This is not my first time to the Mark Twain rodeo, but it has been a long time since I last visited. Twain is not high on my list of priorities, sorry to say. However, this lovely edition of The Prince and the Pauper found its way into my possession, so I decided to challenge those priorities. While I don’t think I will be rushing to devour the rest of Twain’s oeuvre just yet, this book has certainly given me a more mature appreciation of Twain as a writer. After all, the last time I encountered Twain, I was a child or adolescent, with corresponding tastes. (No, I don’t know why I used a cowboy metaphor with a New England author. I’m wild and unpredictable!)
Whenever I think of Mark Twain, particularly of Tom Sawyer or The Prince and the Pauper, I think of the 1990s PBS series Wishbone. I grew up with Wishbone, and it was right up there with Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus as a formative television show that I loved beyond all reason. I mean, it’s about a talking dog that re-enacts great works of literature in a way young people can understand and enjoy. How amazingly awesome is that? Consequently, my first—and usually most memorable—exposure to many classics came as a Wishbone adventure. When I think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, I don’t picture any of the innumerable human Sherlock Holmes actors; I see Wishbone dressed in a deerstalker.
So everything I remembered about The Prince and the Pauper came from dim recollections of its Wishbone episode (“The Prince and the Pooch”). This disposed me favourably the book in general, but it also left me quite surprised. I did not expect a book like this to have endnotes or to be so meticulous in its research. Twain is cites works of English history and law by people like Hume and Dr. J. Hammond Trumbull! It is much more like a work of historical fiction I would expect to see today, complete with author’s note and caveats about the liberties the author has taken. Billed by Twain as “A Tale for Young People of All Ages”, this book has plenty of historical details for an adult reader as well. The story itself, in terms of structure and conflict, is simple, but the world Twain creates is rich and complex.
Aside from the milieu, the best part of this book is clearly the two titular characters, Tom Canty the pauper and Prince Edward (later King Edward VI). We sympathize with both of these boys when they are thrust out of their element by Edward’s rash decision to exchange clothing with Tom. We are supposed to, and I did, find it hilarious that Tom, after a hard life in Offal Court with an abusive father and grandmother, finds court life dull and vexing. Similarly, Edward is a good lad, but initially he suspects that Tom planned to impersonate him on purpose, and he spends a good deal of the first part of the book railing against his usurper. In general, Edward’s insistence upon his true identity is a source of endless amusement to the people around him. Meanwhile, Tom has no choice but to accept his identity as a slightly-addled Edward and cope as best he can until the true Edward turns up again.
We all dream of being princes and astronauts and dragon-slayers when we are kids, but Twain adds a dose of reality to Tom’s sudden fortune. Being a prince is hard work! And as someone accustomed to the freedom of one’s own agency, the obligations of royalty—both in terms of how he must act and how he must let others act for him—weigh heavily on Tom. We like the idea of having servants and sumptuous clothing and administering justice, but we also tend to like feeding ourselves, scratching our own noses, and not having a nosy Lord Protector trying to run the country for us. Conversely, Edward is quite used to being assisted—he is a capable and intelligent child in his own right, but he is not quite the independent person that Tom was on his way to becoming. Indeed, notice how the narrator follows Tom’s perspective very closely during his chapters, only occasionally delving into the thoughts of Lord Somerset or others. In contrast, most of Edward’s experiences come to us via Miles Hendon, once he and Edward meet and, later, when they reunite. Hendon gives us that perspective of Edward as a troubled, mentally ill child, whom he is nevertheless going to shepherd because, hey, he’s a nice guy.
I also get a very Shakespearean vibe from The Prince and the Pauper. We have mistaken identities, a displaced king/pretender to the throne, reversals of fortunes, etc. Twain employs his own take on colloquial Early Modern English that you will find either endearing or distracting (or perhaps both) depending on your tolerance for such accented dialogue. The language in general, both of the characters and of the narrator, has that dramatic, Shakespearean flair. A random example: “Whithersoever Tom turned his happy young face, the people recognized the exactness of his effigy’s likeness to himself, the flesh and blood counterpart, and new whirlwinds of applause burst forth.” Notice how much action there is in this sentence and how violent it is: people aren’t just clapping; there are whirlwinds of their applause, and it bursts onto the scene. I imagine that some of the vocabulary, not to mention the archaic style of the dialogue, might be daunting for a younger reader, but Twain's style in general lends itself well to avoiding boredom. I think this is one of those books that would make great bedtime reading between a parent and a child, because the parent can explain or decipher the parts that are difficult for a child to follow.
I suppose writing historical fiction for a younger audience must be quite difficult. (My recent experience with The Stolen One corroborates this.) There is a tension between striving for the accuracy that makes one’s fiction “historical” rather than merely fantastical or speculative and striving to retain the reader’s comprehension. I love fiction set in Tudor England, but I also know quite a bit about how Tudor England differs from the present day, so I am very used to reading stories set in Tudor England. For a young reader, new to this period, I imagine this can be difficult. The Mark Twain rodeo offers a very nice compromise between accuracy and comprehensibility, one that both adults and children can enjoy.