Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain

I bet, like me, you think you already know this story, don't you?

Two boys, oddly (and conveniently!) identical, change clothes and step into each others' lives. Each learns both the good and the bad of the other's world, and in the end they go back to their original positions, having learned a Moral Lesson about appreciating their own lives.

That sells the story short. After all, it was written by Mark Twain, NOT Little Golden Books.

(Or Disney, either!)

Twain was not interested in generically moralistic pablum for youth. In fact, "The Prince and the Pauper" is set concretely in a specific period of time in a specific location--London, in late January of 1547. The prince of the title is the future Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, and Twain is setting his sights on specific matters of injustice in a fashion nearly Dickensian.

Tom Canty, the pauper, is more than simply poor. His father is a brute and a criminal, his mother and sisters are illiterate and brutalized. Tom himself escapes the meanness of his own life by reading and creating his own small kingdom among the other poor boys of the area. Thus Twain is careful to create a plausible basis for how the boys carried off the switch.

The actual switch happens quickly--Tom is spotted gazing at the Prince of Wales, and having attracted the negative attention of the guards, is being beaten. Prince Edward, a "truly noble" lad, instructs the guard to bring the boy to him. He then takes Tom to his royal rooms, and listens to the stories of a boy who is free to go where he wishes. As a joke, they switch clothes, and only then do they see their amazing similarity. As Twain is making clear, even the victims of class rigidity cannot see themselves clearly. Tom and Edward cannot even see that they look alike until they see themselves literally in each other's place.

Some further injustice causes Edward to leave his rooms at Whitehall to correct matters, and when he is seen in Tom's rags, he is treated as a pauper and thrown out of the palace grounds. What follows are his adventures, dragging him across London and back, meeting the victims of his father's harsh laws against begging, stealing, religious practice. No one believes him to be the Prince, no matter what he says, and they all take him for having lost his mind. Edward finds one champion, a dispossessed soldier who takes him in as his own son and humors him in his belief that he is the Prince.

Tom, meanwhile, is similarly determined to be mad, since no one will believe he is not the prince, despite his failure to recognize anyone or remember any of the thousand things he should. Nevertheless, he is treated kindly by Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, and he begins to enjoy himself. At first terrified that he is going to be discovered and thrown into the Tower, his most frightening moments come when he is called into his "father's" presence. Yet, despite his terrible reputation, Henry VIII is kind and loving to his son.

The situation becomes deeply serious when Henry VIII dies. Edward doesn't learn of it for several days, and is heartbroken to have lost his father. He also knows he will have to get back to his rightful place in time for the coronation. Tom manages to lull himself into a sort of denial, until he sees his mother while on procession through London. He denies her, and then suffers from great guilt and homesickness, and wants to end this charade as soon as possible.

While Edward is battling to get back to Westminster, Twain gives us a wonderful description of the arrangements for a royal coronation, including the wonderful details about just how long the nobles and peeresses have to sit in Westminster Abbey before the ceremony begins, so that they are all in place in time. I happened to have seen a show about QE II's coronation just a week ago, and then as well, people who were fortuneate enough to be inside the Abbey for the ceremony had to arrive as much as EIGHT HOURS beforehand. It was eerily similar to Twain's recounting of Edward's coronation.

Finally, finally, finally, Tom and Edward are in the same place at the same time, at the very moment before the Archbishop of Canterbury is about to place the crown on Tom's head. Edward appears in the aisle, insisting the ceremony halt, and Tom backs him up. Tests are propounded, and at the last, the boys are properly sorted out.

What makes the story so much better than my conception of it is the way that Twain uses the historic people of the time. Somehow, I was surprised to meet that old nemesis Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, in these pages. He and his son are mentioned as being imprisoned and attainted in the Tower of London, and Henry VIII orders their execution immediately. Which actually happened, and Henry Howard was beheaded on January 27, 1547, Thomas Howard was supposed to die the next day, but during the night, Henry died, and no one felt it right to start off the new king's reign with an execution. All of which Twain faithfully records.

