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Prince and the Pauper (Barnes & Noble Classics Series), Page 2

Mark Twain

  Although heavily engaged in the writing of Huck Finn at the time, Twain was fascinated by the new plot of The Prince and the Pauper, and he dropped work on his magnum opus to toy with it. He even thought of writing the story as a play. Part of Twain’s obsession with The Prince and the Pauper may have stemmed from his dissatisfaction with his progress on Huck Finn. In fact, at some point, the one book must have overtaken the other—The Prince and the Pauper beat Huck Finn into publication by a full three years.

  Intrigued though Twain may have been by his ingenious plot, there was another spur that forced him to get down to the writing of The Prince and the Pauper. While living in Hartford, Connecticut, he was invited to become a member of the Monday Evening Club, an informal society of about twenty of Hartford’s leading clergymen, writers, teachers, and businessmen. This small, august group met on alternate Mondays from fall to spring to listen to papers and essays of the members’ own devising and to consume a light supper and a fair amount of beer. (When one meeting was held in the house of a member who was teetotal, the Reverend Joseph Twitchell recorded that he found the evening “rather difficult to swallow.” Doubtless, Twain did as well.) Twain enjoyed these meetings, and he presented papers, including “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut” (1876) and “What Is Happiness?” (1882), which many years later evolved into his philosophical dialogue “What Is Man?” (1906).

  Much as Twain enjoyed the subjects under discussion, he was even more influenced by the members of the Monday Evening Club. And much as one would expect Twain to be disdainful of clergymen—as, in the main, he was of organized religion—the fact is he rather liked ministers and priests, as long as they were not of the “Mush and Milk” variety he made such memorable fun of in The Innocents Abroad (1869). One man of the cloth, and a member of the Monday Evening Club, was a close friend of Twain’s and was to have a profound effect on him—and lead directly to the creation of The Prince and the Pauper.

  Edwin P. Parker (1836-1920), a Maine-born Congregationalist minister,a was a great admirer of Twain’s work, but he felt that there was more to his friend’s genius than the ability to be humorous and to satirize. He did not keep his opinions to himself:

  Now let me say to what I have repeatedly said of you—I know of no American writer who is capable of writing such forcible, sinewy, racy English as you. You are abundantly capable of turning out some work that shall bear the stamp of your individuality and at the same time have a sober character and a solid worth and a permanent value. It may not pay in “shekels” but it would in vast honor and give your friends vast pleasure. Am I too bold? Pardon me, but I wish I had your opportunity and your Genius (letter, December 1880; Camfield, Gregg, ed. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 378).

  Parker had hit one of Twain’s tender spots, for Twain, too, had worried that he had a reputation as a humorist, but not as a serious writer. So it was at the urging of both Parker and another Monday Evening Club member, Hartford mayor Henry Robinson, that Twain decided to undertake more serious work on The Prince and the Pauper, even as he wrestled with the difficulties he was encountering in Huck Finn.

  Writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn nettled Twain greatly; he wrote to William Dean Howells (1837-1920) that he found much to dislike in it, primarily the plot, and considered “pigeon-holing it” (that is, putting it aside) or even burning the manuscript! The writing of The Prince and the Pauper seems to have presented no such problems. He began the novel in the winter of 1877 and worked hard at it, telling his older brother Orion Clemens (1825-1897) that he labored on The Prince and the Pauper “with an interest that almost amounted to intemperance.” If that was the case, it was an intemperance that paid off handsomely. The book was finished by mid-1880, and Twain was enormously pleased with the result. He was sure that he had written something of lasting value, a book that was definitely a cut above his usual output. It was an opinion confirmed for him within his own family. He wrote to an old friend, “What am I writing? A historical tale of three hundred years ago. I swear the Young Girls Club [Twain’s wife and daughters] to secrecy and read the manuscript to them half a dozen chapters at a time.” (Camfield, p. 445) The girls and his wife were enthusiastic.

