C. J. Sansom is a fine historical novelist who can set a variety of books in a fine variety of places. With Tombland just over the horizon, going back to the beginning seemed like a good idea, and it is. Dissolution introduced Matthew Shardlake, a narrator to keep one awake at night, even when one knows what’s to come. Among the surprises come a series of characters one wouldn’t expect, such as the doctor, the Carthusian, the hard-riding Abbot, women and children, and the geography of the great monastery itself, as Shardlake looks over the marshes toward the sea. Jane Seymour has recently died in childbirth, and the king’s search for a wife begins again.

Shardlake himself suffers from what we would now call scoliosis, which makes him a poster boy for disability. He is irascible, short-tempered, prone to take his own word rather too quickly, and that includes (in this first book) a belief in Thomas Cromwell that shows the weakness of his admiration for a monster. I had forgotten that the king does not appear in this first book (he is the eponymous character of Sovereign). More heart-wrenching is Shardlake’s search for a mate, which he knows to be unlikely, but continues to offer a love no one cares for. Historical fictions have always used the past to examine present concerns; the challenge is to keep the past remote. Henry’s ill-judged and financially catastrophic decision to crush France raises timely questions about just wars, as well as about greedy and unjust governors. Before Sansom turned to the law, he did a doctorate in history; his research is well grounded and teaches while delighting the reader, though he has not overcome the historical novelist’s tendency to over-description. He avoids cod-Elizabethan English, using slightly stylized formal speech with the occasional period oath. The use of a first-person narrator hobbles the specificities of other characters as well as restricting self-analysis. We only ever see inside Matthew, and while he is not an unreliable narrator, he is a limited one. Sansom wants to look at questions of violence, including rape; ecology and bad husbandry; but especially of stewardship, good and bad.

At least with Tombland to come we can be certain that the dying monarch will soon be beyond reach, and beyond the ability to reign. I was reminded of Jasper Ridley’s biography of Henry, who he came to hate in the course of writing his book. All his hatred of the monstrous Tudor was summed up in his last sentence: ‘He was always the tall, jovial bon vivant, with his zest for life, his love of music and the company of ladies, and his cruel, piggy eyes’.

Dissolution is publshed by Macmillan

 

 

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