By Ryan Fleming
There are a number of ideas that are recurrent in alternate history. The two most recurring being the victories of the Confederate States of America and Nazi Germany emerging victorious from the American Civil War and the Second World War, respectively.
Below these two there are several others that crop up; the United Kingdom suppressing the American Revolution, the Cold War leading to conflict between the United States and Soviet Union, and the suppression of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. It is to this last that the subject of our current review belongs. There is also a trend in alternate history fiction for ‘established’ authors to dip their toe into the genre. Comic chieftain Stephen Fry, espionage empresario Len Deighton, and horror honcho Stephen King are all authors who have dabbled in counterfactuals. One of the least expected authors to produce a work of alternate history though has to be novelist, poet, essayist and critic Kingsley Amis – a man commonly ranked as one of the best British writers in the second half of the twentieth century. In the late 1970s he did just that, writing The Alteration, a look at a world where Arthur Tudor had a son that ascended to the English throne instead of Henry VIII and as a result Catholicism still holds sway across all of Europe by the twentieth century. It concerns a young chorister that faces the prospect of castration to preserve his wonderful voice and is peppered with references to figures from across Europe both historical and contemporary to publication in the alternate world. There is a lot of Amis in the work, for good and for ill. The book stands out as an interesting piece of alternate history by a great author, but does it hold up to a close examination?
The alternate history aspect is one examined by various authors before and since: the developments of the Tudor era in England are avoided and the Catholic Church remains preeminent in Britain. Does the presentation of such a world by Amis hold up to an examination of plausibility?
Instead of the usual routes to end the Tudor reign involving the Spanish Armada or the assassination of Elizabeth I instead the marriage of Arthur Tudor and Catherine of Aragon produces a son, Stephen II. When later his uncle Henry (historically Henry VIII) tries to oust the young King a War of English Succession is launched as a papal crusade, cementing the influence of the Church in England. This is only half the divergence however, again Amis does not fall into the usual trap of Anglo-centrism. Elsewhere, Martin Luther reconciles himself with the Catholic Church and eventually becomes Pope, never publishing his Ninety-five Theses or being excommunicated. These two separate divergences from our own history lead to complete Catholic domination over Europe and most of the Americas, who by the twentieth century are engaged in a Cold War with an Islamic caliphate to the east.
There is a lot that happened in the four centuries between the divergence and the setting of the novel to which we are not privy, but it might seem a bit of a stretch that without Henry VIII's libido and Martin Luther’s intransigence the desire for reform would be lost. There were many theologians and schools of thought that predate both and might be considered some pro-Protestantism, and indeed Amis includes reference to several of them as being honoured in the breakaway Protestant state of the Republic of New England. It is likely that Amis intended to imply all these schismatic persuasions were effectively exiled to the New World. The fact that Scotland and Ireland are completely annexed to England and Germany is unified might go against the divide-and-rule tactics that had ruled up until then. We have reference to a Europe of nation states rather than a jigsaw puzzle of minor kingdoms and principalities and duchies we perhaps would be more likely to see under the auspices of Rome.
Whilst the novel has some interesting points of divergence, the world it creates is perhaps not entirely plausible. This could be forgiven if the plot stands up to scrutiny, after all alternate history works just as well as a setting as it does a genre.
The broadest of strokes in the alternate historical setting can be applied when they are appended to a thrilling plot. These settings lend themselves well to tales that take the characters away from home to visit locations and people they would not have otherwise, and The Alteration is no exception.
The impetus of the plot is the decision by church authorities that the voice of chorister Hubert Anvil is too great to be sacrificed to puberty, and that he is to be castrated as a result. Naturally, young Hubert has some reservations about the alteration of the title and going against all his religious teachings he tries to make his escape to the residence of the Ambassador of the Republic of New England in London. After many twists and turns he finally makes it aboard an airship heading for the New World, where he is felled by groin pains that turn out to be a twisted testicle as diagnosed by the ship’s doctor. He is taken off the ship to the nearest hospital where to save his life he undergoes the alteration anyway, all the efforts of he and his friends and the people he has met along the way have been for naught. It can be taken in several ways – pessimism; divine intervention; cop-out. I lean towards cop-out; it reduces the events of the novel to no consequence. Hubert winds up in exactly the situation he would be in if he had never bothered resisting.
The rest of the novels characters are defined by their reactions to the plans for Hubert’s castration. The teacher of Hubert’s school, who seems more upset at the fact Hubert will focus his efforts on singing rather than composition rather than his student being mutilated. His three dorm mates, defined by their levels of cynicism towards the Church, particularly Decuman who assists Hubert. His family, father Tobias, mother Margaret, and older brother Anthony. The latter also assists Hubert in his escape. A major subplot involves an adulterous romance between Hubert’s mother and the family priest (this being a thing in this world – a combination head butler, tutor, and political commissar); that leads to the disturbing equivalent of vigilante justice in this version of Europe.
