Tuesday, December 14, 2010

For Your Reading Pleasure

As we draw near to Christmas, most Egg readers want nothing more to curl up with a good book. Because, after all, what else have they got going on? Har-dee-har-har.

But this too shall pass, and when it does, you may once again have time to read for pleasure. Perhaps next summer, or when the kids go off to college. Or when you retire. And when that fine day comes, we earnestly hope that Ann Wroe's The Perfect Prince is still in print.

Here's the background. During the last years of the fifteenth century, England's King Henry VII was troubled by a young man who claimed to be Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, son of Edward IV and legitimate heir to the crown. (Remembered by mystery buffs as one of the "princes in the tower" from Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time.) This young man made friends among various crowned heads of Europe, and eventually launched two different invasions of England before he was captured.

After the utter box-up of his second invasion, young "Richard" confessed that he was really a working-class boy from Cambrai. His story, which Henry publicized widely at the time, was accepted by most of his contemporaries, and is widely believed by modern historians as well. It is almost certain that "the Duke of York" was in fact Perkin Warbeck. Almost.

Yet, upon close examination, there are little flaws in the story. The confession that Perkin signed gives extraordinary detail about his supposed hometown, and his family. Yet it also gets basic facts wrong -- including the family name. There are a dozen explanations, to be sure -- a careless scribe, the difficulty of rendering foreign names, and so forth. One explanation is that the confession was false.

But who cares? There is more to the story than "yes he was" or "no he wasn't." Indeed, Ann Wroe suspends judgment on the question of true identity, in order to explore other questions that may interest modern readers far more: how is an identity constructed, and how is it destroyed? How could a boatman's son pass as a prince, fooling everybody from Emperor Maximilian to an army of illiterate Cornishmen?

Wroe starts with the basics. She describes his clothing, which mattered immensely in the age of sumptuary laws, when social status could largely be established in a tailor's shop, if the tailor had a few bolts of cloth-of-gold. Then there was his posture, the direction of his gaze, which depended upon the subject at hand and the person to whom he spoke -- these things were prescribed by custom, and when executed correctly were as clear a sign of princely status as clothing, jewelry or native-sounding French.

That's Chapter One, more or less, and the detail gets thicker from there. Wroe, who holds a doctorate in medieval history but works as an editor at the Economist, draws on a seemingly vast array of sources to create a deep sense texture. Looking at the royal account-books, she can describe the clothes that a certain lady wore at court; reading the reports of diplomats, she can divine the interest of foreign kings.

And yet the profusion of facts cannot answer the most basic questions -- and often raises some we might not otherwise have thought to ask. For just this reason, the book is profoundly speculative. Wroe leaves open the possibility that Richard was not really Perkin, and makes a point of calling him by whichever name (or cognomen, or epithet) was being used, at the time, by the people around him -- Piers, Pieris, Peter, Perkin, Richard, York, "the boy," "the feigned lad," and many others. In scattered receipts and account books, she seems to find a relationship -- a deep friendship, perhaps even a romance -- between Perkin's wife and the king who was his undoing. Because she reads her sources so closely, she is able to identify inconsistencies here and there, and to help readers share in the sort of semiotic confusion that all his contemporaries experienced. She tweezes her material, picking apart each minute piece of supposed evidence to search for things that don't add up, and reasons that they might not. By the end, we do not know anything more certainly than Perkin's contemporaries did, but we can understand intimately why they did not.

Some people, of course, do not like their historians to speculate. They want evidence to be hard, fast and conclusive. History, they say, is the study of facts. They will not care for this book. But then, such people are doomed to lives of disappointment, because the things we know, or even the things we might know, will always be outnumbered by the things we cannot ever know.

For our money, the most interesting subject in the book is not its nominal subject at all. His wife Katherine is a Scottish lady of considerable rank, whose marriage to a foreign prince is arranged by her cousin and king, James IV. After the failure of the insurrection, she is taken in at court, apparently a favorite of the king and -- even more interesting -- close to the queen. The queen, that is, who was the sister of the true Duke of York, and would surely have been able to tell him from an impostor. It is hard to argue much from silence, but Wroe observes that in the course of a long life and several marriages, Katherine never names her first husband in any surviving documents. She gives him neither the name he claimed for himself, nor the one Henry had forced upon him.

Henry VII may be even more interesting. On one hand, he was a Tudor, with most of what that implies -- an autocrat, even a tyrant, employing a small army of spies and informants; a skilled manager both of force and of perception; one of the monarchs who led England from backwater to power player on the European scene. He lacks only the religious turmoil that distinguished his son and grandchildren. On the other hand, he emerges here as a remarkably patient, tolerant, even reasonable ruler. He is particularly tolerant of Perkin, whom he works hard to capture but whom, having captured, he allows to survive, disgraced to be sure, but in remarkable comfort.

Speaking of religion: Although it is everywhere as subtext, the book contains little of explicitly religious interest, apart from a clear description of just what it mean to take legal sanctuary in a monastery. But then at the end, after the true climax, Wroe goes where few historians dare to tread: she follows her subject beyond his death, and into the afterlife. Using late-medieval religious texts, Wroe imagines -- as they would -- the soul leaving the body to meet its maker. It is a bravura display, both as an historian and as a stylist. For some readers, it will be far too much -- speculation impossibly beyond the bounds ofreason. From us, it evoked a cackle of delight.

Wroe's prose is lucid, but the detail alone makes this book slow going. It is probably best read when snowed in for days on end, alone in the cabin and with little else to do. Poor Father A., his eyes weakened by age and his intellect ruined by a lifelong diet of comic books, took months to work his way through The Perfect Prince. He considers it time well spent.


Pastor Joelle said...

I HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK! I'm ordering it from Amazon RIGHT NOW. I eat this stuff up.

Father Anonymous said...

I recommend it highly. She also wrote a book about Pontius Pilate, by the way.

PrSBlake1 said...

I am not a fan of Henry VII. However. I have always been a fan of Richard III. Years after spending an entire year and writing a thesis on Shakespeare's take of Richard and Henry, I happened on the Tey book and it confirmed what I always knew in my heart. Henry VII was a criminal, and probably the murderer of the princes. Anyway, I am looking forward to reading this, but I wouldn't trust anything that come from Henry VII. BTW - thanks for your great blog!!!