Hataway crafts a biography of Thomas Becket from his childhood to his murder in Canterbury Cathedral, narrated by the Beckets’ manservant, Egbert Watson.
Egbert Watson begins this yarn by detailing the life of a servant in a burgher household in 12th- century England. The Normans have conquered and subjugated the Saxons, as exemplified by the Becket and Wat households, but there is already evidence of a new identity emerging: the Englishman. Here, Hataway’s characterization and dialogue falter a bit. Children are given an improbable prescience about the state of society, and both masters and servants deliver expository soliloquys instead of believable exchanges. “My family are business people or people who serve in the government. His mother’s people are farmers,” Gilbert Becket says of his son Thomas. It’s clear that Hataway’s primary goal is to educate readers about medieval England, and the details he selects for this purpose are intriguing even if they sometimes come at the expense of pacing. As Becket matures, beginning his career as a law student and moving on to become England’s chancellor and, finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Hataway’s portraiture gains depth. Egbert remains largely sympathetic, but Becket becomes in turns flamboyant, autocratic and pious, sometimes alienating readers with his terse, coldhearted remarks. Different social mores of the times notwithstanding, his friendship with Henry II becomes significantly homoerotic, until Becket’s investiture as archbishop drives the two apart. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Hataway’s novel is Becket’s eventual turn from being an intellectual into being an intransigent, single-minded lion in winter. Notably, this book, published posthumously, was clearly not Hataway’s final draft. The grammar, repetitions of words and shifts in character detail can be somewhat jarring in places. For instance, Egbert, who is mostly personified as a devout Catholic, at one point mentions a love for the Old Saxon gods rather than the church. For a biography with such insight, a more polished edition would be welcome.
A largely successful portrait of an intriguing, complicated historical figure.