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When Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper was published in 1881, the Atlanta Constitution sang its praises in no uncertain terms: “The book comes upon the reading public in the shape of a revelation.” A timeless tale of switched identities, Twain’s story revolves around the miserably poor Tom Canty “of Offal Court,” who is lucky enough to trade his rags for the gilded robes of England’s prince, Edward Tudor. As each boy is mistaken for the other, Tom enters a realm of privilege and pleasure beyond his most delirious dreams, while Edward plunges into a cruel, dangerous world of beggars and thieves, cutthroats and killers. Befriended by the heroic Miles Hendon, Edward struggles to survive on the squalid streets of London, in the process learning about the underside of life in “Merry England.”
With its mixing of high adventure, raucous comedy, and scathing social criticism, presented in a hilarious faux-sixteenth-century vernacular that only Mark Twain could fashion, The Prince and the Pauper remains one of this incomparable humorist’s most popular and oft-dramatized tales.
About the Author
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), best known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an author and humorist noted for the novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which has been called "The Great American Novel") and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, among many other books. Twain was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, which later provided the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and he spent time as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River before finding fame as a writer.
Date of Birth:November 30, 1835
Date of Death:April 21, 1910
Place of Birth:Florida, Missouri
Place of Death:Redding, Connecticut
Read an Excerpt
From Robert Tine’s Introduction to The Prince and the Pauper
The story itself—the swapping of identities between Edward Tudor, heir to the throne of England, and one of his lowliest subjects, a certain Tom Canty of Offal Court, London—was a neat conceit and one that no one would have doubted Twain would have immense fun spinning out. However, while there are moments in the book of what the critics called Twain’s “burlesque,” this apparently simple story delves deeply into the baseness of the human condition—and examines it closely at both ends of the social spectrum. It is not difficult to imagine wanton cruelty and pain meted out in the slums and low dens of Tudor London. But Twain did not spare the aristocracy; he accused them of cupidity, treachery, and outright violence. Brutality is no less brutal for having been dealt by a finely attired lord of the realm rather than by a drink-soaked mendicant clad in rags, worried that he will not come up with the two pennies required to pay his rent. One has to admit that to Twain’s contemporaries, and to readers today, The Prince and the Pauper is not a funny book.
But it is an exciting one, almost a thriller. Will the deception succeed? Will Tom Canty take the throne? And will Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales (as Twain erroneously styles him), live his life in rags and squalor, raving and raging until his dying day about his own blue blood and the common, ungrateful usurper of the throne? It’s a close thing, and there are times when the reader doubts that Twain will manage to pull off a suitably happy ending.
Then there is the problem with the language Twain employs. The book is filled with archaic and, in the mouths of the noble characters, flowery language. The more base characters speak a guttural if elaborate patois: “‘Gone stark mad as any Tom o’ Bedlam! . . . But mad or no mad, I and thy Gammer Canty will soon find where the soft places in thy bones lie, or I’m no true man!’” (p. 24). The aristocrats are no less orotund, even when condemning one of their own to death: “‘Alack, how I have longed for this sweet hour! and lo, too late it commeth, and I am robbed of this so coveted chance. But speed ye, speed ye! let others do this happy office [that is, a beheading] sith ’tis denied to me’” (p. 52). This is not the Mark Twain the reading public was used to—we are a long way from Tom, Huck, and Pudd’nhead. But Twain had always been a meticulous and discerning student of the spoken word, and absent a living example of Tudor speech, he readily admitted reading a great deal of Shakespeare to get the language down for both prince and pauper.
At first, the language seems a trifle daunting, but it quickly becomes easy to read and in the end adds immeasurably to the authenticity of the book. To have had his characters speak in the manner of Victorian Londoners of his age would have undercut the profound sense of time and place Twain manages to convey so well.
Having said how much The Prince and the Pauper is not a typical example of Twain’s work, it is worth taking a look at the factors that make it, in fact, a comfortable fit with the rest of the Twain canon. Like Tom Canty, the pauper of the story, Twain knew well the privations of youthful poverty. His father, John Marshall Clemens
(1798–1847), was an inept businessman, perennially in debt, sometimes bringing his family to such low financial water as to force the selling of family land, and even the household furniture. At one point in Twain’s youth the family was forced to face the humiliation of having to take in boarders. True, Twain never knew the crushing poverty of the Canty clan, but he grew up knowing the cold sting of want.
Tom Canty’s father is an ogre, a tyrant, a drunkard, and an abuser. Were he alive today his treatment of his family would, more than likely, land him in jail. Twain’s own father, while no monster, was cold, distant, unaffectionate, and, it seems, uninterested in any of his seven children, still less in his wife (Jane Lampton Clemens, 1803–1890), with whom he lived in a loveless marriage. As Twain admits so candidly in a fragment of an autobiography published in 1907: “I had never once seen a member of the Clemens family kiss another one—except once. When my father lay dying in our house in Hannibal he put his arm around my sister’s neck and drew her down and kissed her, saying, ‘Let me die.’” (Paine, A. B. Mark Twain: A Biography, Vol. I, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912, p. 73.) It is not difficult to imagine that Twain could take his own experiences of poverty and cruelty and amplify them into the truly ghastly conditions of Tom Canty’s early life.
As Twain’s reputation grew he was transformed from lowly newspaper reporter into celebrated author. This celebrity allowed him to hobnob with the Great and Good (including the Russian czar, the German kaiser, and the emperor of Austria-Hungary) and to develop a keen eye for the doings of the upper classes. The courts of the nineteenth century were at least as grand, perhaps even more so, than those of Tudor England. Mark Twain was a proud American and a republican, and he scoffed at the very notion of aristocracy, as well as at a type of American traveler of a certain class who fawned over the titled and highborn. However, he did admit: “We are all like—on the inside . . . we dearly like to be noticed by a duke. . . . When a returned American is playing the earls he has met I can look on silent and unexcited and never offer to call his hand, although I have three kings and a pair of emperors up my sleeve.” (Camfield, p.376.) These crowned heads do more than just pump up an awestruck American Grand Tourist: Twain’s travels in the courts, palaces, and lavish country houses of Europe must have provided grist for his mill and found their way into the pages of The Prince and the Pauper.