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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.