Cadfael, Hugh Corbett & Matthew Shardlake: the Problem with being Religious

I’m a fan of historical fiction, especially murder mysteries. Both genres, especially the latter, are considered rather low-brow, but I thoroughly enjoy them. Now I’m no novelist, but I've read enough to know that a writer must present a hero in such a way that the reader is able to sympathise, if not identity with him. Three successful fictional characters are C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake, Paul Doherty’s Sir Hugh Corbett and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael.

Shardlake is a lawyer living in Tudor England. He solves murders while navigating the webs of deceit and danger spun at Henry VIII’s court. Corbett is a royal clerk in the days of Edward I and II (late 1200s-early 1300s). He too catches murderers, often while engaged on the king’s business. Cadfael is set earlier still, a Benedictine monk at the time of the Norman King Stephen. Sansom, Doherty and Peters are skilled novelists (Ellis, otherwise known as Edith Mary Pargeter, in fact died in 1995) who have mastered the genre. They combine their expert knowledge of their respective periods with the story-teller’s skill of describing the scenery and atmosphere, while including sufficient twists and plots to exercise the reader’s grey cells.

When writing, however, they all have a problem, especially if they agree with my assertion above that their heroes ought to be people with whom their readers can identify. All three characters inhabited deeply religious worlds; their contemporary British readers in a very unreligious world. Sansom gets around this by essentially secularising his character. Shardlake became a Protestant in his youth, but is now something of an agnostic at the time of the novels’ setting. Bingo! cries the reader, here’s one just like me.

Hugh Corbett is a devoted Roman Catholic, who lights candles at the Virgin’s statue, as one might expect from a character living three hundred years before the Reformation. He is, however, a man of real integrity, who doesn’t always admire the clergy around him. Ranulf-atte-Newgate, his side kick, shares Shardlake’s agnosticism. Is this Doherty’s means by which he can obtain the reader’s empathy?

Peters on the other hand cannot escape from the fact that her character was a monk. Although he’s the monastic herbalist at Shrewsbury Abbey, he’s a former soldier with rather liberal values and kindly attitudes. He is in contrast to Prior Robert and his protégé Brother Jerome, who represent the arrogant, unbending and judgemental religious stereotypes.

All three successful novelist are conceding, to some extent, that religious people are not always very likeable. Religious characters must be toned down or have non-religious friends in order to make them more agreeable. In fact, Sansom went further. When he published his fourth Shardlake novel, Revelation, in 2008, I wrote to him complaining about some lines in his Historical Note, at the end of his tale. He wrote

“The remarkable similarity between Tudor puritans and today’s fundamentalists Christian fanatics…”

I asked him who these wicked fundamentalist Christians were. Did he think they were out committing murders like the fanatics with whom they were compared in his story? I explained that I was an evangelical Christian- did he mean me? He had the courtesy to reply, in which he was fairly defensive, though suggesting he might remove the lines from future editions. I never checked to see if he did.

So these popular authors are sacrificing their characters’ integrity to keep on board moderns’ sympathy. Or are they are really expressing a deeply held notion that religious people are essentially disagreeable?