Old England: Pavane, by Keith Roberts

Pavane - Cover
It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to get around to Pavane. Back when I was getting into alternate history in my callow high school days , I assimilated this idea that Pavane was one of the three great ur-texts of alternate history, next to Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Ward Moore’s Confederacy-victorious time-travel novel Bring the Jubilee (1953). In retrospect, imagining these texts as any sort of unified canon was kinda silly. Bring the Jubilee has been mostly forgotten today, and even though I read it back in high school I certainly remember little of it. The Man in the High Castle has survived thanks to its connection with PKD, but my attitude on it has cooled over the years. I have little interest in most of Dick’s pet nostrums, and I feel his depiction of a Nazi victory has been superseded by other, more interesting writers.

Pavane is a much different story. I was finally able to get around to reading it a few years ago after ferreting an ancient paperback copy out of one of the countless boxes of books my mother had stashed in the basement. But while the book was old and yellow, the power of Keith Roberts’ words remained undiminished. Pavane is wholly deserving of its reputation as one of the greatest postwar works of British sci-fi, combining beautiful prose with a profound meditation on the nature of modernity, technology, and England itself.

A brief prologue outlines the conceit behind Roberts’ alternate world. In July of 1588, Queen Elizabeth I is assassinated. As England descends into chaos and religious violence, the Spanish Armada seizes the opportunity to force a landing in Hastings. In due course King Phillip II of Spain is placed on the throne, and England returns to the papal fold. Over the next several decades, the armies of England are sent to the Continent to fight alongside Spain in repressing the Protestants of France and the Low Countries, and later the German states. In due course the Reformation is wound up, and Rome rules supreme across Europe, the Americas, and Australasia.

There is no primary narrative to Pavane. Like a lot of older science fiction novels, Pavane is a “fix-up”, a collection of short stories sharing a setting, theme, and characters that were initially published individually in magazines, only to be collected and edited together into book form later. Fix-ups have fallen into decline over the decades as the novel has replaced the short story as the preferred narrative form in genre fiction, but here the form works to Pavane‘s benefit. Pavane isn’t a story about individuals so much as it is a story about a place, and being able to bounce between different unconnected perspectives allows the reader to get a better sense of the scale of the processes taking place without having to tie everything to a single perspective.

We are introduced to English life in the late 1960s with the first two “measures” of the novel, “The Lady Margaret” and “The Signaller”. The stories told in these opening measures are small and prosaic. “The Lady Margaret” follows Jesse Strange, the owner of a haulier business making his final run from Durnovaria (Dorchester) to Poole with his flagship “road train”, the titular Lady Margaret. Meanwhile, “The Signaller” is essentially a potted biography of Rafe Bigland, an apprentice signaller attached to a semaphore station in rural Dorset whose young life is cut short by a wildcat attack. But while their stories are small and short, Roberts uses their perspectives to capture the soul of this alternate England. While they live in relatively placid worlds, both characters chafe at the thousands of restrictions and directives the Church has used to bind England. While Rome takes her share of crops and cash, she has also taken a hand in regulating the development and proliferation of technology. While the industrial revolution has come to England, it was far more limited affair than the one we remember, hamstrung by endless papal bulls on what fuel sources can be used by what vehicles, how efficient engines can be, and so on. In Catholic England, “road trains”, traction engines pulling a trail of wagons behind them, are more common than railways, and communication across the country is handled by a network of semaphore stations with clattering wooden arms and binocular-wielding spotters.

The end result of all of this is an England that feels far closer to its medieval self than the one we know. While technology has changed things, it has not fundamentally altered how people live their lives. Most of the population still works the fields, bound to the land and the rhythm of the seasons. A lucky few take apprenticeships to get into one of the trades, and an even luckier few are able to go to university. This alternate world is a smaller place; every trip outside the city walls is a voyage into the unknown, a terra incognita where wolves and highwaymen stalk their prey. It is also a haunted world; while people have all manner of superstitions about those who dwell in the woods, it is only in the closing pages of “The Signaller” where it is revealed that these stories of the Fae may be more than idle tavern talk.

