Saturday, August 14, 2010

THE HERETIC'S WIFE by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

Here's a page-turning historical novel that will appeal to women who like Tudor England, chaste romances, and a clear demarcation between good and evil, especially if they identify Protestantism with good and Catholicism with evil.

The setting of The Heretic's Wife is England under Henry VIII, mostly between 1528 and 1533, and Antwerp, a major trade center where heretics could live and work in relative safety. The underlying conflict is between England's chancellor, Thomas More, and proponents of the "new learning" - scholars intent on translating the Bible into English and reinterpreting the church's traditional theology. The protagonist is Kate, a bookseller whose great-grandmother owned a Wycliffe Bible, whose father died in a Lollard prison, and whose brother has been forced to abjure and abandon his bookshop. Not surprisingly, she soon finds herself part of a network of Lutherans including the famed Bible translator William Tyndale.

The Heretic's Wife has a lot going for it. Vantrease is a fine storyteller. She deftly interweaves several stories that eventually intersect without ever confusing the reader or letting any of the multiple plots lag. Her characters are well drawn. Though Kate strikes me as a bit insipid, she's a nice person that readers can identify with - unlike fiery Anne Boleyn, disgusting Henry VIII, and sado-masochistic Thomas More. Vantrease uses period detail well: food, clothing, streets, pageants, prisons all come to life without overwhelming the story. And she usually writes conversations that are formal enough to sound historic while colloquial enough to sound real.

Vantrease used to be an English teacher and a librarian; she holds a PhD in English, and she has traveled widely in Britain. She has done her homework, and it shows. I wish I could give the book a glowing recommendation, but I can't.

Her portrayal of Thomas More - and, by extension, all those who opposed the reformers - is simplistic and misleading. Her Sir Thomas, the villain of the piece from beginning to end, is a monomaniacal heretic hunter propelled by a perverted need to inflict pain on himself and others.

To be sure, More was not the gentlemanly saint portrayed in A Man for All Seasons - at least not by contemporary standards. As Peter Ackroyd notes in his brilliant biography, The Life of Thomas More, the chancellor hated heresy, threatened heretics, approved of burning them, and sent several to the stake. "In that respect," Ackroyd writes, he "was no different from most of his contemporaries.... Burning was the natural remedy for those who refused to recant or who later relapsed."

This does not mean, however, that England's air was black with the smoke of burning martyrs, as one might think from reading The Heretic's Wife ("Tidings from England grew ever more disturbing. With each new ship, frightened refugees brought stories of burnings"). During More's three years as chancellor (1529-32), only six heretics were burned.

That's six too many, but bear in mind that in 1525 Luther published a tract urging people to "smite; slay, and stab" intransigent peasants, "secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or dev­ilish than a rebel." Calvin famously burned Servetus at the stake, and he also burned quite a few women as witches. Sixteenth-century ideas of justice were not the same as ours, and More was a man of his times.

If More was not a crazed executioner, neither was he the sadistic torturer portrayed in this novel. As Ackroyd argues, it is highly unlikely that he tied heretics to a tree in his garden and whipped them mercilessly, though this was the claim of some detractors. As for self-flagellation, Vantrease's descriptions make More sound like a sexual pervert, not an ascetic penitent following a discipline also practiced by men such as Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, and John Paul II.

Vantrease is a novelist, not a historian, and she's entitled to invent characters any way she likes. (Hilary Mantel, this year's Booker Prize winner with Wolf Hall, also depicts a thoroughly disagreeable Thomas More.) What Vantrease loses in her characterization of More, though, is any sense of why he might have behaved as he did, apart from his own moral flaws. Thomas More seriously believed that the church, England, and the world were teetering on the verge of hell. And for people living in the 16th century, hell was more real than London.

How can we, in our secular society, imagine More's fears? Think of Thomas More as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Think of Martin Luther as Osama bin Laden and William Tyndale as one of his agents. Think of all Protestants as terrorists, and think of the English Bible as a nuclear weapon. What would you expect More to do?

C.J. Sansom's four Tudor novels (which I reviewed here, here, and here) convey the chaos of the era and the suspicion, terror, and misdeeds that characterized all sides of the conflict - Roman Catholic, English Catholic, and Protestant. By contrast, The Heretic's Wife is a simple tale of good and evil in which pure-minded lovers of God and Scripture bravely combat bad doctrine, repression, and cruelty. It's propaganda, not history - but it's a good read.

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