The Prince and the Pauper (by Mark Twain)

The American author Mark Twain is best known for his books for boys, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’. Written and set in the late 1800s, they are both considered children’s classics. He also wrote a historical fiction novel set in the UK, which I downloaded for my Kindle free from Project Gutenberg. I don’t recall having read ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ before, although I was aware of the overall storyline when I decided to read it recently, while travelling. Perhaps I have seen one of the many film or TV adaptations.

The book is about two boys who were born around the same time. It’s set at the start of 1547. The prince of the story is Henry VIII’s son Edward, and the (fictional) pauper, who looks remarkably like Prince Edward, is called Tom Canty. Tom lives with an alcoholic and sometimes violent father, a harassed mother, and two sisters. He’s often neglected, and always hungry. But he is extremely bright and has a tremendous imagination, and sometimes he dreams about being a prince…

One day Tom looks through the palace gates and sees Edward. The guards are about to throw Tom out when Edward spots him, and invites him in. They are both startled by their resemblance, and decide to swap clothes for a few minutes… which leads to the real prince being thrown out of the palace, and Tom being treated as if he were the prince.

His protests are thought to be signs of ‘madness’, and eventually he has to go along with everything that’s happening. There are fascinating insights into what it would have been like being the crown prince in the 16th century; Twain apparently did a great deal of research, and whether or not everything is accurate, it comes across as believable and realistic.

Poor Edward, meanwhile, finds himself treated as a beggar or worse, abused by Tom’s family when he finds them. Nobody believes he’s the prince, and he, too, is treated as if he were deluded as he tries to cope with life as far removed as possible from what he was used to.

The date of the book’s setting is important, as it was shortly before Edward’s father, Henry VIII, died after a short illness. Henry was not a popular king, being responsible for some very harsh laws and the destruction of many Catholic monasteries. Thus - in the book - Edward, while still in the guise of Tom, is in fact the new king, while Tom, still assumed to be Edward, is prepared for his coronation.

The whole book, which is fairly long, takes place over just a few weeks, contrasting the two boys in their new lifestyles. Edward spends his time trying to get back to the palace to resume his duties, and Tom has given up protesting although he learns that being a crown prince isn’t as easy a life as he thought. He has plenty to eat and no beatings, but is restricted on all sides, unable to go anywhere by himself.

Both boys are just nine years old through the book, although many of Edward’s adventures make him seem considerably older. It was written for children, but there are still some quite harrowing incidents, albeit without too much gory detail. I found some of it disturbing, particularly knowing that it was based on historic reality. I liked the way that Edward, as Tom, realises the injustice of many of the laws of the time, and that Tom, in Edward’s role, is able to reverse some of Henry’s decisions. Apparently Edward VI was a fairly peaceable and benign monarch in his all-too-short reign, and in the book’s final chapters, this is explained by his foray into the world of paupers.

Much of the writing is long-winded, and I found myself skimming some of the descriptive passages. But overall I thought it a well-written and interesting book, with an intriguing storyline which was cleverly executed. It’s a long book - and one version I downloaded had annoying gaps for section endings and pictures - but was fine for reading in odd moments while I was away.

Recommended, on the whole, to anyone interested in this kind of historical fiction based in this era. There are many adaptations, including some abridged variations. Links given should be to full print versions, but 'The Prince and the Pauper' is also freely available in electronic form.

There are also several TV and movie adaptations of this book.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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