Slow and stately

Pavane, “The Dance in the Garden” Early 16th-century illumination from Roman de la Rose, Toulouse, British Library Harley MS 4425, fol. 14v

Keith Roberts Pavane Victor Gollancz 1995 (1968)

On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying, an assassin’s bullet lodged in abdomen and chest. Her face was lined, her teeth blackened, and death lent her no dignity; but her last breath started echoes that ran out to shake a hemisphere. For the Faery Queen, Elizabeth the First, paramount ruler of England, was no more…

In between a degree in Music and, amongst other things, playing in an electric folk band I sang lute songs. Not very well, I must add, but accompanied very ably by a lutenist and a bass viol player. Rather than being seen as art songs these airs — by Campion, Morley, Dowland and others — telling of love and woe and of paganism and nature must have displayed a clear kinship with the traditional airs and folk themes normally sung in the club, and seemed to go down well despite my artless renditions.

One of the best known of John Dowland’s collection of airs called Lachrime (‘Tears’) is the heart-rending ‘Flow My Teares’ from his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 1600. It is in the form of a pavane, a slow and stately dance of the period, the sections structured here as AABBC (where C is the coda or tailpiece and A and B contrasting melodies). Whether Keith Roberts intended it so or not, it’s possible to use Dowland’s words as a counterpoint to Roberts’ narrative, and that’s what I intend to do.

But first, the Prologue…

Pavane is a classic alternate history novel, a what-if story in a genre sometimes called Uchronia, the temporal counterpart to Utopia. Pavane‘s history diverges from history as we know it in 1588 not with the defeat of the Spanish Armada but with the premature death of Elizabeth I. Half the world is thus brought under the sway of the Catholic Church, with subsequent delays in technological innovation and doctrinal issues set in amber. By 1968, in the region we ourselves call Hardy’s Wessex, the seemingly insignificant grains of sand that are individual lives are beginning to trickle down a slope, leading inevitably — but not instantaneously — via calamitous change to an uncertain future.

That change we view through four or five generations of a family called, perhaps significantly, Strange. The novel consists of six vignettes, here called ‘measures’ (a Renaissance musical term for the sections of a dance composition), rounded off by a coda. Slow-moving and stately, they build up a picture of a 20th-century English backwater that will cause rather more than ripples in the world order.

“The Lady Margaret”
Flow, my teares, fall from your springs!
Exilde for ever, let me mourne
Where night’s black bird hir sad infamy sings,
There let mee live forlorne.

After the death and funeral of Eli Strange, Jesse Strange has inherited the traction engine haulage business that dominates Dorset. His engine of choice is the Lady Margaret, named after the woman he has worshipped from afar. Will he gain her affection or will he have to mourn what may never be? And what of his former schoolfriend, Col, who hitches a ride with him on the return journey to Dorchester — is there infamy afoot in that dangerous night journey?

There are loving evocations of the processes of maintaining and driving these magnificent machines, one of the few technologies allowed in Catholic Europe, descriptions which must come from Roberts’ own love of steam technology. The slow lumbering engine crisscrossing a Dorset of dispersed settlements and sparse populations decides the pace of this and, indirectly, subsequent measures of Pavane.

fairymark“The Signaller”
Downe vaine lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in dispaire their lost fortuns deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

The next measure concerns Rafe Bigland, a lad from Avebury who is fascinated by the semaphore messages sent out by the giant signal stations that dot the land. He progresses through the strict education of the Guild of Signallers, a group as powerful and as secretive as the Knights Templar were in medieval Europe, eventually taking sole responsibility for a remote Dorset station. That remoteness however creates challenges, from predators such as wild cats (maybe lynxes), bleak winter weather, dark nights and the mysterious folk known as the People of the Heath. In this story we meet for the first time the sign that marks their presence, a strange device within a circle that, like a Rorschach blot, can mean anything; to me, for example, it looked at first sight like one of those cheap wraparound card designs that becomes a winged fairy on top of a Christmas tree. This story is almost as powerful as Jesse Strange’s tale, with an unexpected ending that intrigues and hints that there is more to this invented world than at first appears.

“The White Boat” and “Brother John”
Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pitie is fled,
And teares, and sighes, and grones my wearie dayes
Of all joys have deprived.

‘The White Boat’ was not originally included in the novel but, far from being superfluous, the tale adds immeasurably to the sense of dangerous undercurrents threatening the status quo. The craft of the title appears from time to time off the coast, and oddball Becky, who collects lobsters from pots, becomes fascinated with it. What are they about? What is their purpose? Physically abused at home by her father, ruthlessly interrogated by the priest, what she finds aboard the Boat is something that challenges the hegemony of the Church and its ban on innovative technologies. The following story is even more chilling. A classic study called The Pursuit of the Millennium (I read the revised version of 1970) was subtitled ‘Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages’ and discussed how individuals often initiated, wittingly or unwittingly, movements that the Church could not and would not tolerate. Brother John belongs to an order named after the Dark Age saint Adhelm, a learned individual who founded churches such as the still extant 7th-century Wiltshire church of St Lawrence in Bradford-on-Avon. John’s talents at sketching and lithographing cause him to be sent to portray the activities of the Court of Spiritual Welfare in Dover. His experiences as court artist for the Inquisition and its vile practices however mark him indelibly; and the mystical anarchism that he develops leads to his being spontaneously followed by the common people of the West Country, with all ending inconsequentially on the Dorset coast. Will the woes of the common people never be relieved? Has ‘pitie’ fled?


