Sunday, July 19, 2009

Summer reading: Thomas of Reading, by Thomas Deloney

Actually, I have just read or re-read all of Deloney's prose fiction in the last week and a half, as that appears to be the sort of thing I do when I'm avoiding actual writing, but I shall restrain myself and tell you about only one of them. You want to hear about the one with the serial-killing innkeepers, right? I thought so.

Stuff That Happens: In the reign of Henry I, there are nine merry and industrious clothiers in England, all of whom become very rich. Much of the text consists of the loosely connected, jest-book-style adventures of the clothiers, their wives, and their servants, as well as other eccentric characters such as Old Bosom the landlord "who, being a foul sloven, went always with his nose in his bosom, and one hand in his pocket, the other on his staf, figuring forth a description of cold winter. For he always wore two coats, two caps, two or three pair of stockings, and a high pair of shoes, over the which he drew on a great pair of lined slippers; and yet he would oft complain of cold." (I am inclined to suspect Dickens of taking lessons from Deloney, although he presumably wouldn't share Deloney's view that sending six-year-olds to work in a cloth factory is absolutely fine and dandy and a great way for the poor to provide for their children.) The clothiers get along well with the king, who comes to see their industry as the backbone of the English nation; they feast him, he grants their petitions, and it's all very harmonious as long as you don't try to steal cloth in Halifax, in which case the king allows you to be executed without a trial.

There's also a subplot concerning Margaret, the earl of Shrewsbury's daughter, whose father has been driven into exile for supporting the king's rebellious brother, Duke Robert of Normandy. She hires herself out as a maidservant to Goodwife Gray of Gloucester, the wife of one of the clothiers. Duke Robert catches sight of her while she's haymaking, falls madly in love with her, and persuades her to elope with him.

And then, in the last twenty pages or so, things get Seriously Weird. Thomas Cole of Reading, one of the clothiers, makes the mistake of frequenting an inn run by murderers. They have a special death chamber built for the purpose, with a bed that flips down through a trapdoor and dumps its occupants into a boiling cauldron, and have done away with sixty of their guests already -- but they don't find it easy to do away with Thomas, whose death is repeatedly prevented by a series of Arden of Faversham-style mishaps. Death omens proliferate; Thomas has a vision of the host with his hands all bloody, and is prompted by Providence to write a will, in which he leaves two hundred pounds to his jolly and improvident colleague, Tom Dove. The host gets cold feet, but his wife prompts him, Lady-Macbeth-style, to go through with the murder. Exit Thomas. Luckily, his horse gets away and prompts Cole's servant to investigate and reveal the murder; the host and hostess of the inn are hanged.

Meanwhile, the king captures Duke Robert and blinds him. Margaret is heartbroken and joins a convent.

Tom Dove has gone broke and been deserted by his servants when Cole's widow arrives to pay his legacy; the other clothiers chip in, and he eventually prospers.

Thoughts: There is a LOT here about social contracts. King Henry, portrayed as an ideal ruler (apart from that little affair of blinding his brother!) argues that “The strength of a king is the love and friendship of his people, and he governs over his realm most surely that ruleth justice with mercy; for he ought to fear many whom many do fear. Therefore the governors of the commonwealth ought to observe two special precepts: the one is that they so maintain the profit of the commons that whatsoever in their calling they do, they refer it thereunto; the other, that they be always as well careful over the whole commonwealth as over any part thereof, lest while they uphold the one, the other be brought to utter decay." Henry is initially rather annoyed when a long line of wains bearing cloth delays his journey, but almost immediately comes to see the clothiers as his kingdom's greatest asset, as well as personal friends whose proximity he seeks: “Likewise, within the town [of Reading] he after built a fair and goodly castle, in the which he often kept his court, saying to the clothiers that, seeing he found them such faithful subjects, he would be their neighbor and dwell among them."

In the last five chapters, those social contracts start to break down; fault lines appear between master and servant, guest and host, brother and brother, and are only partly repaired. This is particularly evident in Tom Dove's story, as he appeals to his servants: “It is not unknown, though you do not consider it, that I took some of you up from the highway; other some from your needy parents; and brought the rest up from mere beggary to a house of bounty, where from paltry boys I brought you up to man’s estate and have, to my great cost, taught you a trade, whereby you may live like men. And in requital of all my courtesy, cost, and good will, will you now on a sudden forsake me?” The servants reject this in favor of a more pragmatic world-view that emphasizes the economic basis of the relationship: “Because you took us up poor, doth it therefore follow that we must be your slaves? ... If you taught us our trade, and brought us up from boys to men, you had our service for it, whereby you made no small benefit if you had as well used it as we got it. But if you be poor, you may thank yourself, being a just scourge for your prodigality; and it is my opinion plain that to stay with you is the best way to make us like you, neither able to help ourselves nor our friends. Therefore, in brief, come pay me my wages, for I will not stay.” They return to Dove when his wealth is restored, but the cracks in the relationship remain: "And albeit he seemed to forgive their trespasses done against him, yet he would often say he would never trust them for a straw." (Deloney represents Dove's actions as exemplary and the servants as "wicked"; personally, I'm inclined to think the servants have an excellent point.)

1 comment:

Susan said...

FP, you always make me want to follow your tracks in reading :)