I’ve been sitting in a cancer ward at the Royal Marsden Hospital, desperately relying on a Tudor detective novel to distract me. Nurses are putting cancer drugs into my child and it’s almost impossible to bear.
One of them catches me glaring at her. “Everything OK?” she asks.
“I don’t want you to put those drugs into him,” I say.
“I do want you to. But I don’t.”
There are a lot of very sick youngsters here, moon-faced and hairless; I can hear a background chorus of children crying inconsolably and the occasional sharp scream. My own child is tied up to a chemo machine with its implacable clickety-clack, clickety-clack; he used to be a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine programmes, whose “clickety-clack, clickety-clack, down the track” became a meme.
The Sylvia Plath metaphor “I’ve…boarded the train there’s no getting off” haunted me throughout the time I was pregnant with him, and chemo is like that. You sign up for it, you put up with it, all the way to the terminal.
The infernal bedside waiting is like being trapped in a timepiece. A vast hospital system grinds slowly around the patient; it knows its own ways.
Writer C J Sansom was diagnosed with cancer just before embarking on his latest novel Tombland. “Tombland” completes a series of seven Tudor mystery novels based around a hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake; it took Sansom twice as long as the others to write and, in his darkest moments, he feared he might not finish it before the cancer took him.
Can Sansom’s hero Matthew Shardlake rise to the distraction challenge for me? I need a book to wrench me away from bedside terror and panic. Yes, this solid series cuts the mustard. The books are remarkably detailed accounts of Tudor times, told from the perspective of a man with a serious disability. Life is far from fair in Shardlake’s world, and he is very much an outcast.
The seven doorstop tomes are airport novels - an easy read. Nonetheless they are also a reliable briefing on how the great, lumbering Tudor state turned itself away from Catholicism and towards Protestantism in the early modern period.
For people researching Huguenot ancestry, they give an insight into how England came to be a place where Protestant refugees from France could be accepted - as sturdy allies in the ferocious battle against papistry.
I find the detective thrust of the books compelling when I’m most in need of a page-turner. At the same time, I love the intricate religious debates which are touched on: individual characters have their own religious sensibilities and faith is – for once – portrayed as something people get really worked up about.
If you struggle to understand the Catholicism versus Protestantism debate – for example, why stained glass windows in churches were smashed by reformers – the Shardlake novels offer an explanation. Most of Sansom’s characters have heartfelt religious beliefs and express them fervently. Monks, for example, put the Catholic case. Minor characters who are essentially heretics heading for the stake put the opposite case. It’s easy to see their respective points of view because they are convincing characters.
At any rate, I have found these books helpful. I itch with frustration when I see fictional representations of religious zealots which lack conviction. Most TV and film dramas set in Tudor times – and there are many – are guilty of this; Versailles is just one example. Human beings don’t go to the stake for nothing; we want to live.
Having been forged by zealotry myself, I understand the fire that drives it. It’s not a thing to be trifled with.Tombland by CJ Sansom The Colossus, by Sylvia Plath