After Graves, two indisputably great European novelists produced masterpieces of the genre set in pagan times. Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, an epic, stream-of-consciousness fictionalisation of the Latin poet's dying days published in 1945, is viewed by some as a German Ulysses. Six years later came the Belgian Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, a meditation by the second-century Roman emperor in the form of a letter to the young Marcus Aurelius. Robin Chapman, whose Christoferus or Tom Kyd's Revenge - about the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe - has just appeared, still sees Yourcenar as a brand-leader. 'For anyone who writes in this way,' he says, 'Hadrian is the bedrock for us all.'
Yourcenar was more than just a historical novelist. She captured a voice - inflections, rhythms and turns of phrase that were plausibly Hadrian's - and wove psychological truth over a factual vacuum. In the case of Marlowe, facts are less sparse. His murder in Deptford 400 years ago is an enigma, but we know about his life, his works, his likely activities as a spy, his enemies and his friends. It is one of these friends, Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, whom Chapman has chosen as his protagonist.
'I wanted to correct the vision of Kyd as pathetic and wet,' he says. 'Kyd has had a bad press; but I was attracted to him as a character. It was particularly important to me that, as a playwright, he write the novel.'
Kyd is at the centre of events. He has been tortured, forced to make a false confession about Marlowe - now dead for three months - and is recovering in Sussex. The burden of the plot is Kyd's vengeance on the killers of his friend. It is 1593, and England has a painted queen on the throne, out of touch with her subjects, surrounded by bootlicking courtiers; paranoia of Rome is in the air, and London has been ravaged by plague.
Such is the background. As far as the 'facts' behind Marlowe's death are concerned, Chapman disagrees with Charles Nicholl's thesis, as expounded in his book The Reckoning, that the playwright was a pawn in a game between Essex and Raleigh. Chapman claims that the facts are unknowable; this frees him to invent his - and thus Kyd's - own compelling version of events. (To add to the Marlovian brew, novels based on the same incident in Deptford are due in May from Anthony Burgess and Judith Cook.)
Though told by a self-conscious wordsmith, Christoferus moves at the pace of a thriller. Its level of intrigue wouldn't disgrace Le Carre. Kyd's voice, somewhat theatrical, by turns vengeful and indecisive, always sympathetic, carries the reader through. There's not a whiff of 'Elizabethanese', what Chapman calls the 'tush-and-gadzooks' school of writing. 'I wanted to get away from roaring merrie England and roistering in taverns,' he says.
Still, his fresh and idiomatic prose is undermined by the editing: you would think his publishers want his English to seem unstable - 'rigeur', 'plebian', 'moity' and 'noissome' being just a few of the howlers littering the text. Elizabethan copiers would have been more accurate.
When real pastiche is attempted, things can go wrong. Robert Nye's recent Mrs Shakespeare, a novel whose unhistorical premise seems to be that Anne Hathaway enjoyed being buggered by her husband, employs a 'roistering' style that is more schoolboyish than suggestive of a flesh-and-blood woman. The novelist Paul Bailey believes that 'a little pastiche goes a long way. The reason why (Peter Ackroyd's) Wilde works is that the voice is so right. It's all invention, but it's all Oscar'. Bailey observed that great figures from history can 'lose their vitality, become stuffed dummies mouthing eternal platitudes, when converted into fictional characters'. It's an easy trap to fall into.
Reinventing historical characters demands authenticity. It is that standard which divides the makers from the fakers. Pastiche, or imitation, is not the issue. It's whether you can, as Ackroyd and Robin Chapman know and as Yourcenar knew, use prose which, though not of the time the novelist is writing about, seems to be.
As a former actor and television scriptwriter, Chapman finds the fictional first-person mode a natural one. 'I distrust the God-like authorial voice of the third person. I like to start with a voice, which may or may not be mine, and work outwards. Having a historical figure frames your world for you; but if you're writing fiction, you have a certain freedom too.'
It's this freedom which permits colour, embellishment, even the period detail, or in the case of Christoferus the thriller element. But Christoferus, like Hamilton-Paterson's Gerontius, manages to rise above being simply historical; Thomas Kyd may not have been as great as Elgar, or Wilde, or Hadrian, but we still want to listen to him. As Yourcenar herself said: '. . . the historical novel, or what may for convenience's sake be called by that name, must take the plunge into time recaptured, and must fully establish itself within some inner world.'