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.