Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Monday, March 7, 2011

'Dissolution' by C. J. Sansom (2004)

Taking a break from more recent history, I picked up Dissolution, by C. J. Sansom. Intrigued by a positive review of Sansom's most recent novel in this series, entitled Heartstone, I decided (as I usually do) to start with the first in the series. Before even cracking the cover, however, the novel had one strike against it in my personal historical-novel rating system. The setting is England during the reign of King Henry VIII. This blog's very first post noted a problem shared by all novels using older historical settings: Accurate depiction of historical characters. More than the more-or-less contemporaneous Wolf Hall, Dissolution suffers from characters that feel too modern. The author obviously put a lot of thought and research into avoiding that pitfall, but the result is not entirely convincing. Happily, the novel novel is entertaining enough to overcome that handicap.

Maybe now is a good time to institute a rating system, based on the four ingredients I consider important in a historical novel. A 1 to 5 range should be sufficient, where 1 is so bad that I couldn't finish the book and 5 is 'practically perfect in every way' (I don't expect to award many 1s or 5s). A more detailed discussion of these criteria can be found in the Jan. 13 post. Briefly, they are:
  1. The ability to inspire me to further research a historical topic,
  2. Inclusion of enough history to make the novel an interesting historical story,
  3. Accurate depiction of historical events,
  4. Accurate depiction of historical characters.
Note that these criteria apply only to historical novels. Things like interesting characters, descriptions, plots and dialog are essential to any well-written novel. So, how does Dissolution rate?

  1. Score = 2. Because...
  2. Score = 3. There's some history, but not enough. The action takes place almost exclusively at a remote fictional monastery, far from all but the most general current events. This was the time of Henry's attack on the Catholic monastic orders, beginning in 1536, which by 1540 brought about the dissolution of nearly all of the old monasteries and convents in England. There is some interesting historical background on the methods used, by Henry's chief minister Thomas Cromwell, to bring this about. Still, there's not much historical meat to chew on. Perhaps later novels in this series will offer more.
  3. Score = 3. What history there is seems accurate; there's just not much of it. Sansom earns a gold star for including a 'Historical Note' at the end.
  4. Score = 2. Apart from the inherent problem caused by the antiquity of the setting, the problem here is the same as for #2; there are too few historical characters. Thomas Cromwell is the most prominent, and he appears only very briefly.
  5. I'll add a fifth item to the original four. This one asks the question, 'Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters? For Dissolution and Cromwell's hunchback investigator Matthew Shardlake, the answer is yes.
Next post will discuss Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake.

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