This is really two posts in one, the first a review of the wonderful Dissolution by C. J. Sansom and the second, marked spoiler alert, is my musings on how difficult it is, even for a writer as talented as this, to completely pull off historical fiction.
If you enjoy either crime fiction or historical fiction then Dissolution is an absolutely engrossing beauty of a book. Set at the time of the death of Queen Jane (Seymour), third wife of Henry VIII, and at an interesting point in the process of the the dissolution of the monasteries, it shows the genuine faith and the real virtue, as well as the bias, bigotry and failings of both the reformers and those who would rather stay with the church in Rome.
After leaving the Roman Catholic church and making himself head of the Church of England, Henry VIII and his ministers turned their attention upon the vast wealth and power of the monasteries. The forced dissolution of the smaller ecclesiastical houses brought rebellion in the north of England, culminating in the Pilgrimage of Grace. It was with great difficulty security was resumed, and Thomas Cromwell now seeks the dissolution of the larger houses by less aggressive means. His legal experts hone in on key monasteries, scouring accounts for fraud, checking the religious offices conform to the new rules (no saints, icons, or superstitious practises) and generally seeking to find legal means to close them down. If all else fails the abbot is offered a generous pension, with promises of parish priesthood for many of the monks, all in the hope that they will voluntarily dissolve.
At the Abbey of Scarnsea in Sussex (think Winchelsea for setting) Cromwell's Commissioner Robin Singleton appears to have been on to something, but then he is found decapitated in the monastery kitchens. Matthew Shardlake, a genuine reformer and acute legal brain, is sent by Cromwell to solve the murder and press for the dissolution of Scarnsea Abbey. Shardlake takes with him Mark, a young man from his home village whom he has sponsored into the London legal world and who was disgraced himself after showing he had too much of an eye for the ladies. The pressure is on for Shardlake and Mark: Cromwell needs answers fast and also want the prize of a big monastery to present to the king. Mark is on his last chance to redeem himself and the future of Shardlake's own legal practice will depend on his success. The anxiety from these circumstances is a great narrative driver from the first.
The author, C. J. Sansom, has both a PhD in history and a background in law. The guided tour we get of the intricacies of the dissolution and Tudor politics is therefore first rate and knowledgeable, but also lightly handled. The first person narration through Shardlake is very free and easy, and we learn much without ever having that feeling that the author is looking for ways to sandwich a bit more information in regardless of narrative appropriateness. The relationship between Shardlake and Mark is the classic crime duo with power imbalance. Shardlake is older, wiser and more influential. He is clearly in charge and it is always going to be from Shardlake's brain that the answer comes. Shardlake however is a hunch back and young Mark, in dangerous times, comes into his own as the sword wielding side-kick. Shardlake is a good and honourable man but a bit inclined to see others as he is himself, where Mark is more acutely attuned to to the potential for vice on all sides, even their own, and is revolted by hypocrisy and the compromises of statesmanship. There is a good balance of give and take, and mutal respect, and when a twist happens in their relationship at the end of the build-up is believable, and we understand the fallout.
The setting is also classic crime. Taking place in the depths of an English winter, once Shardlake and Mark arrive at the monastery they are effectively cut off from the outside world first by snow and then by the nearly impassable mud of the thaw. The monastery murder with its fixed personnel is a neat parallel for the country house murder of the 1940s. The plot is superb; beautifully impenetrable but perfectly reasonable in retrospect. Dissolution is a new classic and a joy for those who pine for Sayers and co., in the modern world world of gritty police procedural, or fluffy Fethering. It is also a smashing read if you are interested in the Tudor period, as Sansom has created a very livable sixteenth century for us to visit. As a pleasurable and intelligent read it is near faultless, and joy of joys there are sequels which I will be rushing to get, but, and as always with historical fiction there are a few buts, ...
Spoiler Alert!! Don't read on if you haven't read the book yet please!
... and the 'but' is the handling of groups, types and minorities. Within the text all is well, there are few anachronistic views put into the heads or mouths of characters, a feat well done as this is such a common failing of historical novels. However, moving back a step in the narration to the controlling hand (the implied author?) there are some odd decisions.
