Historiography in Mark Twain's 1601
Samuel Langhorne Clemens— better known as Mark Twain—, when he began studying the 16th-century history for writing The Prince and the Pauper (1881), he was immediately fascinated with the indelicacies in old English speech and court languages. That is why he decided to write 1601, to experiment with Elizabethan dialogue and to entertain his friend Joseph Twitchell1. In this essay, I am going to analyze the ways in which Mark Twain portrays the time in which his work, 1601, allegedly takes place; to do so, I will analyze his choice of language: why did Twain choose to write 1601 as an extract from the Diary of Samuel Pepys? or what is the line Twain can not cross when talking vulgar?; after that, I am going to move on to presenting the characters in the novel and to commenting on what do they tell us about the society of the time.
Written in 1876, 1601 was supposed to be read as an extract of the Diary of Samuel Pepys of that date as we are said on the introduction of this brief satirical piece of writing; but, why? According to Pepys in the History of Reading, by E. Jajdelska (2007), ‘the reader of a comedy expects wit and perhaps something out of the ordinary kind of language used’; and, this is one of Twain’s strategies when writing. He is copying the way Samel Pepys wrote his entries of the diary; according to Mark S. Dawson’s Refiguring the Diary of Pepys, the diary is described as a ‘textual analog’ and, Pepys used scpecific language to ‘represent’, tell’, ‘measure’, or ‘record’ time.
Like many others writers, Mark was captivated by Pepys’ style and spirit; Albert Bigelow Paine in his Mark Twain, A Biography says that he determined to try his hand on an imaginary record of conversation and court manners of a bygone day, written in the phrase of the period. The result was ‘Fireside Conversation in the Time of Queen Elizabeth’, or as he later called it, ‘1601’. The ‘conversation’ recorded by a supposed Pepys of that period, was written with all the outspoken coarseness and nakedness of that rank day, when fireside sociabilities were limited only to the loosened fancy, vocabulary, and physical performance, and not by any bounds of convention. It is very important to take into account that it was written as a letter to his friend Rev. Joseph Twichell; he was described as devout Christian, ‘with an exuberant sense of humor and a wide understanding of the frailties of humankind’2; however, Twain knew he ‘who had no special scruples concerning Shakespearian parlance and customs’3.
When reading this piece, one might consider how is it that Mark Twain was able to publish it using this kind language; especially, when the story deals with Queen Elizabeth I. And, the answer may be because in 1601, words such as ‘piss,’ ‘bollocks,’ ‘shit,’ or ‘fart’ were all considered Standard English; and, it was not until the nineteeth century that they were considered ‘dirty words.’ However, it is inconclusive if Mark Twain knew about the etymology of the words or not; because, as I said earlier, this text was written for Rev. Twichell’s and his own amusement. Another interesting fact, is that he tried to anonymously submit it to a magazine— which was interested in a modern-day Rabelais—, but it got rejected. Furthermore, although Clemens did not actually acknowledge it to the public until 1906, it did streak the marked in 1880; mostly because of Lt. Charles Erskine Scott Wood (1852-1944), who aletered spellings to get a greater sense of the language used in the 16th-century. He also set the text in antiquated type, and printed it on artificial aged linen to give it a legitimate appearance; and, since then, dozen of copies have been printed. However, it continued to be unprintable, and only circulated clandestnely, because it was more ‘ribaldry than pornography; its content was more in the nature of the irreverent and vulgar comedic shock than of ‘obscene’ erotica.’4 All together, Mark Twain presents us with a vivid illustration of his sensitivy to the language; the importance of language has been a major concern of Twain expetise from the author’s time to our own, notably his ‘innovative use of regional, racial, and class dialects.’4
Now, I am going to move on to talk about the characters that appear in the story; because it is very important to know who these people are to understand the time in which the satire takes place; and, because Mark Twain was very much interested in history and in the description of historical periods and characters. To begin with, there is the queen’s cupbearer— the narrator; this character was created from the author’s research for The Prince and the Pauper (1881), where a cupbearer is one of the ‘silk-and-velvet discomforters’ who embarass Tom Chanty (chapters 6-7). Plus, Mark Twain, many years after writing 1601, referred to him as a ‘stupid old nobleman.’
Next, there is Raleigh, Sir Walter, Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite; he explored the Americas during the Queen’s reign and was, later on, beheaded by King James I for insubortination. He is described by the cupbearer as a ‘bloody swashbuckler’ and a ‘damned windmill’; moreover, the narrator puts him as the queen’s former lover— as he was said to be rewarded by the Queen with a ‘large state in Ireland, monopolies, trade privileges, knighthood, and the right to colonize North America’5. An interesting fact about his personal life is that he betrayed the queen’s trust, when he married one of her maids-of-honor; and in the moment the queen discovered that, she flew into rage and imprisioned him in the Tower of London for two years.
Another character in the story is Sir Francis Bacon, ‘an English lawyer, statesman, essayist, historian, intellectual reformer, philosopher, and champion of modern sciene.’6 Which can not be explain without taking into account another character, Shakespeare— or Shaxpur in 1601.Twain was particularly atttracted to the Shakespeare-Bacon problem; he too, did not believe that Shakespeare had written those great plays, he asserted that there was ‘not a single proofe to show that Sakespeare had written one of them.’7 Twain refers to Shakespeare by mocking him; for example, when presenting the characters, Clemens leaves Shakespeare as an afterthought and presents him has ‘ye famous Shaxpur,’ (3) which is clearly a joke. Then, the cupbearer comments again on him with a metaphor: ‘A righte straunge mixing of mighty blode with meane, ye more in especial since ye queenes grace was present;’ mixing genders and language. Another way in which Clemens makes fun of Shakespeare is by using his language style and embelishing it: ‘ In the great hand of God I stand and so proclaim mine innocence.’
Now, let’s talk about ‘Ye Queene.’ Queen Elizabeth’s reaction and questions are interesting in that she sees the matter in terms of gender: ‘Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male.’ The Queen also uses a metaphor that links the fart to the act of writing, ‘yet ye belly it did lurk behinde should now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so vaste bulk, whereas ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring.’ Being almost all characters writers, her inquiry to find the ‘author’ of the fart is suitable, but also interesting when we think of the author of the account and his relationship to his writings and his profession.
To sum up, this satirical piece of writing is a clear example of Mark’s interest on depicting history. From his use of the language to his character choice, we are presented with an amazing text. Who would have thought we would be reading about ‘farts’ and ‘bollocks’ in a conversation with the Queen present; yet Mark Twain astonishes us again.
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