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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 18, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Shardlake, Wives and Daughters

C.J. Sansom's Lamentation is the sixth volume in his continuing series of mystery novels set in the England of Henry VIII. Sansom's Ph.D. in history reveals itself in his attention to accuracy, both in the daily life of the common people and in the intrigues surrounding England's governing class.

But the depth and color of his history would mean little if he weren't also a superb writer who spins a compelling, fascinating story filled with memorable characters.

The more you know about England in this period, the more you'll respect Sansom's achievement. But even if you don't care about history or England or Henry VIII, you will still enjoy these excellent mysteries, filled with puzzles and moral choices.

Matthew Shardlake, the hero of the stories, is a hunchback who nevertheless studied law, and as this novel begins, he has risen to some prominence. But prominence in Tudor England comes as much from whom you know as what you have achieved -- though brains and talent will get you noticed.

The books in the Shardlake series are Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation, Heartstone, and, most recently, Lamentation. All the books are superb.

Shardlake doesn't choose his mysteries, because no one in his right mind would put life and liberty at risk so frequently. But his brains and talent have won the notice of powerful people who see their needs as the needs of England, so they have no qualms about risking Shardlake while protecting themselves.

In the first two books, it's Thomas Cromwell, master intriguer, who sends Shardlake out on his missions. Then Cromwell falls, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer "inherits" Shardlake's services. Cranmer is the champion of English Protestantism, then considered to be radical (conservatives wanted to return to Catholic practices and, preferably, to papal supremacy), and Shardlake sympathizes with the cause.

But seeing the dangerous and bloody course that true believers are willing to follow in order to "purify" England, Shardlake's faith wavers, and in the two most recent books, he has no personal stake in the great religious quarrels. Instead, his service is commanded by Catherine Parr, a woman that he admires and, yes, loves, though he knew it was hopeless even before she married Henry VIII as his sixth and final wife.

Catherine Parr is a committed Protestant, and she has written a book of her personal spiritual self-examination called Lamentation. Writing about your personal faith should be innocuous -- except when you're the queen, and your husband is a jealous man who takes fierce umbrage at the fact that you did not tell him you were writing it.

Worse yet, there are heretical views that can get you killed. The novel opens with Shardlake being forced to witness the burning alive of several radical Protestants, for if you "deny the sacrament" (i.e., reject the idea of transubstantiation and declare that the bread and wine of communion are merely symbolic), you will be burned.

All you need to do to remain safe is to declare, always and to everyone, "I believe what the King declares to be the doctrine of the Church." Because that's really what matters -- that you are loyal to the King. Henry cares most about being the highest religious and civil authority in England; that means he will never return to papal supremacy over the Church of England, even though he doesn't want the doctrine to stray too far from Catholic orthodoxy.

The more I read of the struggles of conscience in the hearts of characters who are loyal subjects of the King but who can't bring themselves to lie about what they believe about religion, the more I couldn't help making a comparison that Sansom himself never makes (or even implies).

Sansom is too good a novelist to pollute his historical fiction with anachronism, but you would have to be singularly unaware of contemporary politics not to understand that our situation today is directly analogous to the religious situation in Tudor England.

Today, those who fail to bow to the will of the Politically Correct Inquisition are not burned (that's ISIS's gig), but you are subjected to the pillory -- and forbidden to speak in public, teach at a university (or, really, anywhere), or hold any appointed or elective office. It is not really a matter of belief, but rather of obedience, just as in Tudor times; as long as you obey and do not dispute the right of the Inquisition to rule our national thoughts, you will be left alone.

But heaven help you if you are accused of heresy, for even the accusation is enough to cost you friends, money, job, and freedom. I can assure you from personal experience that this is as true today as in the fifteen hundreds -- and the accusers have no qualms about lying outrageously in their accusations, while their followers quickly "believe" whatever lies they're told.

Once they've decided to accuse you, you pay for your thought crimes as if you were guilty. End of discussion.

Lamentation follows several main mystery threads. Most prominent is the search for whoever ended up with the stolen manuscript of the queen's Lamentation.

If it is published, or even shown to the King, it is expected that Catherine will be imprisoned and, probably, executed. But more than her life is at stake: It would almost certainly lead to a general prosecution of Protestants and might lead to Henry deciding to reunite the Church of England with the Roman Catholic Church.

To Catherine, this is an outcome more to be dreaded than her own death, though she is sane enough to dread that, too. And Shardlake, though he cares little about the great religious issues, is determined not to let Catherine -- or any of his close friends who hold radical views -- fall to a charge of heresy.

A second mystery revolves around a vexatious lawsuit between an aging brother and sister over a provision in their mother's will. An excellent fresco on the wall of her house has been ambiguously left to both of them, for one receives the house and all its furnishings, while the other receives all the artworks in the house.

