The alternate history series continues, but this time with a novel, a famous alternate history at that.
An alternate and more graceful perspective is provided by Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.
Raw Feed (2004): Pavane, Keith Roberts, 1968.
Stylistically and thematically this reminded me very much of Roberts’ Kiteworld, the only other work of his I’ve read. Both works feature an alternate, pastoral England (I believe Kiteworld was a post-apocalypse book, but I’m not sure). Both are sort of fix-ups with some characters that cross from story to story. Both are fascinated by the details of arcane technology and the men who service that technology. In Kiteworld it was the details of the kites. Here it’s the arcana of the steam tractors (not all that arcane of a technology, after all, my father has personal acquaintance with it from his childhood), the semaphore system run by the Signallers Guild, the lithography done by monks.
Roberts uses the approach of several stories taking place over a long period of time with the descendants of some viewpoint characters being the viewpoint characters of another story. For instance, Jesse Strange of the first story “The Lady Margaret” is the great-uncle of Lady Eleanor of the last story, “Corfe Gate”. (The steam tractor “The Lady Margaret” shows up as a sort of character in both stories as well.)
Despite the classic status of this novel, I think it had two significant failings. First, while Roberts cleverly structured his novel around the musical structure of the six part pavane, some of the stories make little or no contribution to the story. To be sure, not every story makes reference to a member of the Strange family but some are obviously there to give background details to Roberts’ world. Thus “The Signaller” shows the detailed workings of the Signallers Guild. “Brother John” shows the work of the Inquisition in post-1968 England (of course, it’s an alternate England).
“Lords and Ladies” is there to tell the story of the romance and seduction of Lady Eleanor’s mother. At first, it seems like one of the romances/seductions doomed by class distinction since her mother is of the merchant class and her noble father simply infatuated with her. It seems like it’s going to take the usual course: the discarding of the common woman after she finally gives into the blandishments of the noble man. However, he eventually decides he can’t live without her and marries her. Thus this story is justified as having some sort of character continuity.
“Corfe Gate” is obviously essential since it shows the rebellion of Lady Eleanor, a rebellion which triggers a worldwide breaking up of the near universally dominated Catholic world and the freeing of England from Papist rule and return to an older, pagan religion. However, “The White Boat” has no real function. The terribly isolated, boring world of an English fishing village is not terribly interesting or essential to painting a picture of the world though, perhaps, Roberts thought that was what he was doing since he makes reference to smugglers transporting forbidden technology and makes a reference to the legendary martyrdom and disappearance of Brother John.
The book is also marred at the end. After a strong and interesting start in this alternate history — the assassination of Queen Elizabeth just before the Spanish Armada lands and conquers England which leads to a world where all European colonization is done under the auspices of Catholic countries (the Reformation in Germany is destroyed in the Lutheran Wars) — the book ends with totally unexpected and obscure mysticism.
In “The Signaller”, we get the first mention of the mysterious Old Ones, sort of the aboriginal religion of England with Fairies and Celtic myth and Balder as sort of a Christ figure. (For reasons never really explained, one of the People of the Heath, associated with this ancient, pre-Catholic religion, nurses a wounded signaller, and he has a deathbed vision of them.) Brother John, horrified by the Inquisition he documents in his drawings, preaches the faith. Lady Eleanor embraces it when the Church tries to take her land.
All that is fine, until the “Coda” of the book which seems to feature a John unmentioned previously. He reads a letter from a John Falconer which may be the same person as (may because, as I said, the ending is unfortunately obscure) John Falukner, Lady Eleanor’s seneschal and eventual lover who disappears after she is murdered on the king’s orders. In a world where all the technologies of internal combustion engines and electricity and radio (which the Signallers secretly played with), forbidden by Catholic Bulls, are finally unleashed (they even have hovercraft), John reads a message that explains the strange sign that opens each chapter. It is a combination of diverging and converging arrows representing fission and fusion. It seems that
beyond our Time … there was a great civilisation. There was a Coming, a Death, and Resurrection; a Conquest, a Reformation, an Armada. And a burning, an Armageddon.
The inference seems to be that we have been reading one of those irritatingly irrational and implausible circular versions of history where everything has repeated itself down to the names of individual rulers.
Yet even this explanation seems contradicted by other mentions of the People of the Heath and fairies which seem to hint at a sort of cross-dimensional travel. This plot feature greatly negates the inventiveness Roberts shows. As an artist who took up writing, his style is intensely visual which helps when he describes his arcane technology (particularly lithography). Structuring an alternate history of a world that diverges from ours by the circumstances of Elizabeth’s death and using a musical form from that time to do so was clever. And the most interesting thing about the book is that the Church, seen throughout the book as holding England down, suppressing its native religion, imposing foreign rule on a land that loved liberty in our time, a world of deliberately suppressed technology which makes life poorer, a land which feels the terror of the Inquisition, is ultimately seen as sympathetic. The Church suppressed technology because it knew it couldn’t suppress “Progress” but it felt that, if Progress could just be slowed by fifty years from its previous rate of development, man would “reach a little higher toward true Reason”.
Did she oppress? Did she hang and burn? A little, yes. But there was no Belsen. No Buchenwald. No Passchendaele.
I don’t know if Roberts is offering a Catholic apology or not. But it’s a startlingly interesting idea — particularly from a native of a country which regards the defeat of the Armada as a supremely important escape from Papism. However, Roberts intriguing notion is so blunted by the absurd setting he chooses to illustrate it that this work is, at best, an interesting failure.
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.