First gripe: women. Now this is a monastery and therefore full of men. No problem; all highly understandable. But why when there are the so few women in the book are they so darn predictable in their signification? We have, a house keeper (Shardlake's), the mention of two Queens (Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn whose attributes and fates are relevant to the denouement), a nurse in the monastery infirmary, the missing teenage predecessor to the present nurse, and a woman in charge of the orphanage. I am not quibbling with the traditional 'female' occupations, again understandable, but with the angel or devil qualities imputed and the victim status. Now, and here comes the spoiler, one of the women (Alice the nurse) turns out to be the perpetrator so she is not a victim, but the missing girl who turns up in the fish pond clearly is, and a helpless one at that. But then our angel of mercy nurse Alice turns to to have been an 'executioner'. She can't just be a murderer for ordinary murky reasons (because she is greedy, or jealous perhaps) it has to be revenge, and revenge in a political system that is inequitable seems so much less than murder. So having been served up sweet Alice, we don't lose the sweet taste when she is revealed. She starts off dressed in pure white and ends up still in pure white with just a few red spots; there is no complexity, no grey areas. A complete contrast to the other villain, a man who is motivated by greed and, as befits a villain, meets a sticky end. With Alice on the other hand the reader is clearly meant to revel in her escape from justice.
The queens too are rather black and white. London is in mourning for good Queen Jane, whilst we get flashbacks to the execution of the sexually alluring Anne. The only woman played in shades of grey is the orphanage mother. She is loyal, courageous in the face of the power of the monastery, and she is caring without being sentimental in a modern way. A nice portrait of a minor character who makes a good red herring precisely because her realistic portrayal would have made her a convincing perpetrator. I don't think the icky-sticky sweetness of Alice would have been such a problem in a plot that naturally had more variety of women characters, but here it is a bit of a glitch to a smooth read.
Then we have the other classic minority areas: disability (Shardlake), and ethnic minority (the moor doctor), and a homosexual (the Sacrist). The fact they are all there makes it seem rather formulaic in casting, as though it has one eye on the TV adaptation. But rather jarring with this PC hand behind the scenes, is the death of the homosexual character. He dies saving Shardlake by putting himself between the Commissioner and danger. It is a conscious sacrifice of a tormented man but also, rather like Hardy and Mrs Gaskell killing Tess and Ruth off by way of redemption, there is a sense here of narrative punishment for his sexuality. In contrast Mark's hetrosexual activity goes on with little punishment, and he is rewarded with his escape with Alice in the end. As I say, by unseen hand, I don't mean the author explicitly, not least as there is an inconsistency here of PC character representation juxtaposed with conservative treatment of women and homosexuals. Rather the 'implied author' construct we are led to impute from a reading of this book is an odd and inconsistent beast, and that is in itself a failing in the writing.
The ethnic minority character is the doctor Brother Guy. As is the tradition if you have only one ethnic minority character he is lovely. There was no way in the 21st century that the one ethnic minority character was going be cast as the villain. He, like the orphanage mother, is also set up as a potential red herring, but because of his ethnic background it is hard for the reader to be hooked in there. This makes me wonder what Sansom, in an otherwise well played plot, was about in making Brother Guy a moor. I am guessing it is because, having come to England via deeply Catholic Spain, he provides an intellectual counterpoint to the reformer Shardlake. However, the interest Shardlake takes in Guy's background is the one anachronism in the book. This is Tudor England for goodness sake, not multicultural now. We talking about a culture that was trying to define itself as mono-. People were being beheaded, burned and disembowelled, and sometimes all three, for not taking the party line, and whilst Shardlake is portrayed as a thinking reformer not a zealot, the cosy chats in the dispensary about other cultures just don't ring true.
I get the feeling that Sansom, as a knowledgable historian, is trying hard not to be anachronistic, and on the whole he does a splendid job. It took a lot of words to explain my quibbles above, but they are only really minor quibbles about an otherwise smashing book. But even while he tries not to be anachronistic, he is also trying to be even handed between reformer and Roman Catholic, and whatever else the Tudors were, they were not even handed. Sansom very nearly pulls off the trick of losing the 21st century altogether but his fingertips just hang on to that idea of even handedness and so modernity, if not dragged into the book, is certainly dragged alongside it. And here's the historical fiction writer's dilemma, to pull it off completely for the sixteenth century then your guiding hand needs to be a bit of a zealot, or at least a thinking but loyal adherent to one side or the other; to be even handed is to be too 'now'. But then, if anyone were to write from such precise stand point in our culture of equivocation, would it have been published at all?
I would be interested to know what you thought about historical fiction, plausibility and managing a modern audience. You might like to read this post on Shelf Love on the same subject too.