Keith Roberts: Pavane

November 14, 2020

     Here’s one I’ve liked for a long time, and just re-read. I hesitate to call it a novel, as it’s really a series of loosely-connected short stories, set in an alternative time-frame, which was what originally attracted me to it some forty years ago. Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Spanish Armada was successful, the Protestant Reformation in England was undone, following which it was seriously curbed throughout Europe and the hegemony of Rome was re-established. Strict control is maintained over all aspects of science and technology, which means that late twentieth-century England, when the tales are set, is a very different place, without the internal combustion engine and electricity… But trouble is building up, the natives are dissatisfied.

Keith Roberts creates an incredibly detailed alternative vision, which convinces the reader through that detail. Within his picture of a strange England, he embeds a series of vignettes of different individuals and their lives in this unfamiliar world. There’s the driver of a steam-powered road-train, beset by highwaymen; a trainee semaphore signaller; a monk who is an artist and illustrator, so traumatised by images of the Inquisition at work that he’s ordered to make, that he has a breakdown and leads an initial, failed rebellion against the Church. We return to the family of the road-train driver and see how much more repressive the Church has become; the links between the stories and characters are fairly tenuous over time, though unified by their common location in the West Country. Things come to a head in the character of the heiress to a fortified castle, who heads what develops into a national revolt against Rome in a final powerful story.

What is so fascinating and gripping – to this reader at least – about such tales, set in times and places that can never be? I suppose they appeal to the thinker in me, who realises that our choices and decisions at every level do shape the future. In my own lifetime, for instance, I might reflect on what the world would be like had the Soviet Union not collapsed and disappeared… And so, we ought to be thinking seriously about the things we do, and their effect on the future, much more than the vague questions and largely irrelevant choices that we are offered in ‘democratic’ elections every few years. Why do most of us express great concern about climate emergency, while we continue consuming vast quantities of energy and consumer goods? Just asking…

4 Responses to “Keith Roberts: Pavane”

  1. erikleo Says:

    I remember reading this one too. As for apocalyptic stories I’d like to see your crit of Blindness by Jose Saramago. In my opinion it builds up a very successful atmosphere of existential menace. I suppose it could be classed as dystopian – not science fiction.


    • litgaz Says:

      I thought I’d written about Blindness, but it turns out not; I read it 10 years ago, at the time when I wasn’t very organised about blogging… It’s possible the darkest novel I’ve read. An all too credible vision of what might happen when all self-restraint is removed. I remember thinking at the time that I might not be able to face re-reading it, but it sits on the shelf, lurking. Saramago is weird, and underrated.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. erikleo Says:

    Yes, and maybe more relevant in our Covid-times?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] at least, is more of a collection of stories linked to a common theme, rather like Keith Roberts’ Pavane. Is it an allegory about religion, unquestioning belief, blind worship and blind obedience? The […]


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