Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper is a wonderful children’s book, and I can’t imagine why I hadn’t read it as a child. I think most people know the rough outline of the story, although few, I think, have actually read it. It’s an archetypal role-reversal story, and has cropped up frequently in various forms: two people from sharply contrasting backgrounds change places, and, through the comic confusion, each brings elements of their familiar world into the new one. In this instance, Prince Edward VI exchanges identities with a pauper. The result is a fine story, full of adventure and humour; but it also contains more than a few hints, I think, of some of the more serious issues that find fuller expression in Huckleberry Finn and in Pudd’nhead Wilson.
Twain hated historical romances that glamorise the past. He states this quite clearly in Life on the Mississippi, where he was openly censorious of the concept of a glorious past that allows us to wallow in a fantasy, and which poisons the present. The Tudor England Twain presents is something of a hell-hole – rife with religious intolerance, superstition, the most soul-destroying poverty and the most barbaric cruelty. Early in the novel, he gives us an extremely colourful depiction of the bustle and the hubbub on London Bridge, but he ends this descriptive passage by reminding us of the severed heads impaled on spikes looking down on this delightful scene. (Later in the novel, back on London Bridge, one of these heads topples to the ground, and various people, much to their annoyance, stumble over it.) We are shown the horrors that were administered daily in courts as punishment, and the notes in my edition confirm that Twain wasn’t making these up: those found guilty of poisoning actually were boiled alive; there was a case in Huntingdon where a woman and her nine-year-old daughter were hanged for having sold their souls to the devil; and so on. We are taken into the hell-holes that were prisons, and even to a town square in which two women are burnt alive at the stake in full view of their screaming children. Not quite the kind of material one normally expects in a children’s story.
All this looks forward quite clearly to Huckleberry Finn, where, once again, we are shown the cruelty and brutality of a wicked society through the eyes of a teenager on the threshold of adulthood. But in the later novel, Twain addresses a further issue which is barely hinted at here: how do people react to these horrors when they have grown up with them – when they regard them as perfectly normal, and as part of their everyday lives? In Huckleberry Finn, Huck accepts the twisted moral standards of his society: these standards are all he has ever known, and he doesn’t question them. Even when, as a consequence of his innate goodness, he transcends this twisted morality, he believes it is he who is doing wrong: he never questions the morality of a slave-owning society. Twain does not really touch upon this issue here. When Tom Canty, as prince, hears of various barbaric punishments, he is shocked and outraged: but, given that this cruel society is the only one he would have known, it is very unlikely that Tom would have been so shocked. However, this is, when all’s said and done, a children’s novel in which the narrative takes precedence over psychological realism.
Twain refuses to romanticise. When he introduces the gang of outlaws, for instance, it would have been all too easy to have presented them as Robin Hood figures, but he doesn’t: they are vicious cut-throats, every bit as barbaric as the law from which they are on the run. And yet, even amongst all this, Twain presents pictures of individual human goodness. There’s Tom’s mother, self-sacrificing to the point of sainthood; there’s the magistrate who manages somehow to retain human compassion; there’s the poor woman who would rather lose what must, for her, be a fortune rather than press a case for theft which would result in a young lad being hanged. Such characters, when they appear, do not seem sentimental: Twain was pessimistic when viewing humanity en masse, but on an individual level, he believed very firmly, as Dickens did, in human goodness. He was to explore this paradox in greater depth in his later work. One remembers, for instance, the scene in Huckleberry Finn where Huck is given dinner by a poor woman, and we can guess that she goes hungry herself for the night in order to feed him; and yet, later in the scene, this same kind woman mentions approvingly that her husband had gone out to hunt down runaway slaves.
The theme of exchanged identities naturally raises that age-old issue of nature versus nurture. Twain returned to this in his last and most pessimistic novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson. There, a woman slave who could pass for white, is terrified that her newborn son (born to a white father) would end up being sold down the river, and secretly exchanges him with a baby boy born in the master’s family. And the boy that was born a slave grows up with all the arrogance and all the vices that come with a life of unthinking privilege, while the boy that was born master grows up servile, and frightened of the cruel world around him. The later novel is unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons, but nonetheless, I find it more fascinating than any number of works more perfectly conceived and executed. And I think many of the themes of Pudd’nhead Wilson are prefigured here: what makes Prince Edward act in so imperious a manner even when cast out into poverty? His royal genes, or his royal upbringing?
Looking back on what I’ve written so far, I think I have given the impression of this book being sombre and serious and heavy: it isn’t. Despite all the many serious issues Twain touches upon (and which he was to expand upon in his later work), The Prince and the Pauper remains a children’s adventure story. It moves at a brisk tempo, and has a marvellous narrative momentum. And the story itself is one that makes you turn the pages. Of course, we know that the prince will be restored once again to his rightful place, and that Tom will not return to being a pauper, but we still want to know how all this will come about. Twain gives us also a nicely plotted subplot, which owes something, I think, to The Count of Monte Cristo: a man, while imprisoned unjustly, is robbed of all he had, including the woman with whom he had been in love. This, I suppose, could have been a novel in itself, but here, it’s neatly and unobtrusively slotted into the whole.
Above all, there’s Twain’s narrative voice, which is never less than delightful. Even in a story such as this, he manages to inject some of his customary humour. The scenes where Tom sits in judgement owe something, I suppose, to the scenes in Don Quixote where Sancho becomes governor (another role reversal plot!) but it’s very funny all the same. And the scene between Tom and the “whipping boy” (the boy employed to take the beatings due to the prince as a prince of royal blood may not be struck, even by his tutors) had me laughing out loud. I also like the bit where, after an extended descriptive passage in present tense, Twain takes us back to the narrative with the simple line “Let us now change tense for convenience”. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the dialogue. Of course, we know how people of that age wrote, but can at best guess at how they spoke, so Twain has to create here a spoken language incorporating elements of written Tudor prose, but which is both fluent and credible as everyday speech. And he manages, furthermore, to vary the rhythms and the tone depending on the social status of the speaker. It is obvious from Huckleberry Finn that he had a superb ear for spoken dialogue of different types, and his achievement on this front in The Prince and the Pauper strikes me as equally remarkable.
Having read this novel, I am now keen to read that other children’s book he wrote but which I haven’t yet read – A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. If it’s anywhere near as good as this, I should be in for a treat.