Edition: New English Library, 1964
Review number: 120
Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon wrote four humorous historical novels together; and this is probably both the silliest and funniest. They have taken a sort of general idea of the Elizabethan period, as though culled from second-rate popular histories and a good knowledge of the literature and stirred it all together as though everything in the period happened in a rush rather than during a reign of over forty years. Characters from the 1560s rub shoulders with others from the 1600s and later (playwrights right through until the closing of the theatres in the 1640s are often described as Elizabethan).
The plot is dominated by the two best known parts of Elizabethan society, the theatre and the court. Francis Bacon is desperate to be given a secondhand bed by the queen, a sign of great preferment. He commissions Shakespeare to write a play to be performed for the queen and court, to captivate her. (Shakespeare holds out for a fee of £40 when, as Bacon points out, you can get Beaumont and Fletcher for a ten pound note, and there are two of them.) Meanwhile, new lady-in-waiting Viola Compton has annoyed the queen by an accurate imitation of Mary Queen of Scots; she has discovered the stage. As in many stories dealing with the theatre of the time (I can think of two novels and a play without even trying), she disguises herself as a boy to become an actor in Shakespeare's company. (The commoness of the theme is probably because it is prompted by the many girls who disguise themselves as boys in Shakespeare's own plays.)
Across the town, the rival theatre company of Philip Henslowe sets out to destroy the Burtbages and Shakespeare, with various ham-fisted attempts to destroy their theatre: inciting the Puritans to close it down, sending out bravos to burn it - they get lost and burn down Henslowe's theatre instead, and finally sabotaging the props for a performance of Henry VIII. (In fact, the Globe did burn down after an accident with cannon in Henry VIII.)
It's the small touches that make this book so successful - the nightwatchman with ambition, Shakespeare's continual attempts to begin his masterpiece Love's Labour Won, Raleigh's potato tasting and so on. It helps if you know something about Elizabethan history and drama, but the novel is still riotously funny even if you don't know that much. The tone of the whole thing is a little like a student revue (up to including a "Warning to scholars: This book is fundamentally unsound" at the beginning), but it is a good student revue.