I have almost finished Edward Rutherford’s London. I make no bones about my knowledge, or lack thereof, of British history. Back to 1800 I’m passable, but anything prior to that is very shady indeed. And now that the book has arrived at 1800, where things begin to feel familiar, an important sensation that pervaded the book before now is beginning to fade.
It was a sense that you could almost grasp it. Grasp the thing that has so warped and riven societies well beyond English shores for millennia. I’m not an idiot; I knew the power of the church was a formidable thing. But, as a non-believer, it was easier to think of the conquests and squabbles of the church as what they were: political. Easier to do this than to sit through the dull discussions of the validity of miracles as if they mattered in a non-political way. (Which, to me, they don’t.) I know I’ve written before of my last history class before 9/11, where my professor, pointing to a news item on Protestant parents in Belfast pelting Catholic children with stones, remarked that sure, you thought it was about religion, but really it was about land. No shit, I thought.
But the value of this generation-by-generation march through time that Rutherford has set up (and continues to set up, in novel after novel), is that you see what these conflicts did to the people too blind, too trusting, too faithful to ever believe that it was all about land. That it was all political. The way these lauded authorities–be they in starched Puritan woolens or gleaming thread-of-gold cassocks–mess with the heads of the ordinary folk is atrocious. Knowing that someone alive when Elizabeth was praising Shakespeare on the stage might then have lived to bear witness to the draconian idiocy of the idealized Puritan state during the period of the Commonwealth unhinged me. So much change! In so little time! Brought about in part by people–like Martha Carpenter, in the book–so terribly and terrifyingly convinced of their rightness. “Why yes, the Black Death has come back. For your wickedness, you sinners!” Cripe. It’s one thing to encounter bullshit like that in a small area, as you do in the children’s book Witch of Blackbird Pond. Yes, you are horrified at the doings of the Puritans but–and perhaps this view was granted to me by my distance from New England–I was always comforted by the thought that “well, it was just Massachusetts.” I hadn’t been to Massachusetts, but it sure seemed small on the map. Pennsylvania I had been to, and Pennsylvania was huge. And wasn’t William Penn in charge down there? Surely these women could’ve up and taken off down the road for a little religious tolerance, or at least some time spent not burning at the stake amongst the Quakers.
But for a whole world power to be consumed by that kind of tomfoolery. (No need to point out the religious fanaticism running rampant in the conservative ranks of my own country at the moment; I’m quite aware of it, thank you.) To be beside yourself, to march in the streets, because it was thought (ultimately correctly, it turns out) that your monarch made a secret deal to return your country to Catholicism! To kill people over it! I tried, I really tried, to sit there and put myself in the position of some staunch Protestant Englishman, and to understand why that would be so upsetting. Would Rome levy huge taxes that would affect my business? Would my women no longer be able to walk about on the streets? (Whoops, wrong restrictive religion.) Sure, the trading relationship with my Dutch pseudo-friends would suffer, but the staunchly Catholic Sun King across the way doesn’t exactly seem to be lacking in money. And given the sundry popular crafts and services Huguenots fleeing him brought to England, I’m likely not entirely averse to some more of that culture drifting my way. It would be nice to think that I’d balk against a reversion to Catholicism out of sympathy for people like the Huguenots, persecuted terribly after the tearing-up of the Treaty of Nantes, but I don’t think that many people are that altruistic. Their outrage was for themselves. They thought that some terrible aspect of state-driven Catholicism would send them straight to hell.
And I just couldn’t see it. So you’re forced to eat a cracker every week in the building you choose to go to and sing in. If you don’t believe in it, where’s the harm? Even watching the charismatic Edmund Meredith bring all the theatricality he used to bring to the stage to the pulpit–even musing, at the back of my mind, that had I been born 500 years ago ago and a man, I’d have been very good at this whipping people up into frenzies of my own elaborate design, and that the pulpit may have been the only place someone not born to prestige might have been able to exercise those particular skills–I kept thinking but they only have the power over you that you let them have over you. If you don’t believe it, fuck it. Eat the cracker. Drink the wine–hey, it’s free wine! If there was a direct and measurable impact to quality of life or likelihood of success, I could understand the upset. But if it’s just choosing a pink frock over a green one–come on: six one, half dozen the other.
But I know it was there. The thing, that belief that digs down into people like a cavity, urging them to wage ridiculous wars on each other–wars which do, always, have the political components of land and resources, but which also (and this is what Rutherford is so good at showing, following in good-enough prose these fictional family lines through history) speak in some way to this cancerous belief that festers in people. Even more so then than now, I suppose because you had so little else in your life back then other than church and work. Reading, particularly, the chapters on the Reformation, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, it felt like you could come so close to getting what it was that made these people butcher each other (or announce that they were ready to) at the drop of a hat, all for control of who said what on Sundays. In a broader way, though–I felt like if I could just squint my eyes and skew my vision enough, like before a Magic Eye picture, I would suddenly understand. Not from the perspective of belief, but from the perspective of someone who has inherited a world shaped by belief, and where people continue to die (or live–too much so–what with overpopulation exploding since, apparently, God Doesn’t Like Planned Pregnancies) because of it.
And now that we’ve reached 1800, I’ve lost my chance. We’re back in territory rendered familiar to me by previous exposure. The famous Fleet debtor’s prison, is it? Where Robert Rogers, in Northwest Passage, sat rotting in one of the saddest downfalls you can read about as a child raised on adventure stories? Are we headed to Bath next, where the ladies will take the waters whilst making eyes at charming convalescents? This I know. This is familiar to me, whereas the pitchfork-wielding ranks of black-and-white-clad religious zealots are something I thought England usefully rid itself of, sending them to our shores where they would, to everyone’s relief, eventually be forced to assimilate into a (slightly) more tolerant culture. By 1800, the Dark Ages have been kicked under the rug. But they still live on in the hearts of men, even today, it seems like. Just turn on the news.