Friday, November 13, 2009


2009 has been a good year for Tudor fiction. Hilary Mantel's hefty Wolf Hall, a portrayal of Henry VIII's strongman Thomas Cromwell, won the Man Booker prize for fiction. Best-selling novelist Philippa Gregory added a back story to her seven Tudor novels with The White Queen, about Henry VIII's maternal grandmother Elizabeth Woodville. And C.J. Sansom, whose first novel about the fictional hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake was blurbed by P.D. James, added a fourth book to the series, Revelation.

I am 40 pages into Wolf Hall, and I'm not sure if I will continue: it is a literary novel that is heavy on character and light on plot, and it is very long. I have read only one Philippa Gregory (The Queen's Fool), and I enjoyed it: as I recall, it was a page-turner of a romance in a well-researched historical setting. Sansom's books fall in the middle of the literary-to-popular continuum. They are mysteries, but (like most P.D. James books) they are also fully developed novels with well-developed characters, intricate plots, and serious concerns that go well beyond whodunit.

Sansom tells his stories in chronological order, so it's a good idea to begin with his first book, Dissolution (read my review here), whose events take place in 1537 when Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell are breaking up monasteries. The second book, Dark Fire (reviewed here), involves Thomas Cromwell's demise in 1540.

In book three, Sovereign, Shardlake accompanies Henry VIII's 1541 "progress" (massive displacement of the entire court designed to overawe the populace) to York. Major players include Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury; and Catherine Howard, Henry's foolish child bride. Book four, Revelation, finds Shardlake back in London in 1543, desperately trying to steer clear of political intrigues--but of course falling headlong into one involving Cranmer, Henry VIII's former brother-in-law Thomas Seymour, and Catherine Parr, whom Henry wishes to make his sixth wife.

I've been reading Sansom as distraction from twenty-first-century politics--I'm weary of furious accusations hurled back and forth between liberals and conservatives in politics and religion over topics ranging from abortion to Afghanistan--and I find Tudor England strangely comforting: clearly, we are not living in the worst of times. As Sansom describes it, some of the sixteenth-century problems sound familiar. Religious conservatives battle religious innovators. The rich take the property of the poor. The poor find themselves without health care. Rumor has it that weapons of mass destruction are being developed. Rulers bypass courts of law and illegally torture people without formal accusations or trials. The Book of Revelation becomes popular, and people expect the last days. Religious fanatics turn into killers.

Perhaps Sansom means for me to think, Whoa... look where we're going, look what could happen here. I'm afraid that my response is more shallow (I may be in denial). For example, as I read about what happened to prisoners in the Tower of London, I thought, Whew... I'm glad I live now and not in Tudor England. But Sansom is looking at how power operates, especially when there are no counter-powers restraining it, and what he sees is worth pondering.

Fortunately, Sansom also looks at goodness. As a skilled novelist, he gives us well-rounded central characters with flaws and virtues inextricably mixed. Still, Shardlake is reassuringly kind most of the time, and he unflaggingly pursues justice to the best of his ability. His physician friend, Guy Malton, is compassionate; Shardlake's young assistant Jack Barak is loyal and courageous. Even as you fear that one or another of the characters is about to make a huge mistake, you trust their intentions. They will not turn on you. Perhaps they will make their tumultuous world a better place.

The Shardlake mysteries are long, ranging from 400 to nearly 600 pages. Fortunately, they do not drag. Sansom follows the good novelist's dictum: Show, don't tell. He keeps his characters on stage--these books are all written in the first person--and moves the plot largely through fast-paced dialogue. It's nice for a reader to have some prior acquaintance with Tudor England, but extensive knowledge of the period isn't required. A quick romp through the PBS series The Six Wives of Henry VIII would suffice, or an even quicker viewing of A Man for All Seasons (a film you should review if you plan to read Mantel's Wolf Hall, since the book completely reverses the film's portrayal of Sir Thomas More and Cromwell).

And if you've heretofore paid no attention to the sixteenth century, let Sansom initiate you. He's only up to July 1543, but I'm guessing Matthew Shardlake will be back. Archbishop Cranmer will sorely need his services during the brief, chaotic reign of Edward VI (1547-53).

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