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Clothes maketh the boy...
on 19 July 2013
When poor Tom Canty realises his cherished ambition to meet a real Prince, both are astonished to find they are identical. Swapping clothes for a joke, the young Prince is mistaken for the pauper Tom and ejected from the palace. Meantime, Tom tries to tell the palace people about the mistake, but they think he's gone mad and won't believe him. Prince Edward's loving father (!), Henry VIII, orders Tom to act the Prince until his madness recedes and, as a loyal subject, Tom must obey. So begins a series of adventures for both boys as they learn about each other's lives.
Once I had recovered from the shock of seeing Henry and his children all getting along like The Waltons on a good day (except that awful Bloody Mary, of course - Boo! Hiss!), I enjoyed this fable. A mixture of 'clothes maketh the man' and 'the grass is always greener', Twain uses his set-up to show the social divisions and injustices of Tudor society. Tom finds the affairs of state and trappings of ceremony weigh heavily on him, and sometimes wishes for the freedom of his old life. Edward meantime learns how the poor sink into criminality and vice and sees the cruelty of the punishments they are subjected to. Tom's story is fairly light-hearted, but Edward has to face some dark and dangerous moments in this world that is so different from anything he has known before.
Given the fairy-tale nature of the book, Twain manages to get in a lot of real history, though warped where necessary to meet his purposes, and paints what feels like a fairly accurate picture of life at the time, especially for the poor. He occasionally goes over the top in his descriptions of court ceremony but this is for deliberate comic effect - one gets the distinct feeling that Twain may not have been a huge fan of monarchy! He avoids mawkishness by not letting either boy be too perfect. Edward remains arrogant throughout - though he sees how unjust life is for some of his future subjects and resolves to do better by them, he also promises vicious revenge on those who have hurt him along the way. Tom, on the other hand, fairly soon begins to enjoy life as a pampered and cosseted Prince and for a while forgets his poor mother and sisters and what they may be suffering.
The quality of the writing is, of course, excellent and Twain handles his version of Ye Olde English language smoothly and effectively. While Twain is making some serious points, there are plenty of adventures along the way to keep the reader entertained and to avoid the book feeling preachy. Overall, a very enjoyable read and as an added bonus I've been left with an image I will treasure and continue to chuckle over, of Henry as the loving family man.