So it comes down to whether the painting can be removed from the house or not; if not, it's a furnishing; if so, it's art. Meanwhile, both siblings mutter horrible threats about how evil the other one is, and the sister -- Shardlake's client -- throws around reckless accusations of heresy that might easily get someone killed.

The mystery of how the siblings came to hate each other is eventually solved, though not to anybody's satisfaction. Meanwhile, Shardlake's own household is in turmoil, for he can't trust everyone who works for him, in this era of spying and secret denunciations; and some of his friends and household resent his tendency to involve his closest friends in dangerous activities.

But when Shardlake is compelled to take on perilous cases, he can't, with his physical weaknesses, defend himself against those who have no qualms about "persuading" others by force.

Shardlake hates imperiling the people who love him, yet when they volunteer to help him, he can't afford to say no. But since they are not the strongest or cleverest fighters in England, inevitably they are going to get hurt. Besides, Shardlake is not perfect, and sometimes hurts people inadvertently by what he says or does when he is distracted.

The result of all of this is a powerful, moving story that evokes the era better than any of the many histories I've read. When you reach the end of the novel and read Sansom's afterword, the surprise is how little of the historical material has been fictionalized. Queen Catherine really did write a Lamentation -- but there is no record of its having been stolen.

But then, there wouldn't be. So it is quite possible that everything in Lamentation could have been true; it is true to the spirit of the times, and does not contradict any known details of the history.

And it is so well-written that every page is compelling to read (or listen to). I recommend the whole series; yet this sixth volume is completely self-contained, so that you can start with this volume and pick up the others in whatever order you please.

What you can't do is claim to know the best of English-language literature today without being familiar with the novels of C.J. Sansom.

*

American film studios used to make lots of historical films, but these have been very rare in recent decades -- because the Brits have taken that burden entirely on themselves, through BBC television miniseries adaptations of great works of British literature.

This has been all to the benefit of the films themselves, because Americans have traditionally done a wretched job of movies set more than half a century in the past.

Some of the reasons are trivial but embarrassing, starting with hair. During the studio heyday, movie stars were a precious commodity, and their box office value had to be protected. Therefore, if you cast Bette Davis as a character from 1750, you would put her in absurdly expensive dresses that more or less resembled what real fabulously rich women of the time wore -- but you would "adapt" her hairstyle to resemble as closely as possible the fashions of 1938.

That's because hairstyles from different periods don't just look strange -- they look completely ridiculous, especially when perched atop or framing the familiar face of a movie star. Studios could not afford to be authentic if it would make a star look silly.

This was true, though to a lesser extent, of men as well. With men, it was the costume that was most likely to be adapted, once the period of the film moved to a time before the business suit was adopted as the eternal and universal male costume.

I remember the shock when Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet put its men in reasonably authentic costumes of Renaissance Italy. Tights? Little baby-doll tunics? What was that codpiece about? I remember that it took audiences a fair amount of time to settle down and watch the movie, because most people were rather aghast at what the men were wearing.

Part of that was the squeamishness of the time. American culture did not have easy, casual ways to refer to the appendages that men sprout at their nether bifurcation. Euphemisms like "package" and "junk" were not current, and while there were plenty of coarser and/or more clinical terms, polite people never said them, because polite people had no reason ever to speak of those body parts.

So to have costumes that put a bright patch of contrasting color over the crotch, drawing attention to those sacred organs of which we dared not speak, was shocking to American sensibilities at that time.

Period stories are way more expensive to film, and not just because of the costumes. You also have to find a place to film where there are no macadam roads, no jet contrails in the sky, no powerlines striding across the countryside. If you want to film in the desert, you're fine -- so Americans excelled at making westerns, because there's nowhere in Europe, outside of the driest portions of Spain and Italy, where a story from the American frontier could have been filmed.

But Europe is full of castles and great houses, and the countryside is so lush with greenery, in most places, and so many country lanes remain unpaved, that it's easy to find locations to shoot period drams that don't involve cattle ranchers and hired gunmen.

It goes deeper than that, however. Britain has a deep well of literature from which they can draw powerful, well-framed stories about their own past. Shakespeare is the obvious foundation, but the real wellspring is the 18th- and 19th-century novel.

With American literature from that period, once you've filmed Little Women and a few pieces by Twain, you're done. But the Brits had the entire oeuvre of Sir Walter Scott, the great inventor of the semi-authentic (and therefore semi-fake) historical novel, along with the works of writers who were not writing "period" fiction at all. They were writing contemporary and recent-history fiction, drawing on their own recollections and setting their stories in familiar places.

Their works only became period fiction because they endured for decades and, by now, centuries.