The end of the story is also more historic than I would have guessed. Soon after Edward VI's coronation, he and the Lord Protector, his uncle Edward Seymour, repealed many of the most tyrannical of Henry's laws, including just about every form of treason enacted since the reign of Edward III (which ended in 1483). King Edward founded a school for boys, having learned from his experience that education was the best route for improving the lot of his subjects, and he gave Tom a special status of "King's Ward," allowing Tom and his family to leave poverty behind forever.

As a historical novel, it's a rollicking yarn with some real history included. There is an odd aside toward the end, where Twain compares the "blue laws" of New England with the laws of Tudor England, and points out that however hated those blue laws were, they were less rigorous than the English laws.

I mentioned before that Twain is almost "Dickensian" in his story. He places his characters in the most disturbing of social conditions, making the reader become emotionally involved and outraged by the injustices portrayed. Unlike Dickens, however, Twain has portrayed injustices some 300 years old--hard to really get irate about that. Which left me wondering what was the point of this story? It isn't to advocate social reform, like Dickens did; it isn't to develop an Educating Moral. But then, who says there has to be a point? As a swift and engaging story with a coherent theme about "clothes making the man," it doesn't need any other justification for being.

This, however, does require some 'splaining.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Revelation, by C.J. Sansom

The fourth of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries, starring the hunchback lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII. This one is set in 1543, and the king has set his sights on the recently widowed Lady Latymer, or as we know her, Catherine Parr.

The king's health is failing, and his ulcerated sores make him nearly immobile and increasingly fat. His pending mortality is obvious and may be the reason he continues to retreat from religious reform. Of course, the cat has already been released from the bag, and various forms of congregations have sprung up from the most conservative "Catholics without the Pope," to the "Hot Gospelers" who focus on pre-destination and are smug in their own perceived purity. The King is trying to return the country to old forms of worship, but it's already too late.

As a reward for his previous service, Shardlake has been appointed as counsel to the Court of Requests, a sort of civil court for poor people. Shardlake has been happily handing the cases assigned to him, and when the novel opens he has a case of a boy who has been placed in Bedlam by the privy council. Young Adam Kite has been praying for a sign he has been saved, and has made a spectacle of himself, demonstrating the new religion at a time when the old forms are ascendant. So the Privy Council has him shut up in Bedlam to keep things as quiet as possible.

Then an old friend of Shardlake's is found with his throat cut in the frountain at Lincoln's Inn and the inquest is cut short. Out of loyalty to his friend and love for the widow, Shardlake vows to find the killer. Of course, things are never simple in Tudor London--Archbishop Cranmer has ordered the inquest to be closed because there is concern that this murder might be linked to another that points to a threat to Catherine Parr. And Cranmer wants her to marry Henry because she is a reformer and the cause needs someone like that to influence the king.

Once again, Shardlake is caught up in politics against his will. Although this time the politics are really in the background. Sure, Cranmer is under attack by more conservative religious members of the Privy Council, but there is no sense that this case will have any effect on that. There is a whiff of strategic positioning: Henry is old and ill, and whoever is in a position to serve as Regent to the boy Edward is going to have a great deal of control over the religion of the country. Catherine Parr, as a Reformer herself, would be in a good position to advance the new religion after Henry's death--if she survives him. But the existence of a psychopathic murderer really doesn't affect those considerations, and so the link to the broader history of the time is much weaker here than in the earlier books.

Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the killer is not political, but a religious psychopath, killing repeatedly in ways suggested by the Book of Revelations, his victims former reformers who have become backsliders. This is where the book becomes gruesome--an "Angels and Demons" for renaissance England. Corpses are found mutilated and tortured--although arguably these deaths are no more gory than the Tudor penchant for burning heretics alive, as well as drawing and quartering and other judicial tortures. The peaceful expressions on the victims' faces lead to the conclusion that they were given a sedative before they were killed, which turns the focus onto the former infirmarians at Westminster Abbbey as the only persons in London who had the knowledge to administer such drugs.

