Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Invisible Exchange

Ian McKellen as Bosola - NT 1986

Since Brian Woolland was kind enough to write a long and detailed post about how his new novel, The Invisible Exchange, was rooted in his collaborations with Border Crossings, it’s the least I can do to respond with a (rather shorter) appreciation of his achievement!  

There aren’t many historical novels where you spend your time wanting to know what happens next. We all know that Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette got their heads chopped off. Even when the historical narrative is less well known, like the story of Frances Howard that underpins The Invisible Exchange, Google has a nasty habit of giving the game away.  But Brian’s novel bashes the historical genre up against the thriller, with a central character and a main plot line unknown to recorded history, and - when you think about it - not only entirely compatible with the known facts, but in some way essential to their having happened at all. By placing an underground fixer, Matthew Edgworth, at the centre of the story, Brian turns the novel into a real page-turner, while also subtly pointing out that the dominant aristocratic and royal narrative of text book history is not the only one. Matthew’s name says it all - he may live on the edge, but that doesn’t make him worthless. The picture my imagination formed of him was Ian McKellen as Bosola, in Philip Prowse’s National Theatre production of The Duchess of Malfi back in the 80s. Like Bosola, Matthew is dependent on the aristocrats whose dirty work he performs, and sees through their self-seeking machinations. Like Bosola, he encounters Bridewells and Bedlams, wise women and whores. In one particularly vivid sequence, he enters an almost psychedelic world of the subconscious, when he encounters the scrying mirror of Dr John Dee.  That mirror has Aztec provenance, and is now in the British Museum.

The novel begins with a variant of the “bed trick”. It’s a narrative device as old as the Bible, but most common in plays from the Jacobean era: the period in which the novel is set. The bed trick crops up in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, and in Middleton's The Changeling: but its most sophisticated outing is in John Marston’s The Insatiate Countess. Frances Howard was, of course, a Countess at the centre of a sexual scandal - and The Changeling draws heavily on her story. Marston himself puts in a cameo appearance in the novel. The bed trick is performed by Alice, who is a Dutch Courtesan (Marston again). Like Bosola, Matthew Edgworth is a Malcontent - a common figure in Jacobean drama, and the title of yet another Marston play.

So The Invisible Exchange is also an entertaining piece of playful post-modernism, but without the ostentatious whizz-kidding. You don’t have to get all the allusions to be engaged and compelled by Matthew’s story - but if you unravel some of the literary puzzle, it makes you realise how culture and narrative do not simply respond to an historical moment, but serve to shape it.  It’s this that makes The Invisible Exchange as contemporary as it is historical.