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Books: Tense Life

3 minute read

GARLAND OF BAYS—Gwyn Jones—Macmillan ($3).

Romantics by the score have painted dreamy pictures of Elizabethan life. For a realist to attempt it means disturbing innumerable hallowed myths—principally the vague one that Shakespeare, Marlowe and their fellows said ods bodikins and talked blank verse in the Mermaid Tavern.

In Garland of Bays Gwyn Jones has written a realistic historical novel about one of the most romantic Elizabethans—Robert Greene—painting the most credible picture in fiction of that incredible era, and drawing one of the most convincing portraits of a poet that contemporary novels have to offer.

Garland of Bays is a big book. Extremely long (670 close-packed pages), it covers scenes of English provincial life, college, intrigues in literary circles, skullduggery, betrayal, seduction, rape, theft, hanging—a dismal record enlivened by the excitement of the story. Author Jones, a young professor at the University of Wales, pictures Greene as a kind of talented Elizabethan Anthony Adverse, thoughtless enough to drift into trouble and courageous and quickwitted enough to get out.

At Cambridge Greene meets the two men who most influence him: Coppinger, Puritan conspirator, rebel and mystic; and Sidley, wealthy, adventure-loving rake.

Sidley leads him into dissipation, introduces him to wealthy friends, seduces his sister. For several chapters Greene’s sister Alice runs away with the story, fights her way back to respectability, grows heroic without ceasing to be an outraged, sharp-tempered, occasionally foolish female.

Compared with her, young Greene seems vain, petty, irritating in his sanguine belief in his genius. But when his patron ships him to Italy—where Sidley is gelded and Greene stabbed—his story picks up again, and he begins his lifelong vacillations between periods of debauchery and periods of sobriety and work.

Chief merit of Garland of Bays is that Author Jones makes both periods equally lively.

He sees Greene, like most writers, writing because he needs the money, occasionally inspired despite his jealousy, pettiness, laziness, the disorder that fills his days. He sees Greene capable of a winning tenderness, risking danger to befriend an abandoned traveler, then coldly abandoning his wife and son.

But principally he sees him as a creature of the great age of English poetry, when poets lived the violent life of their time and when no crime was too brutal and no hero too exalted to have a place in their verse.

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