Matthew Shardlake and his strongman Jack Barak are lead this time by the Assistant Coroner of London, himself a "Gospel man" and reformer, and are assisted at times by Sir Thomas Seymour, a real historical personage who had his own interest in Catherine Parr. We are treated to death by multiple stab wounds and resultant infection (also flesh eating maggots--ewwwww); immolation; vitriol burns and tongue mutilation; a naked corpse nailed across a water gate; a corpse with tiny nails imbedded in its face to simulate a smile; as well as some garden variety stab wounds and beatings--the extras thrown in to cover the murderer's trail.

A surprising number of "clues" turn out to be false--the killer is supposed to be tremendously strong, but it turns out he has a wheelbarrow. He is preternaturally informed about people's religious and social lives, but it turns out he has paid informants and also cases his victims while in disguise. He seems to have a great deal of medical and legal knowledge, but this turns out to be exaggerated. He seems to have particular animosity toward lapsed reformers--I still don't know why that is the case, since in the end it turns out he was formerly a monk. Perhaps that was explained in a part that I missed by falling asleep while listening.

Sansom does illuminate what it must have been like to have been caught in that time of theological debate. From where we sit nearly 500 years later, we tend to see Hanry's break with Rome as being purely an expedient to get rid of his old wife and get a new trophy wife. But the "new religion" was more than a question of whether the Pope has jurisdiction over the King of England. And once the Bible was widely available in English, there were suddenly a wide variety of interpretations. Breaking with Rome was one thing, creating a new theology was another. In fact, a truly "Anglican" form of worship was not created until the reign of Edward VI. So religious uncertainty was added to the other uncertainties of Henry's reign. It was a dangerous time to live, and one of great economic disparity and harsh criminal laws and penalties.

Still, somehow the book didn't quite work for me. Maybe it was just too much of a plot to leave much room for the broader social picture. A serial killer with a literary bent and a long list of murders to complete is really quite enough--just ask Dan Brown. The religious issues felt rather distant--the murders were not really believably about the religious issues of the time, but about one crazy man's God complex, which is far from unique to Tudor England.

Add to that that some of the mechanics of the book stood out for me this time. Once again, Matthew Shardlake "has feelings" for a woman, but doesn't tell her about them because he thinks no one could love a hunchback. Then something happens so that he "dares to hope" but ultimately he gets shot down. Maybe having a real love interest, or none at all? This device is getting old.

I was also more aware of the numerous times the characters stop and reiterate what is happening in the plot, either alone or in conversation. "Could it be. . .? But what about. . .? Maybe it's another person? But how could it be someone else when. . .?" Again, a place where reading the book would have allowed me to skip over the tedious recapping, which was much harder to do with an audiobook.

I have enjoyed these books as fictionalized history, using the device of a mystery to animate a fascinating time. This time around, it seems the mystery took pride of place over the historical atmosphere, and that's what I missed the most.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

This is the third book in the Matthew Shardlake series. I had seen this title promoted in a couple of places, and then we went to York. In honor of the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's crowning, the city of York was giving away free copies of the book and holding a number of events related to it all summer.

Set in 1541, Henry VIII is "progressing" from London to York. With 3000 people in tow, including his newest wife Katherine Howard, Henry is making a show of strength to the North. Five years earlier, some 30,000 men joined a "Pilgrimage of Grace," objecting to Henry's new religion and general treatment of the North. Henry and his advisor Wolsey promised negotiations, dispersed the crowd, then ruthlessly hunted down and killed the leaders. Robert Aske, the spokesman for the Pilgrimage, was hanged in chains--which means he was left to die of thirst and starvation, and his bones are still suspended over York Castle at the start of "Sovereign."

Yes, Henry VIII has developed into a cruel and tyrannical king, and the ceremonies planned for his arrival in York include the abasement and humiliation of the city's Council for their failure to prevent the Pilgrimage of Grace. Our hero, Matthew Shardlake, is sent to York to hear petitions from the people of York, to dispense "The King's Justice." He is also charged with seeing that a suspected rebellion leader is brought safely to London to be tortured at the Tower.

