I haven’t written anything on this blog since Saturday, partly because we’ve been staying with our son and his family and partly because I just had to finish reading Revelation. It’s the fourth book in the Matthew Shardlake series. The first three are Dissolution set in 1537, Dark Fire set in 1540 and Sovereign set in 1541. I think they all stand alone but I like to read books in sequence. It’s been a year since I read the third book and Revelation was well worth the wait. It’s a long book full of intrigue, mystery and murder. (At 546 pages long it qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge.)
Revelation is set a few years later than Sovereign; the action takes place during March and April 1543. Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth queen, has been beheaded and he has asked Catherine Parr to be his wife. She, understandably, is somewhat reluctant, fearful of what that may lead to, not to mention her involvement with Sir Thomas Seymour. This is a time of the struggle for power between religious reformers and reactionaries. Thomas Cranmer is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, despite opposition from Bishop Gardiner and Bishop Bonner, who was pursuing religious radicals, looking for heretics. The reformers are preaching that the Apocalypse was coming, inducing “salvation panic”, with people craving certainty that they are among those whom God has pre-ordained to be saved. Parliament is passing legislation to prevent the working classes and women from reading the new English Bible Thomas Cromwell (executed in 1540) had introduced. It’s a time of change and uncertainty.
That’s the political and religious scene in which Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, finds himself when the murder of his old friend Roger Elliard, brings him back to the attention of Archbishop Cranmer. He is working on the case of Adam Kite, a teenage boy, who is imprisoned in the Bedlam hospital for the insane, helped by Guy Malton (previously a monk and now licensed as a doctor). Adam is a ‘self-hater’ fearing that he is ‘unworthy of God’s love’. The question is, is he mad or possessed by the devil? Then more bodies are found and Matthew along with his assistant Barak joins forces with Gregory Harsnet, the London coroner is trying to find out who is committing the horrific murders.
I’m not going to say any more about the plot. I was completely convinced of the reality presented in the book, the setting is clearly described (there are maps of the main scenes, north of the River Thames and of Westminster) and the characters are just so alive. I felt as though I was there, a spectator to everything that went on.
I particularly liked the information in the book on such topics as the state of medicine at the time, the treatment of various illnesses, how knowledge of human anatomy was discovered through post-mortems, challenging previously held beliefs. Mental illness for example was thought by some to be caused by an imbalance of humours in the brain but others were coming to think it was caused by physical disorders, such as tumours, in the brain and yet others thought it was possession by the devil, which must be driven out. There was the threat that religious-obsessives would be considered as heretics and condemned to be burned at the stake. (I found it interesting that the treatment of mental illness in the 17th century in read about in The Verneys was not much different from that in the 16th – see my post on The Verneys here.) I was fascinated by the idea of teeth set in wooden dentures, but squeamish at how the teeth were obtained and I was intrigued by the use of drugs, such as dwale (deadly nightshade) as an anaesthetic.
Another topic that fascinated me was the question of the religious beliefs of the fundamentalists. Just as Christian fundamentalists today seen signs of the end of the world, people in Tudor England were convinced that the Apocalypse was coming upon them. The Puritans were convinced of the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, accepting the violent destruction of those who were not ‘saved’ without a qualm. It is of course, as the title indicates, the prophecies in the Book of Revelation that fuel the murders. Guy, next to Matthew my favourite character in the Shardlake series, looks on these subjects more compassionately. Talking of the contemporary scene he says that men have been
“Thrown into a world, where the Bible is interpreted as literal facts, its symbols and metaphors forgotten, and fanatics react with equanimity to the blood and cruelty of Revelation. Have you ever thought what a God would be like who actually ordained and executed the cruelty that is in that book? A holocaust of mankind. Yet so many of these Bible-men accept the idea without a second thought.”
How do I rate this book? The plot had me turning the pages to see what happens next and find out who committed the murders, there was enough commentary on the political, religious and social scene for me to grasp what it was like living in Tudor England together with information on the location of the action that did not detract from the action but enhanced it, well-defined and believable characters and a fluent, readable style with a good balance between dialogue and description.
In a less analytical mode I’d say, “I loved it, loved it, loved it!”
It’s hard to settle down now to another book, even though I’ve plenty lined up waiting to be read. It’s like that sometimes when I’ve just finished a really good book. I’m still reading Eat, Pray, Love, but I like to have more than one book on the go. I’m behind with reading Les Miserables, so I might get back to that, but as Revelation ends with the news that Henry VIII finally married Catherine Parr in July 1543 I’m really tempted to read Suzannah Dunn’s The Sixth Wife to carry on reading more about Catherine Parr.