I’m a sucker for a good long book when it comes to providing proper escapism. If the action in the story all takes place in a fashionable historical period, things are even more promising. ‘The Man on a Donkey’ is presented as a chronicle of events in England between 1509 and 1537. As fans of Hillary Mantel and Tudor history will know, this covers Henry VIII’s first marriages, the beginning of the Church of England and the dissolution of the English Monasteries and Nunneries.
At over 700 pages, Prescott’s 1952 novel sets out to do justice to the complexities of this time period. The story follows five main characters, a prioress, a lord, a gentlewoman, a squire and a priest. All of them will have their lives shattered by the Reformation, but their stories are nonetheless unexpected and surprising, convincingly debunking any stereotypical expectations you might have about Tudor behaviour or beliefs.
My favourite character is probably the Prioress, Christabel Cowper. A unsentimental business woman, we trace her life and success from first entering the Marrick Priory as a child to her seemingly inevitable rise up the hierarchy. In the twenty-first century she would have been the CEO of an international business; in this book she utterly dominates her sphere and is an argument both for and against the holy orders in pre-Reformation England. The argument for, is the power it gave at least a few women – legal power far in excess of any wife in the realm. As for the arguments against, well Chistabel is as secular a prioress as you could even imagine, far more concerned with increasing her Priory’s wealth than ever sharing any of it with the poor. Countering this woman within the Catholic establishment is the priest’s narrative. Gilbert Dawe is poor and, at heart, a revolutionary believer in the reformed church. He is also utterly mean-spirited, abusive towards his family (the woman who bore him a child and the poor child himself) and filled with bitter hatred toward anyone with wealth or power. The other central characters are equally well-drawn, complex and unexpected; I suspect each reader or reading will uncover a new personal favourite.
On a deeper level however, this epic is not really about these fictional or fictionalised characters at all, but about the world in which they live. This is an England ruled by a tyrant, in which the whims of those in power can destroy the lives of thousands. It is also a traumatised nation; the civil War of the Roses is within living memory for the older generation. Prescott makes a convincing case that this fear of renewed bloody conflict is what cows Henry’s opponents into supporting his increasingly destabilising policies. In today’s frightening political climate, ‘The Man on a Donkey’ is an unexpectedly timely reflection on power and fear.
In another way, this is also a book about faith. Prescott explores what it means for a religion which preaches peace to be at the heart of conflict. How can a single faith account for such different public faces as Christabel Cowper and Gilber Dawe? Possibly more significantly, how could Christianity in its essence have survived the schisms and violence of the Reformation? Her solution is spiritual, heart-felt and, whether or not you believe in her conclusion, extremely moving. ‘The Man on a Donkey’ delivers everything you could want from a doorstop of historical escapism and it is also the most sincere book of religious struggle I have read since Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead.’ Read it for the period, for the characters, for the politics or for the theology. Or read it because it has a beautiful cover and will keep you happy over hundreds of pages; either way, you won’t regret it.