So Charles Dickens wrote with urgency about the suffering of the common people of Industrial Revolution England -- because they were the people he saw all around them, and he wanted his fiction to do for them what Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin had done for American blacks.

Now, however, all the issues that galvanized Dickens -- and his readers -- have been dealt with through political action, which was often shaped by attitudes readers had gained from reading Dickens's fiction. (There are still social issues to write about, but the PC Inquisition has gelded and spayed most of today's English-language writers to the degree that we already know all the opinions their characters will have before we open their books.)

What is left is the pure story, and it is no shame when we discover that there's not much story there. With slavery abolished, there's simply no reason to read Uncle Tom's Cabin if you're not in a graduate literature program, because the story does not exist except as a polemic against slavery.

But the novelists whose fiction transcended the social issues that concerned them can still find a living audience. Jane Austen so perfectly creates the society in which upper-class women lived (particularly upper-class women without money or prospects) around 1800 that no explanation is needed. Dickens, too, created enough vivid characters with interesting lives, as did William Makepeace Thackeray, that many of their stories are still worth reading -- and worth adapting to film.

And it happens that Britain has the best actors to play these roles. Not just because they already have "English accents" -- in England there is no such thing, because the hundreds of accents convey information about region and social class as well -- but because the English train their actors to act, while American "acting schools" train their "actors" to have feelings.

Having feelings is not acting. Acting is seeming to have feelings, exactly calibrated to evoke feelings in the audience. American actors are trained to act as if they were their own audience; British actors are trained to create a convincing reality for the audience of strangers who are watching and listening to them.

In other words, British actors are, on average, vastly superior to American actors, though of course there are exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic.

So when the task is to recreate the reality of Dickens's London or Hardy's Wessex or Jane Austen's houses in country or "town" (always meaning London), the BBC can draw on a pool of trained actors who already know how to do everything the period requires of them.

And because Britain is, culturally speaking, a very small island, the actors, directors, and writers all know each other. Casting is more a matter of availability than discovery.

A new bit of writing like Gosford Park or Downton Abbey could only have been filmed in England because that's where the actors are, as well as the settings.

(Ironically, Shakespearean plays are always filmed using the accents of today's England, even though we know that the accents of posh society have changed radically since Elizabethan times. No one would accept films in which Shakespearean characters spoke in accents closely resembling American speech, even though it's likely to be more authentic.)

Not only does the BBC issue a continuous stream of good-to-excellent miniseries based on the works of great writers from the British past, they film the same stories repeatedly, so that you might find a 1970s version, a 1990s version, and a 2010s version of the same book by Austen or Dickens.

But they don't rely solely on the books that are studied in graduate literature programs. The BBC also looks at works by writers who have been neglected by the scholars and critics -- especially works by women. Jane Austen was not the only woman whose literary reputation had to be maintained by devoted readers, because the (male) professors had no respect for or interest in female writers.

Not every neglected writer's work is worth filming, but some, the very best, are -- and the BBC has learned that discovering, adapting, filming, and broadcasting them can be both financially and culturally rewarding.

Which brings me to Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Wives and Daughters.

Gaskell was an enormously popular and influential writer in the mid-1800s. She was one of the earliest English writers to openly show that American writers influenced her (for instance, she once used the pseudonym "Cotton Mather Mills," recalling the American Puritan sermon writer; and Harriet Beecher Stowe and other American writers came to visit her).

Gaskell was a close friend of Charlotte Bronte, and wrote her biography; but even though her contemporaries are now often better remembered (Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Charlotte Bronte), she was a wonderful writer. Indeed, I think she was a better storyteller than Bronte; but then, I never liked Jane Eyre very much. If I want a gothic romance, I'll reread (or rewatch) du Maurier's Rebecca.

Gaskell's North and South chronicled the wrenching changes involved in the Industrial Revolution, but she also explored the fading English village life in Cranford, an episodic "novel" that was serialized in a magazine that Charles Dickens edited. Both of these works have been filmed by the BBC and they're wonderful.

But by far my favorite miniseries based on Gaskell's work is Wives and Daughters (1999), a story that is closer to Jane Austen than to Charles Dickens. As in the works of Jane Austen, the women in Wives and Daughters are in many ways dependent on men for their status and financial security. Certainly they must "marry well" in order to remain in their social class.

Wives and Daughters focuses on Molly Gibson, the daughter of the town doctor. They're prosperous, but Gibson earns his money from his profession, not from land, and so they're a small step down from their good friends, the Hamleys. Mrs. Hamley dies near the beginning of the miniseries, but not before it's made quite clear to us that both she and Squire Hamley regard their firstborn son, Osborne Hamley, as a brilliant jewel, while they have no idea what to make of their second son, Roger Hamley, whose obsession with insects is incomprehensible to them.