  One of the most interesting, persistent, and specious myths of Twain lore is that his wife of some thirty-five years, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was a prude and a bluenose who restrained her husband’s more earthy tendencies, bowdlerizing his books and taking little or no pleasure in—in fact, being embarrassed by—his writing and his fame. This was not true, of course, even though the primary architect of his wife’s buttoned-up reputation was Twain himself.

  Olivia Langdon was born into a wealthy family in upstate New York in 1845. She was a delicate and retiring woman who spent much of her early life, a period lasting from her early teens into her twenties, as an invalid. As the cosseted daughter of rich and doting parents, “Livy” must have seemed timid and retiring next to the far more ebullient Twain. Two people could not have had less in common, but Twain was determined that she would be his wife. Olivia’s parents were avid supporters of the temperance movement, and in order to win them to his cause Twain actually took the pledge, a move that horrified his old friends. They could not know that the pledge would not last long: Within a year he was teaching Livy “to drink a bottle of beer a night.”

  Far from being the prim prude she was thought to be, Mrs. Sam Clemens was a great help to her husband, a sounding board for ideas, a secretary, and a first editor. Twain relied heavily on his wife and valued her opinions highly. It was due to this great love and regard that her posthumous reputation developed. Although her health had never been strong, Olivia had lived through four pregnancies and the trauma of a Clemens family bankruptcy (Twain lost a great deal of his formidable income on ill-advised ventures in the stock market and on the promotion of various inventions, which swallowed enormous amounts of money for development and never returned a penny), but in 1902 she suffered a cataclysmic collapse in her health. A doctor advised a change to a warmer climate, and so in 1903 the Twains moved to Florence, Italy. She died there in 1904. Twain was devastated. It was his own posthumous tributes to his wife that made her reputation as moral paragon and hence a brake on Twain’s more earthy side.

  When The Prince and the Pauper was published in 1882, reviews were, in the main, positive, though some, to put it mildly, were not. A number of prominent critics expressed disappointment that Twain had turned to writing a historical novel to secure his reputation, rather than continuing in a modern American idiom—a sign, perhaps, that they were already taking Twain more seriously as a writer than he realized.

  Joseph T. Goodman, an early mentor of Twain’s and the first person to hire him to write full time—as a reporter on Goodman’s Virginia City, Nevada-based newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise—was particularly unhappy with The Prince and the Pauper and did not sugarcoat his criticism. He wrote to Twain: “What could have sent you groping among the Deluge for a topic when you would have been so much more at home in the wash of today?” (Camfield, p. 443.) Twain’s reply in defense, if there was one, is not recorded. Other annoyed critics, who were British, did not take kindly to an American’s criticism of their history, law, and institutions. To these disgruntled Brits Twain did have a reply—he noted that British reviewers “would not praise the Holy Scriptures were it discovered that they had, in fact, been written by an American.” (LeMaster, J.R., ed. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, p. 592.) More recent critics have not been kind to The Prince and the Pauper either, placing it in the second rank of Twain’s fiction, far behind Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Van Wyck Brooks used The Prince and the Pauper as ammunition to attack Olivia Clemens, claiming to see her preference for the book as symptomatic of her censorial and repressive influence on her husband’s work. As we know, she did not function in that manner; we can only assume that she liked the book for the same reasons her da
ughters did.

  But for the most part reviews of the book were good, though just behind the praise one could read a certain bewilderment. John T. Goodman was not the only person to think it odd that the most American of writers should write a historical novel about a foreign country. The era in which the novel takes place, the language in which it is written, and the style of the writing itself gave readers and reviewers the sense that The Prince and the Pauper was not a “Mark Twain” at all. In fact, Twain had foreseen this very problem and had briefly considered publishing the book anonymously or under a pseudonym.

  There are, of course, touches of the familiar Mark Twain. The book is about boys and their adventures, a theme Twain readers had come to expect, given that The Prince and the Pauper was published just a few years after his signal success with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). (Twain continued this theme with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published three years later.) Twain even indicated his intentions with the subtitle of the book: “A Tale for Young People of All Ages.”

