Friday, July 14, 2017

Book Review: Avalon

Happy Bastille Day to all who celebrate it...

Title: Avalon

Author: Anya Seton

Date: 1965

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

ISBN: none

Length: 440 pages

Quote: “I had one of my dreams about you, Merewyn...You were far, far away in a place of dark high mountains and ice. There was a man--”

Readers' Digest used to brag that authors themselves couldn't spot where they'd made the cuts in novels they “condensed.”

Avalon was one novel where the cuts are easy to spot...and ruinous. I read the RD Condensed Book version and wondered how it was possible for Ernest Thompson-Seton to have a daughter who wrote such dreary fiction. Following the usual “condensing” policy of cutting out the descriptions and reflections, by the 1970s when it was fairly well accepted that other Europeans had come to North America before Columbus, I first read Avalon as a sappier than usual romance where the couple neither get together nor get over each other. Apparently the RD editor wanted to read them as Star-Crossed Lovers.

Adult historical perspective helps so much. In 1965, Anya Seton was presenting new historical information in the form of a novel about two hypothetical Europeans who might have come to North America before Columbus. Having one of those characters be a woman was important to her readership. Having the characters know each other as friends allowed Seton to get them to North America on different ships, from different countries. Having the woman marry another man allowed Seton to get the woman out of her parents' home or a convent. The purpose of Avalon is to imagine what it was like for those hypothetical Europeans to discover a new continent, and to do that, although we need a clear mental image of the countries they were willing to leave behind when they set sail, we also need the bits about their spirituality, the mutual attraction that might have become an unhappy marriage but is content to be a lifelong friendship, their relationships with other people...There are imperfections in Seton's narrative style, turns of phrase that are neither polished nor colloquial and should have been changed, but if you're the kind of reader who just wants to know who killed and/or bedded whom, Avalon is not for you. It reads much better at Seton's pace than at the RD pace.

The story does begin with a boy meeting a girl. Both of them are innocent children at the time. The boy is Romieux de Provence, a minor prince who doesn't want to spend his life fighting for status and has been advised, in that case, to live in a more peaceful, rural country, such as England. The girl is Merewyn, whose PTSD poster girl of a mother was married to an alleged descendant of King Arthur but was also raped by a Viking. Two of the first things the French prince learns when he arrives in Cornwall, before he reaches England, are (1) that people don't want to pronounce his real name and prefer to confuse him with an obscure Cornish Saint Rumon, and (2) that although Merewyn has been brought up as an adoptive heir to the Cornish legends of King Arthur, her hair is dark auburn because she's really the daughter of Ketil Redbeard, a Viking chief.

In England, King Edgar wants to show respect and make peace with the Celts, so he accepts Merewyn as an orphaned princess. The boy who has by now accepted “Rumon” as his name is in fictional-fact Edgar's first cousin once removed, so he's welcome in Edgar's court too. Archbishop Dunstan and King Edgar wouldn't mind bringing them up as part of the family, but then there's Queen Alfrida, the nastiest character in the book. To the facts about her,which aren't nice, Seton seems to have added a fair bit of Clytemnestra and a smidgen of Jezebel. The two hapless teenagers aren't allowed to grow up in peace as wards of the King.

This allows Rumon to travel with one of the Irish expeditions that may or may not ever have reached North America, Merewyn to travel with Erik the Red, and her son to travel with Leif Erikson.

When the convent to which Merewyn has been sent is raided by Vikings, Merewyn really strikes it lucky; Ketil Redbeard is still a sufficiently powerful chief that the Norse people accept Merewyn as an heiress, and she marries well, “falls in love,” and has children—and still gets to travel to impossible, legendary places, as Rumon does, though not at the same time he does.

What some readers will love, and others will find disgusting, are the historical sidelines and subplots. The wackiest details are accepted historical facts; the Saxon kings and queens could be as bizarre as the Plantagenets or the Tudors. At this period in history, when one of the little princes whines “He p-p-painted my new horse green!”, it's not even surprising that he's talking about a living animal. The royal family live like some sort of “Lifestyles of the Poor and Ignorant” parody that makes Al Capp's Dogpatch seem posh, and people who really are poor and ignorant live, as Seton shows a few of them doing, more like degenerate apes than like even degenerate humans...and in real life they probably did.

