Thursday, July 21, 2016

Religious Regimes, Repression, and Revolt (Pavane)

Review: Pavane by Keith Roberts

The title2 is a brilliant reflection of the diversion-point from reality for this alternate-history novel. This is the twentieth century of a world in which Queen Elizabeth—Good Queen Bess, the daughter of Harry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn—was assassinated before her reign could fairly begin. With the English Queen dead, Catholic Phillip brought his armada from Spain to conquer England in the wake of the chaos that followed. 

The Anglican church was suppressed; the Catholic Church is a major political power in the world, and industry is organized to serve the purposes of evangelism first.

The story is told from the point-of-view of several characters, one for each "measure," whose lives converge. Each of the measures can be read as a stand-alone story, but together they form a serious examination of the consequences of religious-ruled society in which internal combustion engines were until very recently banned as the work of the Devil, electricity is still under the Papal ban, and everyone tithes to the Vatican on pain of death.

Jesse Strange would be an industrialist in real, Protestant England; in this alternate Catholic land, his haulage engines are strange locomotive/truck hybrids, and the non-Church focus of his business puts him on the fringe of society. "The Lady Margaret" is the name of his locomotive, the title of his measure, and a clue to his unrequited love for Margaret the barmaid. 

In "The Signaller," Rafe is a fortunate youngster whose obsession over the signal towers that form the single non-Church power network in England is rewarded when a childless officer in the Signaller Guild "adopts" him into the Guild. His luck vanishes when his first solo assignment runs afoul of the Church's ancient opponent in England. This measure is the most mystical and fantastical of the six.

In "The White Boat," a naive Poole Harbor girl named Becky makes an assumption about her options. She can stay in her southern coast village, which is already under suspicion because of an unexplained incident with a mad monk named John in her father's time, or she can swim out to the ship she sees off-shore, and escape her rural fate. Alas, the white boat is no innocent craft, but a smuggler's vessel from Bermuda. Its cargo is strange indeed.

"Brother John" is a relatively happy lithographer-artist, serving his city monastery print shop until his cheerful industrial service to God is overturned by a command session as illustrator for the Office of the Inquisition. Haunted by the memory, he rejects the Church and begins to preach the need for reform throughout Southern England. 

In "Lords and Ladies," Margaret Strange toys with a wealthy young man whose world is alien to hers. Her heritage as a hauler's child (daughter of Margaret the barmaid and Jesse Strange's brother) bars her from consideration as wife of the heir to Corfe Gate, the south-coast castle. But her confidence as heir to the Strange Haulage empire gives her an advantage the "ladies" of the castle do not have.

The final measure, "Corfe Gate," ties together the threads of reform that are woven through the first five stories, as the Church clashes with a revolt they themselves have fueled with punitive tithes and Inquisitorial torments. The spirits of Brother John, Jesse Strange, and Signaller Rafe are all evoked in the battle for religious freedom in England.

The world of Pavane is rich, strange and familiar by turns. If it feels medieval, this is perhaps a natural result of centuries of involvement by the Catholic Church in every facet of civil life, and the anti-science focus the Church's power has taken. 

Liner Notes:

  1. I found the "Coda" (actually an epilogue named in the same dance-piece theme as the "measures") a let-down after the growing power of the Pavane's measures. It is worth reading it to see the direction the author intended for his tale, but it comes off as an afterthought. 
  2. Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess was described by the composer as "a wistful daydream of something a sixteenth-century Spanish princess might have danced to," rather than a dirge or funeral piece. Ravel often complained that too many pianists played his pavane too slowly. The link connects to his own performance.