In 1588, Queen Elizabeth, the Faerie Queen, was assassinated. Without her leadership, and with the rise of English Catholics in response, Spain found it easy to occupy England and bring her back to Mother Church. And with England so tamed, the throne of St. Peter took back the entirety of Europe from Protestantism, and then the world. James Cook had the flag of the Pope, not of England, when he landed in Australia. Spain controls the entirety of the New World.
The Church keeps a tight control over technology and culture, as well, shutting down obvious lines of development. Semaphone wires, coal fired trains, and a residual feudal culture dominate England and the world. Black powder guns are still state-of-the-art weapons. Such tight control has its costs, and its victims. Now, though, almost four centuries after Elizabeth’s death, in a small region of England, the dominance of the Church in matters temporal and spiritual — in England and the world — may finally begin to loosen. All of this can be found in Keith Roberts’ alternate history classic, Pavane.
Technically, Pavane is an old school “fix-up,” a novel constructed from a series of separately published but linked stories. The stories of Pavane show the unfolded alternate history of a small section of England in this very different, church dominated world. We get hints and intimations of things going on beyond the bounds of a small region in England, but the book mostly keeps its focus on this relatively small area. Pavane is constructed of a short prologue, six ‘movements’ of about novelette or novella length, and a coda.
That intimacy within each story, geographically, is countered by the expansiveness of spirit and character and worldbuilding in miniature in each story. “The Lady Margaret” formally introduces us to this alternate history (after a brief prologue to the novel), giving readers the foundation to understand how this alternate 1968 (the same year as the novel was published) works and what it’s like. It’s also the story of Jesse Strange, trying to work the family business of locomotive hauling. In “The Signaller”, Rafe, a young boy, undergoes apprenticeship in the secretive Guild of Signallers, which operates the network of semaphore towers by which information is transmitted around the country and to Europe. Here, too, the more fantastic element of this world is introduced. In “The White Boat”, a slightly strange note in the middle of the novel, a young girl is obsessed with a very weird yacht that sometimes appears on the coast. I understand that this story is not in every edition of the book, but given that it does help illuminate the fantastical elements of the entire novel, its inclusion is a bonus.
Roberts is willing to to go dark, too. In “Brother John”, the artistically talented protagonist is transformed by his employment in the Court of Spiritual Welfare, better known to us as the Inquisition. A deeply moving element of faith and responsibility in the midst of the darkest side of what Mother Church can and will do in this world.
No change can stand forever, however; in “Lords and Ladies” and finally “Corfe Gate”, we return to the Strange family and get two excellent female characters. The former features the irrepressible Margaret, Jesse’s niece, who intimates herself with the local noble family. And in “Corfe Gate”, her daughter, Eleanor, is the spearpoint to what these stories have been leading up to — an overthrow of the old order that has oppressed Durnovaria (Dorset), England, and the world for far too long.
And even within all of this, there are intimations that the Catholic Church, dominant for so long, is not the only power in this world, and their motives, even to themselves, may not been as one-sided as a surface reading indicates. It’s a wonderfully complex and splendid thing. As Roberts has named this a Pavane, a musical piece in six measures, the underlying craft of that music, as it were, is amazing. This is alternate history of a craft, care and style rarely seen even today. Perhaps authors like Paul Park or John Crowley come closest.
The coda, the ending to the Pavane, though, is the real sting in the tail of the book. It sticks the landing of the music of the novel in a way that gobsmacked me the first, and most recent, time I read Pavane. I hesitate to reveal it, or even to hint at it. It is simultaneously the summation, refutation, and answer to the six measures of the novel.
Pavane is strange, frustrating, opaque and wonderful. It’s a novel that, upon reading and re-reading, the beauty and structure of the prose, the characters and the created world become more and more clear. It’s a lost masterpiece of alternate history, only waiting for you to re-discover it.