“Lords and Ladies” and “Corfe Gate”
From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is throwne,
And feare and griefe and paine for my deserts
Are my hopes since hope is gone.

After the tales of Rafe, Becky and Brother John, with the only common denominator being Dorset, we return to the Strange family. Jesse, the haulier of the first story, is now on his deathbed after building his traction engine empire to dominate the West Country haulage business. His niece Margaret, whom he has spoiled and humoured, sits listening to the priest exorcising the body wracked by cancer; she drifts into reveries of her life so far: his indulgence, her waywardness, her abduction and wooing by the local lord Robert of Purbeck, her encounter with one of the Old Ones who tells her not to despise the Church “for she has a wisdom beyond your understanding”, and not to despise the Church’s mummeries for “they have a purpose that will be fulfilled”. In second of two directly linked tales we meet her daughter, Eleanor, who is also the daughter of Lord Robert. Lady Eleanor, with the sympathetic help of the Seneschal John Faulkner, initiates the Revolt of the Castles — she is not her mother’s daughter (or her grandmother’s granddaughter) for nothing when it comes to defying authority and flying in the face of apparent reasons.

Pavane really picks up with these two tales, developing links between two families and the wider world that was hinted at in the previous stories. It’s very easy to sympathise with these two strong women, Margaret and Eleanor, themselves both no doubt a conscious harking back to English queens of the Middle Ages blessed with powerful personalities such as Margaret of Anjou and Eleanor of Aquitaine. You want to cheer for them as they confront overwhelming odds and despair for them when things unravel.

Brooding over all is Corfe Castle, no ruin but a mighty and near impregnable fastness, almost — one might say — “the highest spire of contentment” in an increasingly bleak and threatening world. This alternate history is a marvellous melding of medieval, Renaissance, Victorian and modern ways of thinking, living and technology; and behind it all are mysteries — the roles of the Signallers, their relationship to the Fairies or People of the Heath, the genetic heritage of Eleanor and John Faulkner, the visions of the Old Ones. Even a close reading reveals little that’s definitive.

Harke you shadowes that in darknesse dwell,
Learne to contemne light
Happie, happie they that in hell
Feele not the worlds despite.

‘Corfe Gate’ leaves many questions unanswered, not least of which is ‘What exactly has been achieved by the actions of the Strange dynasty?’ The epilogue gives some answers, though not all is revealed. It is some years after the Revolt of the Castles, and what Oliver Cromwell achieved in our own 17th century — the slighting of medieval fortifications — has been matched in Pavane‘s 20th-century world. Does the holding back of change and innovation, as the Catholic Church did, only delay the inevitable? Or does the Church consciously manage the pace of that change and innovation so that the world can adjust in its own time? In other words, does controlled evolution, strictly enforced, avoid the pains of violent revolution? Or does the medicine either kill or permanently damage the patient? I can’t help feeling that the author’s reported innate conservatism caused him to mistrust anarchy of any kind, and that leads to an uncomfortable balance between optimism (at signs of change and when battles are won) and pessimism (when wars are apparently lost and absolutism triumphs).

A few more motifs continue to lodge in my mind. For example, many of the ‘measures’ begin or end with a birth or a death, whether onstage or offstage. While this effectively counteracts the happily-ever-after expectations of many novels it does emphasise the bigger picture where Pavane‘s timeline is concerned. There are also the reminders of light in the darkness, whether from traction engines travelling across the Dorset countryside at dead of night, the torches on the signalling towers for winter messages, the lights on the White Boat anchored offshore, Brother John working at his lithography at all hours or the glow-worms that individuals spot in the ditches surrounding Corfe Castle. Roberts also creates a disconnect between our world and his by using older or alternate forms of placenames, as for example Latin names for Roman foundations (Londinium, Durnovaria, Sorviodunum) or unfamiliar spellings (Wey Mouth, Bourne Mouth or Corvesgeat).

Pavane feels a much richer novel than I remember from when I read it in the early 70s, but then I’m a lot older and hopefully a lot wiser. It’s not perfect, though. I can’t quite picture how people are dressed — there are references to Tudor clothing such as breeches and the like but also shortish dresses and even nylons — but maybe that’s part of Roberts’ determination to create an unstable atmosphere. Nor can I work out the nature of the relationship between humans, fairies, the Old Ones, the Will and the God of the Church, but maybe that’s deliberately meant to be allusive. The effect is to suggest more than just alternate history: this is an alternate or parallel world, similar to but different from our own.

All I know is that in the Renaissance the slow and stately pavane was always paired with a faster and livelier  galliard; and whether Roberts intended this novel to have such a sequel to correspond with a galliard, or whether his Coda is meant to have the only acknowledgement that controlled turmoil did eventually occur and a final balance achieved, is mere speculation. But what is not in doubt is that Pavane remains a real tour de force.

Corfe Castle postcard
Corfe Castle old postcard image

One you may have missed:
repost of a review which first appeared 17th July 2014

4 thoughts on “Slow and stately

  1. earthbalm

    Great post about what appears to be an intriguing book. Such synchronicity – I retweeted a post about Corfe castle just this morning.


  2. elmediat

    I also first encountered the book when I was much younger – if I could just get through a few other books in the Great Pile, I need to revisit Pavane. With a family named Strange, this alternative universe must be an offshoot of the Wold Newton Universe by way of Dr. Stephen Strange family. 🙂


    1. Hope it’s as good as you remember it when you catch up! I think I may be ready for a third reread in, ooh, maybe twenty years’ time. In the meantime, as with you, I’ve too many other titles to get through. 🙂


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