Friday, March 21, 2014

Five Hundred Other Years: Freedom, Monarchy and Mitteleuropa in The Extra Girl

Guest post by Jerry A. Dowless, Jr.

I've just published I cannot speak your England, the first novel in my alternate history cycle, The Extra Girl. One reader described it as “Wolf Hall meets the Hunger Games”, and I’m honored enough to be placed in the company of those authors I’m not about to protest that description. Essentially in its guts the novel is traditional historical fiction complete with the requisite intrigue and pillow talk, just referring to events that did not actually happen in real life. The extra girl in question is the Princess Elizabeth Tudor (no, not that one), the daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. In real history she died at the age of three from a mysterious wasting disease.

I posit what would happen if instead, dear Elizabeth survives childhood and becomes the awkward and under-loved Peter Parker of Tudor princesses. Turning sixteen, she is the subject of marriage negotiations and thus becomes the pivotal figure in a conspiracy that may work to subvert the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Lots of dying ensues. To find out precisely what happens, you have to read the book.

Because I cannot speak your England focuses on the first sixteen years of this different course of history, outside a brief framing sequence (featuring a character who should be somewhat familiar to many fans of science fiction), there’s not the chance to really delve into the differences between this world and our own. So instead of summarizing the timeline for you, what I would like to do in this space instead is discuss some of the questions that preoccupy and shape the ensuing alternate history. If from this you happen to guess some of the directions in which our story is headed, that’s hardly a tragedy.

What difference does it make which state the united Germany coalesces around, and what difference does it make when this happens?

If you had explained to a subject of the Holy Roman Empire in 1508 that his country was going to vanish and be replaced by a combination of the German princely states under Prussia, not only would he be skeptical, he would be confused as to what precisely that was. Prussia, as such, was only a product of the Reformation, and even Hohenzollern Brandenburg was in the shade of its richer neighbors during this time. That eventually Germany would dispense with its cumbersome internal political divisions was perhaps inevitable: certainly the idea was already rolling around in the early sixteenth century in the minds of Ulrich von Hutten and his hero the Emperor Maximilian. But it was not inevitable that a state not yet even recognizable in 1508 would do the work, or that it would take the shape it did.

German unification as we are familiar with it is the product of repeated tragedies. In the Thirty Year War the German states and the foreign powers acting on the German stage alike participated in the indiscriminate slaughter of the German people, and embraced a general unprincipled lawlessness in order to advance their particular interests. The effect of this wasn't just death, poverty and misery on a huge scale, it was the destruction of the rule-bound order that had safeguarded the interests of states, cities and citizens in late-medieval Germany. The Thirty Years War was followed hard by the devastation of the wars of Louis XIV. Increasingly, Germany became the battlefield of choice for non-German actors. And increasingly, these actors found themselves not bound by any principle of legitimacy or legality at all. Frederick the Great’s seizure of Silesia only perpetuated this decline, and the emergence of Brandenburg-Prussia as a new power only contributed to this militarization of the relationships of the states of the Holy Roman Empire with each other. Of course this cycle of lawlessness and militarism reached its end-point in the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon.

The father of his country?
If the Prussia that united Germany in 1870 was a devotee of expansionist warfare, it was so because its institutional leadership had learned well in the brutal school of the previous 250 years of European history. If Germany had been united without these intervening centuries of humiliation and destruction, the nature of the end-product state would be decidedly different. And if the state uniting it had not won the honor by virtue of its standing army and aggressive war-making, the result perhaps would be even more different.

That any united Germany is a great European land power is the simple consequence of having a single language spoken by the people between the Alps and the North Sea and the Rhine and the Oder. That Germany’s unification would have the consequence it had in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is the product of a much more proximate and specific history. Unite Germany early, and unite it around a different core, and the Europe of later centuries may be a much happier, safer place.

What difference would a alternate slave trade make to the history of racism?

While darker skin colors held negative connotations for Europeans long before the Atlantic slave trade, many of these originated in the unfamiliarity of black persons and the association of these people with a rival faith, Islam. The permissibility of slavery when the enslaved are of another religion is what led Christian slavers to seek African slaves from the time of the first exploratory voyages to Africa. However the possibility that these slaves would be converted to Christianity led slave-holding colonies to seek some more permanent and immutable distinction than religious difference to justify the enslavement of Africans. They found their answer in the idea that skin color coincided with differences in intelligence, work ethic and cultural accomplishment. Starting with Edward Long’s History of Jamaica in 1774, this mythology of racial inferiority entered into the discourse of the infant sciences of biology and ethnography and became almost generally accepted as true through the nineteenth century. These false ideas shaped laws and policies in Europe itself, in the European settler colonies of the New World and the independent countries that succeeded them, and in those parts of Africa and Asia that were divided up and governed by the European powers until the mid-twentieth century.

