Read The Prince and the Pauper Online

Authors: Mark Twain

Tags: #Criticism, #Classics, #Literature: Classics, #Literature - Classics, #General, #Fiction, #Historical, #London (England), #Boys, #Princes, #Impostors and imposture, #Poor children, #King of England, #Edward, #VI, #1537-1553

The Prince and the Pauper (2 page)

BOOK: The Prince and the Pauper
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INTRODUCTION

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30,1835, in the tiny Missouri town of Florida. It was only some years later, when Sam was four, that the family moved to the town Sam Clemens as Mark Twain would one day make famous—Hannibal, Missouri. In the 1830s and ’40s Hannibal was not too far from being the very edge of American civilization—if it was not
the
frontier, it was very close to it. There was certainly nothing in this hardscrabble town on the banks of the Mississippi River that suggested it would one day produce one of the greatest American writers of all time. It is even stranger to think that a man from a rural Missouri town would one day write a novel detailing the grandeur and the squalor of Tudor England. Yet by the time Sam Clemens, from Hannibal, became Mark Twain, world-famous author and friend to the rich and powerful, he was more than ready to write such a novel. Not only that, he relished the writing of it and counted it among his finest works.

Mark Twain summarized the action of
The Prince and the Pauper
thusly:

It begins at 9am, January 27th, 1547, seventeen and a half hours before the death of Henry the Eighth and involves the swapping of clothes and places, between the prince of Wales and a pauper boy of the same age and countenance (and half as much learning and still more genius and imagination) and after that the rightful small king has a rough time among the tramps and ruffians in the country parts of Kent, while the small bogus king has a gilded and worshipped and dreary and restrained and cussed time of it on the throne ... (Twain, M.
The Prince and the Pauper,
introduction by V. Fischer, Berkeley, CA: The Mark Twain Project of the Bancroft Library, 1983, p. xv.)

That paragraph was written sometime in the middle to late 1870s, following the publication of
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
and during the writing of
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The plot sounds like vintage Twain: a story ripe with opportunities for humor, misunderstanding, high farce, and low cunning. But while
The Prince and the Pauper
certainly contains elements of those characteristics, Twain’s readers were to be surprised when the book was finally published.
The Prince and the Pauper
would, in many ways, be unlike any book Mark Twain had published to date.

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 daughters 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.

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