Shardlake continues to suffer a crisis of conscience. Originally a fervent supporter of Henry's break with Rome and the new Reformed religion, Shardlake is seeing that the ideals of religion are being corrupted by greed and ambition, and that the king he admired has become casually cruel and unpredictible. Shardlake wants nothing more than to keep his head down and live a quiet life unnoticed by those in power. Unfortunately, his previous work for Cardinal Wolsey has been notice by Wolsey's successor, and he is pressed into joining the King's Progress.

Things get complicated quickly, even before the Progress reaches York. A glazier is found murdered, impaled on a shard of glass. Before he dies, he whispers to Shardlake "No son of Henry and Katherine can be the true heir. She knows." Shardlake can't resist puzzling over the meaning of this statement, and thus he leads himself into further trouble. Visiting the glazier's house, he discovers an old box full of strange documents. An odd royal geneology, an act of parliment called the "Titulus Regulus" and a handwritten document that appears to be a confession of someone called "Edward Blaybourne." But before he can properly examine these documents, someone coshes him over the head and steals the papers.

There is also the matter of the prisoner--a young man whose bravery in the face of the torture facing him rattles Shardlake. The prisoner points out that Shardlake's job is to deliver him to London well enough for the torture to last even longer, and Shardlake's conscience is shaken. When the prisoner is found poisoned, Shardlake figures out how it was done and again has to quettion whether he was doing something immoral in saving a life only so that it could be ended in torture.

My favorite parts of this novel take place in York--a city that I totally fell in love with while we were there. Many of the sites of the novel still exist today, most notably the York Minster, the cathedral that was already over 300 years old at the time of Henry VIII. The King's Manor still stands, the last of the buildings of St. Mary's Abbey that was dissolved and repurposed to hold the Progress. Characters enter through the Bootham Bar, the gate to the walled part of the city where we walked to get to our hotel.

The plot is quite complicated, and requires an awful lot of history to be explained in order to follow what is going on. The murderer of the glazier is discovered about half way through, but the motive is connected to the larger issue of rebellion against Henry VIII. York was the home of the Plantagenet kings Edward IV and Richard III, who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry VIII's father. A convoluted issue of whether Henry VIII is a "true king" because he has only the smallest drops of royal blood takes a long time to explain. At issue is an old claim that Edward IV was an illegitimate son of the Duchess of York (Cecily Neville) and an archer from Kent. When Henry Tudor took the crown from Richard III, he married Elizabeth of York (daughter of Edward IV) to unite the houses of York and Lancaster and put an end to the Wars of the Roses. But if Elizabeth was not truly a "daughter of York" but only the offspring of an adulterous affair with an anonymous archer, then Henry VIII wasn't technically royal and should not be king.

This is a pretty shaky basis for an uprising, if you ask me. How much "royal blood" is enough, anyway? Just one drop? No matter how he got there, Henry VIII has everything he needs to stay on the throne--he's got armies, and money, and a navy, and fortresses, and torturers, and dungeons--all the apparatus of the state. He's also got no rivals--by 1514 he's executed the last of the Plantagenets in England. The only remaining member of that family is a cardinal in Rome. No dynasty there! Henry VIII is in no danger of being ousted from the throne.

There is a secondary plot--obvious to those who know their Tudor sex scandals. Queen Katherine's reign is perilously close to its end. In November of 1541, Henry VIII is presented with evidence of Queen Katherine's infidelity. This issue is a bit of a red herring--could this be the reason for the claim that "no child of Katherine and Henry can be the true heir?" Because it would not be Henry's child? No, this is incidental to the plot, although it is a dangerous secret to know.

About halfway through, the novel moves toward London where, in a carry over from "Dark Fire," Shardlake continues to press a suit against the powerful Sir Richard Rich, a real historical figure. After refusing to be warned off, Shardlake finds himself arrested and taken to the Tower of London to be tortured. He is actually subjected to a vise on his jaw, and the passage is quite disturbing. It makes it even harder to condone the use of torture as a method of information gathering and reinforces the sense of Tudor England as a very scary place to be.

The strength of the novel is in the evocation of Renaissance England as seen by someone who is really rather average--neither royal nor living at court, but a private citizen who struggles with his own ethical boundaries. Definitely worth the read.