  So, why the confusion on the part of the literary world? Well, for one thing, The Prince and the Pauper was a historical novel, set in a world known to no one at first hand: that of Tudor England in the erratic last days of King Henry VIII. Also, in order to write the book, Twain made a close study of the most famous historical novelist of the day, Sir Walter Scott. Yet Twain was on record making fun of the late-Victorian taste for medievalism and historical novels in general. In the book Sketches New and Old (1875) Twain makes his dislike of the genre plain, if not blunt, by titling one story “An Awful——Terrible Medieval Romance.” The omitted word can be easily guessed.

  The story itself—the swapping of identities between Edward Tudor, heir to the throne of England, and one of his lowliest subjects, a certain Tom Canty of Offal Court, London—was a neat conceit and one that no one would have doubted Twain would have immense fun spinning out. However, while there are moments in the book of what the critics called Twain’s “burlesque,” this apparently simple story delves deeply into the baseness of the human condition—and examines it closely at both ends of the social spectrum. It is not difficult to imagine wanton cruelty and pain meted out in the slums and low dens of Tudor London. But Twain did not spare the aristocracy; he accused them of cupidity, treachery, and outright violence. Brutality is no less brutal for having been dealt by a finely attired lord of the realm rather than by a drink-soaked mendicant clad in rags, worried that he will not come up with the two pennies required to pay his rent. One has to admit that to Twain’s contemporaries, and to readers today, The Prince and the Pauper is not a funny book.

  But it is an exciting one, almost a thriller. Will the deception succeed? Will Tom Canty take the throne? And will Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales (as Twain erroneously styles him), live his life in rags and squalor, raving and raging until his dying day about his own blue blood and the common, ungrateful usurper of the throne? It’s a close thing, and there are times when the reader doubts that Twain will manage to pull off a suitably happy ending.

  Then there is the problem with the language Twain employs. The book is filled with archaic and, in the mouths of the noble characters, flowery language. The more base characters speak a guttural if elaborate patois: “ ‘Gone stark mad as any Tom o’ Bedlam! ... But mad or no mad, I and thy Gammer Canty will soon find where the soft places in thy bones lie, or I’m no true man!’ ” (p. 28). The aristocrats are no less orotund, even when condemning one of their own to death: “ ‘Alack, how I have longed for this sweet hour! and lo, too late it cometh, and I am robbed of this so coveted chance. But speed ye, speed ye! let others do this happy office [that is, a beheading] sith ‘tis denied to me’ ” (p. 47). This is not the Mark Twain the reading public was used to—we are a long way from Tom, Huck, and Pudd’nhead. But Twain had always been a meticulous and discerning student of the spoken word, and absent a living example of Tudor speech, he readily admitted reading a great deal of Shakespeare to get the language down for both prince and pauper.

  At first, the language seems a trifle daunting, but it quickly becomes easy to read and in the end adds immeasurably to the authenticity of the book. To have had his characters speak in the manner of Victorian Londoners of his age would have undercut the profound sense of time and place Twain manages to convey so well.

  Having said how much The Prince and the Pauper is not a typical example of Twain’s work, it is worth taking a look at the factors that make it, in fact, a comfortable fit with the rest of the Twain canon. Like Tom Canty, the pauper of the story, Twain knew well the privations of youthful poverty. His father, John Marshall Clemens (1798-1847), was an inept businessman, perennially in debt, sometimes bringing his family to such low financial water as to force the selling of family land, and even the household furniture. At one point in Twain’s youth the family was forced to face the humiliation of having to take in boarders. True, Twain never knew the crushing poverty of the Canty clan, but he grew up knowing the cold sting of want.

  Tom Canty’s father is an ogre, a tyrant, a drunkard, and an abuser. Were he alive today his treatment of his family would, more than likely, land him in jail. Twain’s own father, while no monster, was cold, distant, unaffectionate, and, it seems, uninterested in any of his seven children, still less in his wife (Jane Lampton Clemens, 1803—1890), with whom he lived in a loveless marriage. As Twain admits so candidly in a fragment of an autobiography published in 1907: “I had never once seen a member of the Clemens family kiss another one—except once. When my father lay dying in our house in Hannibal he put his arm around my sister’s neck and drew her down and kissed her, saying, ‘Let me die.’ ” (Paine, A. B. Mark Twain: A Biography, Vol. I, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912, p. 73.) It is not difficult to imagine that Twain could take his own experiences of poverty and cruelty and amplify them into the truly ghastly conditions of Tom Canty’s early life.