The Alteration overall has an interesting plot and a couple of distinct subplots that hold the interest throughout but is let down by an odd twist in the main plot that comes out of nowhere and left this reader wondering why it was chosen as the ending.
With an alternate history that struggles to meet up to any close examination, and a plot that is let down by a final twist, The Alteration may not hold up to interest beyond the turning of the final page. However, the depth of worldbuilding that Amis has committed serves as rich veins throughout the story that, while overthinking can bring down the plot and foundations of the world, serve as fruit to maintain our interest.
So many Easter eggs are hidden throughout the work that they serve as a source of enjoyment in themselves. These are no substitute for plot or characters, but even a basic cake can be elevated by some intricate icing. These range from the early mention of a mosaic by David Hockney in a cathedral, through to Heinrich Himmler and Lavrentiy Beria appearing as Monsignors amongst various dignitaries, to the various eponymous places in the Republic of New England named after historical religious reformers and Protestant tendencies, to Hubert’s bookshelf filled with alternate equivalents of Gulliver’s Travels, Wind in the Willows, James Bond, and Lord of the Rings. A particularly obscure example comes from two castrati introduced early on whose Latin names can be translated to the names of two popular German opera singers; who give one of the most disturbing scenes in the book where they plead with Hubert’s father not to put the boy through the same mutilation they were. Like a lot of alternate history works these being peppered throughout gives an extra layer of verisimilitude to the fictional world in a relatable way.
The world is also given colour through its building as an increasingly disturbing dystopia the more we find out about it. An undercurrent throughout involves the Machiavellian machinations of this worlds Pope, the sinister Yorkshireman John XXIV, in an effort to control Europe’s population growth through various dubious means. Rather than making efforts to lift the prohibition on contraception focus is put on involuntary chemical sterilisation and the apparently more desirable massive war with the Muslim Caliphate to the east where the surplus population could become cannon fodder. This sinister undercurrent unfortunately unravelled when in one of the closing chapters we have a scene away from the main plot that is the Papal equivalent of the villainous conference scene we get in various Bond films. Having it all spelled out before us takes away some of the ill-feeling that comes with not actually knowing just what the limits are on this dystopian system.
In short, the rich world built by Amis is one of the major aspects in favour of the novel, providing an additional layer to the alternate history and plot of the novel. This is not without its flaws, many of which come from Amis himself who puts a lot of himself into the novel for good and ill.
The novel was written at a particular time for Amis when the once leading angry young man was passing even from middle age. A lot of his evolving views on sexuality, religion, and politics shine throughout the novel. Some of these are readily apparent, others can be misinterpreted, while others still come across as being something shoe-horned in to get his own views across.
The inception of the novel might be traced to Amis hearing a recording of the last known European castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, and believing that in no way could this be considered art. Amis believed art came form a celebration of human sexuality, that the mutilation required in Moreschi’s case had removed. The extent to which this world under the sway of the Catholic Church is portrayed as a dystopia may lead to some accusations of anti-Catholicism on the part of Amis. However, considering the late revelation that the safe haven Hubert seeks in New England has strict Apartheid-esque policies against the aboriginal people of the continent it can perhaps be quantified better as an anti-religious bent by Amis. Summed up in a separate interview when asked if he was an atheist Amis responded, “It’s more that I hate Him.”
Unmistakable though are the various caricatures of contemporary left-wing figures that litter the novel shown in positions of power within the Catholic hierarchy. Chief amongst them is Pope John XXIV, a very thinly-veiled portrayal of Harold Wilson. He is assisted in Rome by contemporary Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer, and in England the Holy Office is overseen by Tony Benn. Beyond the aforementioned appearance of Himmler, we get no equivalent from the right in spite of many figures fitting in as well with this world as the left-wing ones Amis chose. This is perhaps evidence of a rightward swing in Amis views during the events of the 1970s; one that can come across simultaneously amusing and uncomfortable depending on who is portrayed and in what capacity.
With so much of Amis in the novel it can be hit or miss depending on just how he gets his views across. His revulsion at the process of castration and general aversion to religion fit well with the world portrayed, where as his antagonism to contemporary left-wing strands in Europe at the time can feel a bit odd at best.
The Alteration represents a seemingly forgotten strand of alternate history novel from the 1960s and 1970s from one of the UKs most prominent post-war authors. Curiously though plot and character, whilst not terrible by any means, are not the strongest aspects of Amis’s foray into alternate history. The depth and richness of the world he created, peppered with references to historical events and personalities that give a touchstone to our own history, make up for the laxities in plot and theme that reveal themselves towards the end of the novel. These drawbacks include the attempt at showing cosmological Sod’s law that comes across as a cop-out on behalf of the author; as well as a single chapter that lays all the subtexts of the novel on the table explained in such a way that makes it appear as though Amis did not think readers would get it without him explaining in full. Amis inserting his own views into the novel comes across as much more subtly but unfortunately comes across so forced it can vary your enjoyment of the novel depending on how far you agree with him. Overall it is an alternate history novel that is well worth reading at least once but also one you are unlikely to want to return to for a long time.