Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Authors who write historical fiction strike a balance between providing the historical context and telling a story. That balance isn’t always easy to achieve, and every author has a different way of approaching it. Let’s take a look at one such approach today, and turn the spotlight on C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution, the first of his novels featuring Tudor-era lawyer Matthew Shardlake.
It’s 1537, and King Henry VIII is in power. He’s put into place a process called the Dissolution of the Monasteries, by which he intends to disband all Roman Catholic monasteries and convents and appropriate their income. Not only will this consolidate his power as supreme religious leader in Great Britain, but it will also add considerably to the royal coffers. A lot is riding on the success of this plan, not the least of which is Thomas Cromwell’s fortune. So when word comes that there’s been a murder at a monastery at Scarnsea, Cromwell wants it dealt with quickly and efficiently. That’s all the more important because the victim is Robin Singleton, whom Cromwell recently sent there to follow up on reports of vice and fraud.
Cromwell commissions attorney Matthew Shardlake to travel to Scarnsea, find the guilty party, and bring that person back promptly to London for trial and, presumably, execution. Shardlake, who is a Reformer like his patron, accepts the commission and goes to Scarnsea with his young assistant Mark Poen. Cromwell has, as you’ll no doubt know, a great deal of power, and refusing him is out of the question. Besides, success at this mission will be good for the careers of both Shardlake and Poen.
When Shardlake and Poen arrive at the monastery, they’re immediately greeted with suspicion, although they are made comfortable. The monks, their staff and their servants know that Shardlake is on commission from Cromwell, and that the fate of the monastery depends on their cooperation. Still, they do not trust their visitors, for obvious reasons.
Right from the start, there are several possibilities. One is that Singleton was killed by someone at the monastery, most likely to cover up fraud and abuses there (which he was going to bring to light). Another is that Singleton was killed by some ‘fanatic’ from outside the monastery. That’s not out of the question, as any deviation from the official Church of England belief system is regarded as heretical and grounds for gruesome execution. A third possibility is that someone from the town around the monastery is responsible for the murder.
Bit by bit, Shardlake and Poen start to trace Singleton’s last days and weeks. And it’s not long before they begin to get some clues. Then there’s another murder. And another. Before long, Shardlake sees that a great deal is going on at the monastery, and that there are things that several people want kept hidden. In the end, though, he gets to the truth about the murders and about what’s been going on at the monastery.
The novel takes place at a time of great change in Great Britain. There is, of course, religious upheaval, but the times are also politically quite uncertain. And it doesn’t make people any easier that relations with places such as France and Spain have soured. That feeling of uncertainty, uneasiness and anxiety is a very important element in the novel. No-one really trusts anyone. And everyone knows that one wrong word, either against King Henry or his church, can mean a death sentence or worse (and yes, people would no doubt argue that there are things worse than death).
There is also the element of the different beliefs about religion that were debated at the time. And there are no easy answers. Many people are dedicated to the Catholic Church. There are others who say that, while the Church certainly needs reform, it is a bulwark against a rising tide of anarchy. Still others are ardent Reformists, who want to see anything that smacks of Roman Catholicism destroyed.
Against this backdrop is the character of Matthew Shardlake. He is a Reformer, in the sense that he is very much aware of the abuses of the Catholic Church. At the same time, he also learns that those on the other side can be at least as abusive. Through his eyes, we see an evolving cynicism about religion, or at least an awareness that there are plenty of powerful people who use religious fervor as a cover for theft, fraud and glory-seeking. We also see that religion doesn’t always right the serious social wrongs of the day. Shardlake is neither stupid nor gullible. But that doesn’t mean he is without naiveté in some ways. And as his eyes are opened to what’s really going on, we see that the questions of religion that are wrenching the country are not as simple as some people want to believe.
Because the story takes place mostly at a monastery, readers get a look at life in a monastery in these troubling times. There’s the daily routine of prayer, work, communal meals, and so on. There’s also a look at the work that the various leaders of the monastery do. Readers also get the chance to see the role that monasteries played in the Tudor times. Sansom shows us that there is a complex and not-entirely amicable symbiosis between the monks and their staff, and those who live in the nearby village. And because this is historical crime fiction, readers also get a close look at what life was like outside the monastery in Tudor times. Daily life, social classes, and other realities of the Tudor era are woven through the novel. So is the violence of the times.
The solution to the mystery is complex and difficult, and Shardlake takes more than one ‘wrong turn’ as he discovers what really happened and why. That said, though, he learns the truth in a way that’s consistent with his background, the times, and the context. And I can say without spoiling the story that the solution isn’t really a ‘happy ending’ solution where finding out the truth makes everything all right.
Dissolution is a complex, layered look at what the religious upheavals of the Tudor years really meant for those caught up in them. It takes place in a monastery with a long history, and features a lawyer who’s trying to do the best he can to sort out what all of the changes in England will really mean, and what he really believes. But what’s your view? Have you read Dissolution? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 22 March/Tuesday 23 March – Shinju – Laura Joh Rowland
Monday 19 March/Tuesday 30 March – The Hot Rock – Donald Westlake
Monday 26 March/Tuesday 27 March – A Dark and Twisted Tide – Sharon Bolton