The first cracks in Catholic England begin to show with the third measure of the book, “Brother John”. While the protagonists of the first two stories were very much parts of their world, Brother John is the first piece who does not fit. An artist in a world where the arts have no real independence, he gets by working as a monk with the (fictional) Adhelmian Order as a draftsman and lithographer, trying to find some way of expressing himself within the narrow limits set by his society and the Church. Such an “opportunity” is granted to him one day in the mid-1980s, when he is sent off to Dubris (Dover) to document the Inquisition in Kent for the glory of the Church. Brother John returns from the experience a broken man, unable to cope with the horrors he witnessed or the pleasure he took in depicting them. He vanishes from the monastery one night and lights for the country, becoming the center of an anti-clerical peasant uprising across Dorset. However, the uprising itself does not take center stage, instead being depicted slantwise by Church officials in Londinium and by his followers. While the uprising itself is eventually put down, John himself puts to sea on the Channel coast before his followers, never to be seen again.

I must confess that I don’t quite know how to parse the fourth measure of Pavane, “Lords and Ladies”. The story opens with the peaceful death of Jesse Strange some decades after “The Lady Margaret”, as seen by his niece, also named Margaret. In the years between the two measures Jesse has built his father’s old firm into the preeminent haulier business in southern England, but his lack of an heir has made Margaret a very desirable proposition for Lord Robert of Wessex down at Corfe Castle. As if that weren’t enough, Margaret is also beset by visions of pagan spirits speaking of cycles and of mother Church. While it sets up developments for the final measures of the book, I don’t think “Lord and Ladies” quite stands on its own. Rather more straightforward is the fifth measure, “The White Boat”. We return to the Dorset coast some years after Brother John’s disappearance to follow Becky, the daughter of a poor lobster fisherman. For the entirety of her youth, Becky has felt trapped by the poverty of her family, the petty cruelty of her father, and the repressive strictures of her society. Her only real escape has been the image of the titular white boat. Known only to her as The Bermudan, it seems to just appear off the coast once in a blue moon, only to vanish as suddenly. After years of obsessing and pining, she finally takes the plunge in her late teens and swims out to meet it, being taken up by the crew just before she drowns. At this point, “The White Boat” seems to be following the standard beats of a standard SFnal coming-of-age story, with the youth protagonist breaking through the restrictions of their childhood world and becoming part of a richer, more storied adult realm. However, Becky experiences no breakthrough. She is unable to adapt to life on the sea and spends the entirety of her stay on The Bermudan in her cabin, seasick and miserable. She does not join the crew and takes no part in their voyages across the Mediterranean, or in their trade in proscribed technologies. She is able to make her escape when the boat returns to England, and in her resentment reveals the existence of The Bermudan to the Church authorities, though in the end she does repent and save it from capture. “The White Boat” is a later addition to Pavane; the original five measures were published in Impulse from March to July of 1966 and published together as Pavane in 1968, while “The White Boat” was published in December 1966 in New Worlds and added to editions of Pavane published after 1969. (As a result, some North American editions of Pavane – including my mom’s old copy – are missing the measure.) Still, while it feels a bit like a diversion, “The White Boat” still very much a part of the story. The cracks in the Church’s hold are continuing to grow, and a sort of English national identity is growing. The whole crux of Becky’s story is that, while she cannot bear the restrictions that binds her native land, she is still of England, and can no more escape it than she can cut off a limb.

It is in the fifth and final measure, “Corfe Gate”, that matters finally come to a head. We are a little further in the future now, probably sometime in the early 21st century, following Lady Eleanor, daughter of Sir Robert and Margaret Strange, now reigning at Corfe Castle. A vigorous, practical-minded woman with little patience for the dictates of authority, she personifies an England growing increasingly restless under the heavy hand of a Church that has lost a great deal of respect over the long centuries. The crisis comes with a cold wet year that leaves England gripped in shortages and famine, but with the Church still demanding its pound of flesh in goods, if not in gold. Unwilling to let her subjects starve to appease Rome’s accountants, Lady Eleanor declines to send the grain, offering either manufactured goods in lieu of payment or a promise to make up what is owed the following year. The offer comes to naught, for the Church ultimately decides to make an example of her, sending soldiers to remove her from Corfe. However, Lady Eleanor is tipped off by the Signallers Guild and answers the papal summons with a whiff of grapeshot, setting off a siege of Corfe Castle and a slow-building insurrection across England, as the question of whether king or pope holds supreme power in England is asked once again. The siege of Corfe Castle is only time in Pavane when Roberts directly quotes historical events; much of the events surrounding the siege are riffs on the sieges Corfe Castle experienced during the English Civil War, and Lady Eleanor herself seems to be based off of Corfe’s Royalist protector, the Lady Mary Bankes. The ending of the measure is bittersweet. While Lady Eleanor’s rebellion has resulted in a shift of power in England away from the Church and towards the monarchy, as well as in the emergence of countless technologies developed and held in secret, she does not personally triumph. She agrees to bring the crisis to an end by surrendering Corfe Castle to the king’s forces, the castle itself is demolished, and Lady Eleanor herself vanishes from the pages of history, meeting a sad, ignominious end.

