Monday, 17 January 2011

The Sunday Salon - Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, the Tudor historical mystery that brings 1537 to life

There is one more book from last year that I haven't mentioned yet, but that really made a lasting impression on me.  It's Dissolution by C.J. Sansom.  It is set in Tudor England during the time of Henry the 8th, and as the title suggests, it was during the period of dissolution of the Catholic Churches as Henry set himself up as the head of the Church of England.  All of this is 'dry' history, in that it's done and dusted long ago.  Why this book made such an impression on me is because we are at an abbey - Scarnsea in Sussex -  where a murder of the king's commissioner has occurred, and the chief suspect is related to the king's new wife Jane.  Matthew Shardlake is a trusted lawyer and works for Thomas Cromwell, who is responsible for ensuring the surrender of all the monasteries to the king.  Cromwell assigns him to go sort out the case and clear the kinsman's name. 

Almost the entirety of the novel is set at Scarnsea Abbey.  It's a very good mystery, the characters are well-drawn, and the remote setting at the abbey in the middle of a long winter adds to an element of isolation and fear.  It's 1537, and the surrender of the abbeys and monasteries to the king has begun.  Everything revolves around politics, even there far from the center of London, because  Matthew is also sent as a replacement commissioner for the dead man, to continue to examine any sign that there is heresy (adhering to the old ways) at the church, which would mean surrender of the abbey to the king and dissolution.  It is a fascinating way to explore religion and the meaning of a life dedicated to God, and what the monasteries were really like, how wealthy and how they justified it.  Matthew supports the Reformation, as anyone who survived had to. So he is looking in on the abbey and asking how the monks got so far away from the edicts of Benedict.  It's sounds boring, but it's not, because it's set under the 'wish' that Henry the 8th wanted it solved quickly, so Matthew must solve it, and fast, and because there is death and fear all around the monastery.

What so affected me about this mystery wasn't something I paid attention to at first, because I was busy watching (catching up) on the final series of The Tudors, which ended on CBC in November here.  I was thinking of King Henry one day on the bus, and what an enormous change he created by breaking with the Roman Church in order to divorce Catherine of Aragorn.  So I saw the political reasons and games and all the fascinating power from The Tudor court perspective.  Then I thought of the Abbey in Dissolution, and even though it was fiction, I thought, that's what it would have been like back then.  The monks would suddenly have had their world turned upside down.  Whether or not they were too wealthy, too far from their origins of serving God by being away from the world, what the real result of Henry's decision to leave the Church, was that hundreds and thousands of men and women who served God in their way, could suddenly not do it any more.  The churches were dismantled of all their wealth, taken for Henry himself and the Treasury of the kingdom.  The monks, Dissolution makes clear, were dependent on charity then, either family or a charitable stipend from Henry.  Matthew tries to find out what will happen to the monks at this abbey and discovers there is little he can do.  And so a whole way of life is dispersed, not because God ceased to exist, but because one man wanted to do things his way.  I"m not going to get into a political debate about the wrongs of the Church, the rise of Protestantism, Martin Luther, any of that.  What interests me is that Dissolution was able to bring home in an immediate way to me what happened in the abbeys and churches as they were dissolved.

From a historical perspective of course, many of the greater abbeys still stand whole and complete in England, and some became mansions and great houses, some disappeared as their stones were used in the neighborhood for repairs and building, and some stand as haunted ruins.  The landscape of Britain is littered with empty churches and abbeys, the wind blowing through stone, all that is left of once superb craftsmen.

One of my favourite abbeys is Whitby Abbey.  My husband and I have visited it often on our trips to Whitby, and it is still a presence overlooking the bay and town.  Once, long ago, an old religious house stood here that was the scene of the synod that  decided to bring  Christianity to England, the Synod of Whitby in 664 (destroyed by Vikings later).  The Abbey  is the remains of an 11th century Benedictine Monastery, just like in Dissolution. Already in ruins a little over a 100 years ago, Bram Stoker wandered around it and thought up the vampire story that began a whole new literature: Dracula.

I was privileged to also get to Lindisfarne in Northumberland and walk among the old castle ruins and monastery  at Holy Island, which at high tide is cut off from the mainland.  The monastery was one of Christianity's first monasteries in England, built in 635 Ad. A priory was built in 1070 but 'abandoned' in 1541.  Then a castle was built in 1543 with stones from the priory,  to protect the harbour,  and  was destroyed in the civil war, and eventually the remaining parts of the castle became a home in the early 1900s. It is one of the most remote and fascinating locations in England for me.  I thought what a wonderful place it would be to be close to the land and the sky, to be close to the sacred of the world, and how restful the location was.  There is something about how Dissolution was written, now, that when I think of Lindisfarne, and Whitby Abbey, I add the laments of the monks now as their way of life dissolved right before them.  How frightening and unknowable it all must have been for them. Dissolution makes that change real, in a powerful and sad way. 

It's also a very good mystery, and I like the main character  Matthew Shardlake very much. He is intelligent, and a good judge of character, and not always a nice person although he tries very hard, as a lawyer, to be fair.  This book would have to counted among my notable mysteries for 2010.  I have already Book 2, Dark Fire,  on my shelf to be read. 

Have you read Dissolution?  What did you think of it?  Have you read a mystery, or a novel recently, that made you understand something in our world a little more?


Eva said...

I loved this post Susan! And Dissolution is now on my TBR list. :)

A Border Passage by Leila Ahmed is a book I just finished that definitely helped me understand our world a little more. It's a literary memoir (I guess) and it's so good! I'll be posting about it this week.

Susan said...

Eva: Thanks! I hope you enjoy the mystery, too! The fifth one in the series, Heartstone, that came our in 2010, is garnering great reviews so I'm anxious to get to it.

So you return the favour, right? lol A Border Passage, a literary memoir...words to pull me in too :-) I'm checking to see if our library has it. I don't know whether to thank you or find more books to review for you! lol

GeraniumCat said...

Wonderful post, Susan - Dissolution made me think about these issues too, and I suspect it's going to remain my favourite of the Shardlake books because it does it so well.

From where I live we can't quite see Lindisfarne (mostly because the angle is wrong) but I often see the geese coming and going from the island in winter, and at night we can see the flashing of the Farne Lighthouse, which I always find immensely comforting. It's hard not to see Lindisfarne itself (as I always do from the train) without get lost in historical musings.

Susan said...

Geraniumcat: What a lovely comment! I can imagine seeing the lighthouse light from the island now. There is something about seeing the island and the monastery on it that leads one to daydreams and musings, isn't there? Maybe we just want to escape to a place where there is space to think...I know I do :-) even if for an afternoon. And when I was there, I spent some time thinking about how life must have been like for the monks, too. Thank you for sharing that you do this too. :-)

So you've read this series too? Have you enjoyed it? I'll have to come see if you've reviewed any, have you?

zetor said...

Read Dissolution a while ago along with Dark Fire, Sovereign and Revelation by the same author. Loved them all , but his latest Heartstone I didn't enjoy so much I found it a little long winded.

Susan said...

zetor: I've just bought Dark Fire to read. It's interesting the different views there can be about books, isn't there? You're the first person to not like Heartstone as much as the others, so I will keep that in mind when I eventually get to it. I'm really looking forward to reading them all. I'm glad you really liked the other ones.