Thus the economic necessities that arose from the wide-spread enslavement of non-white peoples shaped the concept of race in European society. But what would happen if more European people were caught in the net of slavery, so that imagined differences coinciding with skin color would not be sufficient to protect slaveholders’ property interest in other human beings?  Would the settler colonies of the New Would have been so relatively secure in their control of their enslaved populations? Would the evil of slavery have lasted as long? And could Europe’s imperial project have proceeded in the outside world in the same way, or been as durable as it was?

Imagine there’s no Cromwell (it’s easy if you try).

Friction between the English monarchy and Parliament dates from the thirteenth century. Now, of course throughout the medieval and late-medieval period, the practical boundaries of the English monarchy were determined less by Parliament and more by the needs, circumstances and personalities of individual monarchs. This changed decisively with the epic cycle of turmoil that accompanied the Stuarts: the English Civil War, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, and the Hanoverian Succession. The Stuart dynasty ended in England with the dawn of the notion that the throne was more or less a gift in the giving of Parliament, an idea that would have been absurd at the dawn of the Tudor Era.

Yet for those of us living in the present day, the evolution of parliamentary democracy in the British Isles is a cherished chapter of our tradition, and whether we are British or not the rights we bear as the result of that process we tend to think of as extensions of our persons. However, if the cycle of confrontations between king and parliament that transformed English political life in the seventeenth century did not occur, then would parliamentary democracy as we know it today still have happened, and would it have become the model of a democratic form of government almost universally imitated by the end of the twentieth century?

One can argue democracy is an inevitable consequence of increased literacy, the wider diffusion of knowledge and higher standards of living arising from industrialization, and that it would have triumphed in the British Isles regardless of the precise political circumstances in which it did in the history we know. But these circumstances would in turn shape the form of the democracy that emerges, and that form in turn shapes the ensuing governments of the country.

What difference does the settlement pattern of colonial North America make to the history of the world?

Given that so much attention is paid in alternate history to various possible outcomes to the American Civil War, the Revolutionary War before it, and to the various contingencies that ultimately shaped the destiny of British North America in the eighteenth century, perhaps it would be interesting to not take for granted the emergence of said British North America. Of course the United Kingdom’s gradual dispatching of its rivals was far from accidental. British naval power, the emergence of the United Kingdom’s innovative model of state finance under the Bank of England, problems of scale and expense that inhibited the smaller competitors from enhancing and maintaining the early footholds of the various New Swedens and their ilk, and of course the consequences to the colonies of upheaval in continental Europe, all helped propel North America towards an English-speaking future.

But if the ability of Britain to project its power decisively onto the Atlantic coast of North America in the critical early decades of colonization were somehow compromised, there would be no reason to suppose England would inevitably win the struggle for supremacy on the continent. Nor is it necessarily the case an English failure would in itself yield a French or Spanish alternative. Instead, it is entirely possible to imagine an America north of the Rio Grande as divided as Europe, with contestant countries that are the heirs of various colonial enterprises jostling for supremacy against their rivals, some of which emerged because of the migration within North America of persecuted religious minorities, some of which are evolved from the refuges of escaped slaves established in the manner of the quilombos of Latin America, some of which are the nation-states developed by the indigenous American peoples, and perhaps some of which are even colonies formed from the eventual exploitation of parts of North America by non-European powers.

One effect of the U.S. constitutional system is the inconsequentiality of the state lines many Americans cross as part of their daily commutes. That inconsequentiality is soldered to our imaginations, and so we perpetually imagine “America” as wide-open in respect to its own internal boundaries. So if we imagine a different America, we frequently imagine a different single country, or pieces of a previously united America that has been shattered or split. The idea of an alternate present-day North America that is and has always been a vast multiplicity of countries with a multiplicity of origins is radical to our current assumptions, but really only too plausible given the vagaries of European history that determined the fortunes of the early colonizing powers of North America.

Of course, it goes without saying that the history of the world in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries become unrecognizable without a certain super-power residing comfortable and protected in the temperate latitudes of North America, taking up the full space between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

I could continue.  But not only do I not want to reveal quite everything, I don’t want to foreclose the possibilities of what remains still a mostly open canvas. One thing I am determined to do in the alternate history I have begun is to imagine new nations and new cultures. One of the most invigorating challenges of an alternate history diverging more than five-hundred years back is the awareness of just how much in our world has been created in the time since then, and hence how much which is different from that must be created in a world with a truly divergent history. I have no illusions how daunting all this is, and I expect it will become only more so as I dig deeper into the project I've set for myself. But my hope above all else is that the result is thought-provoking and entertaining. Thank you, and I hope you take this journey with me.

Welcome to the world of The Extra Girl.

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Jerry A. Dowless, Jr. grew up on a family farm in Bladen County, North Carolina. Though he is retired from the practice of law in New York, he remains licensed to practice in North Carolina. Currently he is preoccupied with writing fiction and running his family's peach orchard.

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