Molly comprehends it, though -- she has her own fascination with six- and eight-legged creatures. Motherless herself, she adopts Roger as her big brother (and he adopts her back). Roger and Molly share many wonderful childhood memories together.

Then, to everyone's shock, the brilliant Osborne fails his Cambridge examinations; a year later, Roger triumphs in his. Osborne's "disgrace" and his odd behavior, disappearing for weeks and months on end, baffle his family, and his mother dies deeply disappointed in and worried about her firstborn.

Meanwhile, Molly's widowed father remarries -- to a former governess named Hyacinth, who has a daughter, Cynthia, almost exactly Molly's age. We very quickly discover that Hyacinth is a completely cynical, selfish, ignorant, and mercenary woman; but Dr. Gibson tolerates her because divorce is not possible or even desired by the kind of person who would never go back on his word.

Hyacinth has decided that Cynthia needs to marry Squire Hamley's eldest son -- and sole heir -- Osborne, until she overhears her doctor husband talking about Osborne's precarious health. If he dies, then Roger will inherit all -- so at her mother's urging, Cynthia transfers her affections to Molly's beloved Roger.

And Roger, like most shy men, is quite susceptible to that most attractive thing: a vivacious woman who shows that she is attracted to him. Roger and Cynthia become "secretly" engaged.

But nothing is as it seems, especially because, as in most romantic novels, people are keeping secrets which, if known, would allow everything to be set to rights. Through it all, we're rooting for Molly to find happiness -- preferably with Roger, if the dear boy would wake up and see the truth about the two young women from the Gibson household.

Of course everything will work out well. Not for everybody, but ... well enough for most of the characters. Nobody changes who they are, of course -- that's one of the most realistic things about Gaskell. Selfish people don't turn generous. But stupid people can become wiser, when they learn new information.

The script is close to perfect, but it's what we expect these days from Andrew Davies, who also wrote the Bridget Jones movies, the 2008 Brideshead Revisited, Circle of Friends, Tailor of Panama, and the TV productions Mr. Selfridge, Bleak House, and Vanity Fair (1998).

Most Americans will know Andrew Davies best for the 1995 Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. Nuff said.

(His Emma was the Kate Beckinsale version from the '90s; the truly brilliant Emma was Sandy Welch's 2009 Romola Garai version, which introduced us to Jonny Lee Miller, who is so brilliant now in Elementary. But even Andrew Davies can't write the best of everything. Still, his Gaskell adaptation of Wives and Daughters is, in my opinion, even better than Welch's North and South.)

While Wives and Daughters is definitely about love and marriage, Elizabeth Gaskell does not write love stories in a vacuum. We get a bit of a taste of the scientific community of the 19th century, which was not university centered and did not depend on grants from foundations or the government. Instead, men of independent means financed themselves, or were backed by other men of wealth, as they pursued whatever branch of science interested them.

That's how Charles Darwin did his science, and practically everyone else as well. So it is that Roger Hamley earns great prestige in the Royal Society from his writings and his drawings of the insects he finds on his dangerous African expeditions.

We also see the biases of an age in which it was perfectly acceptable for Squire Hamley to loathe the French -- mostly because he knows they're Catholic and have fought wars against the English for centuries.

The actors do a brilliant job of portraying deep and interesting characters. Tom Hollander is very affecting as Osborne (we later see him as the delightfully offensive Mr. Collins in the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice, and the egotistical playwright in About Time).

Francesca Annis is perfect -- we love her and hate her -- as Hyacinth. I knew she looked familiar; it's because she was good as Lady Jessica in the wretchedly overblown Dune of 1984. She was even a child performer in the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra. But mostly I recognized her because she played Lady Ludlow on Cranford.

Roger is played warmly and well by Anthony Howell, and Justine Waddell is endearing and believable as Molly. Bill Paterson is perfect as Dr. Gibson, and Keeley Hawes is spot on as the changeable, selfish, charming Cynthia.

Rosamund Pike, who played Jane Bennett in the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice, has a small but delightful role as Lady Harriet, the social arbiter of the town.

The most brilliant performance, however, is that of Michael Gambon as Squire Hamley. Gambon got little love for replacing Richard Harris as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies, but in Wives and Daughters he has a chance to shine. His grief at the loss of a child is one of the most exquisitely real and painful moments I've seen in film.

If you're an aficionado of Jane Austen (as all right-thinking people are), Wives and Daughters will probably work very well for you. In some ways, the story shows the advances of fiction-writing in the years after Austen pointed the way. For complicated and ambivalent characters, Gaskell is very much in the league of Thackeray and is, in my view, superior to Anthony Trollope.

Maybe you'll disagree with that lofty assessment ... but she's certainly worthy to keep company with the best writers of the 19th century, and Wives and Daughters is the best film made from her work.


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