The Life, Passion, and Miracles of Becket

by Shelley Mydans
New York: Signet Books, 1965.


The book begins on the night of December 29th, just after the murder, as people take bloody souvenirs and are healed of ailments.  Soon afterward, William FitzStephen collects accounts of the miracles associated with the new saint.  Mary, Thomas's sister, remembers incidents in their childhood, and from there the story follows Thomas through his life.  As an adolescent he learns courtly manners in the household of Richer de l'Aigle, who gets a little too interested in the young Thomas.  Our hero studies in Paris, where his fellow students mock him for his lack of a girlfriend, returns home when his mother is dying, and begins to work for Osbert Huit-deniers.  The empress Matilda visits London.  Thomas gets a position in the household of Archbishop Theobald and then becomes Henry's chancellor.  Then archbishop.  Then he dies.  Really, the bare bones of the story are simply the historical events.

There is a subplot involving a local family, but they don't really do anything earth-shattering.  At the end one of them is healed by Thomas's blood.  Otherwise they seem to be there mostly to highlight certain aspects of the main story, and maybe to act as a contrast to the affairs of the great.

My thoughts and comments

This is my favorite of the fictional books on Becket that I've read.  It accomplishes something rare: almost every character is a real historical personage, the structure of the story is drawn straight from history, yet the book isn't merely a dry recitation of what happened to whom.  I've read historical fiction that seemed flat because it became too much of a retelling, but the characters in Thomas are fleshed out and we see their thoughts and feelings, not just what they do.  If the book were pure fiction I couldn't ask for more.

Like several other works of Becket fiction, this one makes some use of Margaret Murray's work.  It's not as major an element in this book as in others, though.  The fairies are mentioned ("the fairy people had come east that year"..."a fairy coven came" [p 115]), as are their "mounds," and one minor character is supposed to have been fathered by a fairy, but this aspect is not overemphasized.  Henry tells Thomas about his belief that William Rufus was a sacrifice for his people and speaks with him about kingly substitutes, but this theme, once mentioned, is curiously underdeveloped.  I'm just as glad.  The historical story doesn't need embellishment.

I wish I had more to say, because this book is good enough to deserve more attention, but it's always easier for me to expound on what's wrong with a book than on what's right.  There isn't much wrong with this one.

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C.J. Birkett 2003