walked some hundred-odd miles over the course of the last four or five days. Maybe more, if he went with a group, and they went through London, but that would have added a day to the journey as opposed to cutting closer to the coast.
He comes up the high road through farmland, reaches the outskirts of the city, and starts looking around, wondering if he should ask for directions. It's certainly not any bigger than Canterbury, and there's nothing to compare to Canterbury Cathedral. But he can see at least one good-sized chapel rising over the houses, white stone walls and Gothic architecture, and he guesses that's the new chapel at King's college, completed less that a hundred years before. He's passing walled colleges now and houses and businesses, and noticing that the gowned students and the townspeople in their homespun do not speak, do not mingle. Does he approach a student, and risk having his Kentish accent made fun of? Or a townsman, and risk whatever that might bring?
Ahead, he sees a bridge. This must be the river Cam, and there's a college beyond it, and he knows that's Magdalen College, because it's on the "wrong" side of the river from the others. So he backtracks and takes a turn right--southwest--down the equally-broad road he passed before. Like the high road, this one is wide enough for two carts to pass on. It's mucky and full of carts to dodge and squealing cattle and cackling chickens and feral pigs. The road stinks. The water seeping into his shoes is foul.
On his left are businesses, homes, rowhouses built cheek by jowl with only space for one-cart-width roads between the blocks. The walls are three, four stories. He thinks that big chapel is this way; it seems like a pretty good bet.
He passes the high cloister of St. John's and then the forbidding, cheaply mortared walls of Trinity college on the right--he identifies it by the arms over the gate. Passing that, passing two or three narrow close-topped ways on the walls of which somebody has scratched "t the river" with a pebble, he finds the prospect opening out. On the right, now, there are lawns, and an ancient chestnut tree whose branches drag the ground around it. And the white, soaring walls of what must be that same famous King's College chapel (Started by one Henry, continued by Richard III, finished by another Henry, a hundred years and the War of the Roses in the making) across a green expanse of lawn, where students do not seem to walk but spotted cattle graze freely. This is spacious and beautiful, and he can glimpse the river downslope of the chapel, and beyond it a water meadow, accessed by a bridge.
Beyond it, the prospect narrows again, and he sees the walls of another college on the right, and a low creamy stucco building on the left--two stories, with a dormered roof that gives it three. He walks on, and now the city is giving way to fields again. The sky is torn with clouds, the sun falling into the west. Where it's not cut by buildings, by narrow streets, it lays sharp shadows in the rutted road. There will be more rain, come nightfall, but for now his hair is drying.
The building on the left, in fact, sits in the midst of a patch of tilled ground, and a couple of cattle are pastured there. Beyond it is a hall of some sort, and beyond that, another cloister.
Does he catch on before he's almost out of the city again? Does he stop someone and ask directions? Or does he notice the arms, or some other sign that the low white building is his destination?
When it comes up on me like that, it's very kinesthetic. I find myself in the character's body, more or less, understanding them on a physical level. I can feel their reactions almost automatically, though sometimes getting into their heads is harder. And the visual stuff? That's harder.
So, about the portrait of a pretty young man with a straggling beard that may or may not be Kit Marlowe.
This thing is somewhat controversial. It turned up in the 1950's when Corpus was renovating the Master's Lodge, and the reason to think it's Kit is that the age is right, the motto is right, the location is more or less right... and it looks like it should be Master Marlowe. Some of the reproductions go out of their way to make the subject prettier, a bit effeminate; rosy cheeks and rosebud lips. The original (assuming the restorer got it right; we only have a black and white photo of the original before conservation, and it was terribly damaged; the planks were actually retrieved from a rubbish pile) shows more of a minty-green pale-cheeked studiousness; what today we would refer to as a cathode-ray tan.
He looks like a poet, with the arched eyebrow, the direct, intelligent gaze, and the hidden smile. And fashionable languor is mockery, here. He looks like a spy, with the folded hands and crossed arms. Keeping secrets. He looks like a man who could hold his own in a duel, with blades or wits.
But then there are problems. That glorious if somewhat archaic doublet, for example, with its black velvet and gold buttons; how is a scholarship student affording that? You can find a way around that, and say, the same way he's affording the increasing amounts of money he spends on food, as well, of course. He has a patron. He's becoming known as a poet even now. Or he's sold out fellow students to the rack and the hanging tree, and done good service to the queen. Or, more simply, he's been befriended by another boy, one with money, and the doublet is a loan, or a gift, from some rich man's son. Sumptuary statutes were in effect, but may have been honored as much in the breech as in the obedience.
Possibly the one the portrait might be intended as a return gift to, though that's rankest speculation.
It doesn't appear to have cost much to have a portrait painted. 6 shillings, perhaps as much as two crowns, unless one wanted the best.
On the other hand, some would argue, other poets of the age, we see painted in plainer clothes. Fletcher in his shiny doublet of red leather, fashionably unbuttoned, with a small ruff under his collar. Or later, tireder around the eyes, his red hair more ginger, in black satin with a rich, layered, lace falling collar. Drayton an exception, in a laurel wreath and sumptuous lace ruff, looking peaked. Shakespeare in a standing collar and piccadil and a dark doublet with a bit of braid or brocading, and then again that other Shakespeare, the disputed but often accepted one, in his dark doublet and plain linen falling collar, collar strings untied. Ben Jonson, too, in dark wool and an untied collar. Nathan Field en deshabille in a blackworked silk shirt, again with falling collars, looking like debauchery on a stick. John Donne with his shirt all undone and his black hat shadowing his face, the light glimmering off his sleeve with hints of purple velvet.
So, maybe not so much.
Oh, and there's that falling collar. Which you see on portraits of Richard Burbage, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and the like. It's not untied; there's no poetic deshabille here. But then, this is a young man on his guard.
Then there's the so-called Grafton portrait, recently conserved, of a young man with sideburns and a wary look, wearing a red silk velvet (or so it looks to me) doublet slashed in silver-gray, again with the doubled falling collars--linen and muslin, or cobweb lawn--that we see in the Corpus Christi portrait. The Grafton is often said to be Shakespeare, but at issue is the fact that it doesn't look a thing like the Droeshout engraving or the Chandos portrait, which are our best contenders. No long, knobby nose, but rather a sort of snubbed one with a little round end. No hooded eye. A small mouth, lips tightly pursed, and sideburns drawing to a scant beard.
Some argue that this couldn't be Shakespeare because of the color of the doublet (scarlet not being for the common man.) The same argument, of course, applies to Marlowe. But on the other hand, there's the theatrical connection, and the patronage question.
The tricky thing with Elizabethan portraits is that the ones of the middle class all do tend to look alike. Some people stand out no matter what--Francis Walsingham, Ben Jonson. To look like themselves, they had to be made to look like themselves. But most of the rest are painted on blanks. 3/4 profile, the features arranged by rule of thirds rather than individual idiosyncrasy.
So Ben, with his warts and his one eye lower than the other, comes down to us more faithfully than prettier men, who could be projected onto that idealized form.
I lean towards thinking that the Grafton portrait and the Corpus Christi portrait are probably the same man. Younger, in the first portrait, with his hair fluffed out by brushing; Older, in the second portrait, with his hair greased back into curls, looking darker. And what do I base this on? That funny nose. And the line of the cheek, which doesn't have the angled bone that the Chandos portrait and the First Folio engraving both show.
And the taste in clothes. Because all else aside, those falling collars and the slashed doublets look like they were picked out by the same person. I'm not committed to the theory, mind you; I'm not that much of a crackpot.
As for whether it's Kit or not? The evidence for, I'd say, is as good as the evidence against.