Seton also seems to have taken an interest in the way the psychological conditions of interest in her own time were seen in medieval culture; in addition to Merewyn's mother's post-traumatic stress disorder there's an anorexic, an assortment of homosexuals, a few religious maniacs, and various kinds and degrees of learning and speech disorders. Seton does not, however, really dig into the question every beginning student of medieval European history always asks, about the incidence of sociopathic and/or megalomaniac conditions among feudal royal families.

She's also interested in the psychology of her main characters. Rumon seems to grow into his obscure Celtic nickname; he's Highly Sensory-Perceptive, mystical, an individualist, and he likes travelling and exploring; he thinks he wants children but he doesn't seem to want the burdens of fatherhood; he belongs in Ireland—he'd still have been “a rum'un” in the slang of a much later England. Merewyn is practical, levelheaded, intelligent but hardly an intellectual, religious but not mystical; she wants a home and a family; once she outgrows hating the whole north of Europe, she enjoys being a Norsewoman—she'd be merely and merrily “a winner” in a much later North America. They have enough in common that at times, different times for him than for her, they think they're “in love” and want to marry each other, and they do care deeply about each other. Each of them finds Romantic Love, separately. In the full-length book Seton has time to convince the reader that that's the way some couples are. In real life some of them do live long enough to reach an age where they can be happy together, but the ones who marry young regret it.

Seton's audience, mostly female, restless students and bored housewives, were presumed to want (“need”) a story about Merewyn's self-development. Feudal England gave Seton a fertile soil in which to cultivate her fictional character. As a grieving fourteen-year-old, Merewyn has a sort of brittle, callow self-esteem built on the charitable fiction that she's the daughter of a long-dead man called Uther, thought to be descended from King Arthur—not at all like the hateful barbarian “Northmen.”As a young woman she has a possible if rare opportunity to be reconciled with her real father. Toward the end of her life, when she returns to England, she has a chance to choose whether to try to sustain a false social position based on a false genealogy, or take her chances at a respectable, slightly lower, level of feudal society based on her real identity. (Does mentioning this aspect of the story spoil the plot? Shouldn't; no points for guessing which choice she'll make, but I've said nothing about her adventures.) Seton's audience apparently responded as expected to the story of Merewyn's search for real self-esteem. Avalon sold well.

And it still apparently does. This book has remained in print more than twenty-five years longer than its author remained alive, which means it's more than a mere "great romance," as one web site calls it. (A lot of enthusiastic readers haven't fully understood the book; even the Wikipedia article about it, as of July 12, 2017, misidentified the fictional Prince Rumon or Romieux with the legendary, but real, Saint Rumon. There may have been a real Romieux de Provence--online genealogy sites aren't sure--but nothing solid is known about him. Seton makes it clear that her Prince Rumon was so nicknamed in honor of the saint, who had lived and died long ago.) It's not Real History, and it's not a Real Classic of English Literature, but it's a substantial enough novel that a "notes" version has been marketed to students! 

Multiple editions with different jackets are available; if you buy it here, since it's no longer a Fair Trade Book, you'll need to specify a hardcover edition if you insist on one. Currently either hardcover or paperback editions can be purchased here for $5 per book, $5 per package (four paperbacks of this size, or at least two hardcover copies, should fit into a package), plus $1 per online payment. (That is, if sending a U.S. postal money order to Boxholder, P.O. Box 322, Gate City, Virginia, 24251-0322, you'd make it out for $10 and pay the surcharge directly to the post office; if sending a Paypal payment to the address you get by e-mailing salolianigodagewi @ yahoo, you'd send $11 since Paypal collects its surcharge from the payee.) Feel free to add either more of Seton's well researched, substantial novels with a romantic tingle about them, or other books that might include Fair Trade Books by living authors, to the package.