Throughout Pavane, there is always a sense that there is more to the story than the characters know. The pagan and the supernatural are major elements in the background of the novel, first appearing in visions that transpose Christian and Norse images and speak of cycles, then growing to the point where Sir John Faulkner, Lady Eleanor’s seneschal at Corfe, is explicitly identified as one of the Fae. At the same time, while the Church runs roughshod over England, Roberts is at pains to not make it the villain of the piece. In “Brother John” the Bishop of Londinium admits in his inner monologue that the Church was at fault in the situation to John’s rebellion, while John himself beseeches his followers not to hate the Church or Christ before he disappears. In the “Coda”, set further in the 21st century in a thoroughly SFnal England with flying cars and whatnot, the mysteries are finally clarified. John, son of Eleanor and Sir John, pays a visit to the ruins of Corfe Castle while on vacation to read a letter from his father. In the letter, Sir John explains that the world of Pavane is not an alternate world, but the second iteration of our own, which ended in the extinction of our species through nuclear holocaust. When the cycle began again, the Fae decided to tell the Catholic Church of the 16th century of the future, in the hopes that they could delay the coming of modernity long enough for mankind to avoid taking the path to self-destruction.  Sir John explains:

“The Church knew there was no halting Progress; but slowing it, slowing it even by half a century, giving man time to reach a little higher towards true Reason; that was the gift she gave this world. And it was priceless. Did she oppress? Did she hang and burn? A little, yes. But there was no Beslen. No Buchenwald. No Passchendaele.”

As you can imagine, this coda has drawn a very mixed response from readers over the decades, particularly from those who see it as a prescriptive cure for the ills of the modernity. For myself, I see Pavane less as a diagnosis and more of a canvas upon which Roberts wrestled with his feelings about England and modernity. From Pavane‘s first publication in 1968 all the way to his death in the year 2000, almost all of Roberts’ major novels were grappling with these issues in some way. There is both a love for the eternal rhythms of medieval England in Pavane as well as a hatred of petty authority. Technology is regarded with suspicion, but there is an awareness that once the genie is out it will not go back in. I’d even go so far as to say that Pavane is on some level an attempt to parse out an identity for England after the British Empire by imagining a world where there wasn’t an empire to begin with. I can’t really say more about this without having read more of Roberts’ work, but I feel like Pavane was an attempt to create some sort of happy medium, a modernity without tears, but I suspect that even Roberts himself didn’t believe in it wholeheartedly. Of course, an artist is not required to resolve the conundrums he brings up; just clarifying them is often more than enough.

If nothing else, Pavane deserves all the accolades it has received over the decades for being an alternate history story that depicts the churning of historical processes without lapsing into rote description. Of all the alternate history stories I’ve collected over the years, the only ones that really succeeded in that are Kim Stanley Robinson’s centuries-long odyssey of the world without Europe in The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), and of the static England of magical industry Ian R. MacLeod depicted in The Light Ages (2003) and The House of Storms (2005). (As an aside, MacLeod’s depiction of an England growing restless under an unnatural stasis owes a lot to Pavane, but the two authors have enough differences between their worldviews to make their books very different beasts.) Still, the fact that Pavane was able to do in just under 250 pages what took those novel twice and three times as long to do is nothing short of a minor miracle. It is a classic, and I am thankful that my mother hung on to her old copy so that I could discover it for myself.

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