  As Twain’s reputation grew he was transformed from lowly newspaper reporter into celebrated author. This celebrity allowed him to hobnob with the Great and Good (including the Russian czar, the German kaiser, and the emperor of Austria-Hungary) and to develop a keen eye for the doings of the upper classes. The courts of the nineteenth century were at least as grand, perhaps even more so, than those of Tudor England. Mark Twain was a proud American and a republican, and he scoffed at the very notion of aristocracy, as well as at a type of American traveler of a certain class who fawned over the titled and highborn. However, he did admit: “We are all like—on the inside ... we dearly like to be noticed by a duke.... When a returned American is playing the earls he has met I can look on silent and unexcited and never offer to call his hand, although I have three kings and a pair of emperors up my sleeve.” (Camfield, p. 376.) These crowned heads do more than just pump up an awestruck American Grand Tourist: Twain’s travels in the courts, palaces, and lavish country houses of Europe must have provided grist for his mill and found their way into the pages of The Prince and the Pauper.

  Ultimately, of course, the plot and the action of the novel spring from Twain’s own fabulous imagination. It is apparent in every line of the book how much he enjoyed writing it, and in later years he would rank it alongside Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer—even if others would not. Perhaps the praise Twain valued most highly came from his favorite daughter, Susie. She said, emphatically, that The Prince and the Pauper was “Unquestionably the best book he has ever written.”

  Robert Tine is the author of six novels, including State of Grace and Black Market. He has written for a variety of periodicals and magazines—from the New York Times to Newsweek. He was educated at various schools in six countries (the Bahamas, Wales, South Africa, Swaziland, and Argentina) and at Columbia University in New York. He lives in New York City.




  this book


  THE quality of mercy ...

  is twice bless’d;

  It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes;

  ’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

  The thronéd monarch better than his crown.

  Merchant of Venice


  I will set down a tale as it was told to me by one who had it of his father, which latter had it of his father, this last having in like manner had it of his father—and so on, back and still back, three hundred years and more, the fathers transmitting it to the sons and so preserving it. It may be history, it may be only legend, a tradition. It may have happened, it may not have happened: but it could have happened. It may be that the wise and the learned believed it in the old days; it may be that only the unlearned and the simple loved it and credited it.

  HUGH LATIMER, Bishop of Worcester, to LORD CROMWELL, on the birth of the PRINCE OF WALES (afterward EDWARD VI.)


  HUGH LATIMER, Bishop of Worcester, to LORD CROMWELL, on the birth of the PRINCE OF WALES (afterward EDWARD VI.)


  Ryght honorable, Salutem in Christo Jesu, and Syr here ys no lesse joynge and rejossynge in thes partees for the byrth of our prynce, hoom we hungurde for so longe, then ther was (I trow), inter vicinos att the byrth of S. I. Baptyste, as thys berer, Master Erance, can telle you. Gode gyffe us alle grace, to yelde dew thankes to our Lorde Gode, Gode of Inglonde, for verely He hathe shoyd Hym selff Gode of Inglonde, or rather an Inglyssh Gode, yf we consydyr and pondyr welle alle Hys procedynges with us from tyme to tyme. He hath overcumme alle our yllnesse with Hys excedynge goodnesse, so that we are now moor then compellyd to serve Hym, seke Hys glory, promott Hys wurde, yf the Devylle of alle Devylles be natt in us. We have now the stooppe of vayne trustes ande they stey of vayne expectations; lett us alle pray for hys preservatione. And I for my partt wylle wyssh that hys Grace allways have, and evyn now from the begynynge, Governares, Instructores and offyceres of ryght jugmente, ne optimum ingenium non optimâ educatione depravetur.