Murderous Intersections continued
n addition to loosely tying up the dimension of time with the crime plot at some points, Peters also integrates period colour into other strands of her novels. Crime is only one of the ingredients of the Cadfael chronicles, and in some of the later novels, such as An Excellent Mystery or The Confession of Brother Haluin, it is almost or entirely absent. Even in the First Omnibus, considerable attention is paid to the fictional world and its inhabitants, at the expense of the classical straightforward question of "whodunit". Peters invested much effort in historical research, and according to her biographer Margaret Lewis, her novels have even appeared on the reading lists of history courses in British universities (86/88). Besides the historical elements already mentioned, Peters includes, for instance, references to the Crusades, and to the status of villeins (Monk's-Hood). On the other hand, she leaves out what Lewis calls "the mud and smells", on the grounds that people in the Middle Ages would not have reflected much on their own living conditions (Lewis 116). This argument, however, appears slightly disingenuous, since it negates the sense of distance, of difference between past and present, which offers a voyeuristic pleasure to twentieth-century readers of the Cadfael chronicles. Peters's avoidance of unpleasantness may be more closely linked to genre conventions than to a striving for "authenticity". Suffering tends to take place offstage, as a symptomatic scene in One Corpse Too Many illustrates. King Stephen, interrogating an uncooperative prisoner, bursts out: "We shall see whether we get no more from you! Have him away, Adam, give him to Ten Heyt, and see what can be done with him." Some hours later, he gets the report: "Hesdin is obdurate still. Not a word to be got from him, and Ten Heyt has done his best, short of killing too soon." (200-1) A discussion of torture falls outside the purview of the detective story, as does an examination of poverty or illness. The eponymous figure in The Leper of Saint Giles is, significantly, a burnt-out case: maimed but otherwise healthy. Most of Peters's characters seem to be well fed, happy and -- down to a butcher's wife in One Corpse Too Many (230) -- literate. Social problems are solved on an individual basis: a beggar suffering from the cold is given a cloak; a villein is promised freedom by his future master.
his is not to say that history in the Cadfael novels has a purely ornamental function. The process of historiography is questioned obliquely, but not without sophistication, by means of the story of Saint Winifred, which is told in A Morbid Taste for Bones and taken up again in The Pilgrim of Hate. The prior of Shrewsbury decides to bring the saint's bones from the Welsh village where she is buried to his own monastery. The villagers put up a resistance which results in the murder of their leader by a member of the Benedictine deputation. Cadfael tricks Brother Columbanus into making a confession, but before this can be repeated in public, one of Cadfael's helpers inadvertently breaks the murderer's neck. Left with an awkward corpse on his hands, and sympathizing with the villagers' desire to keep their saint, Cadfael reburies Saint Winifred in her original grave, and places the body of Columbanus in her reliquary. Miracles begin to occur on the Benedictines' way back to Shrewsbury, leading Cadfael to the conclusion that "[e]vidently the body of a calculating murderer does almost as well as the real thing, given faith enough." (177) The Pilgrim of Hate shows that the sinner's body in fact does just as well as the saint's. Official historiography, as exemplified by the story of Saint Winifred's removal to Shrewsbury, is fictitious; but the miracles confirm its factual relevance. Belief, combined with the saint's intervention, turns fiction into fact.
he intersection of time and place has particular relevance to Peters's construction of Wales. As Stephen Knight has pointed out, writers in the Christie tradition often
open their novels by sketching in an attractive imaginary regional setting. Soon they will indicate that change is an alarming feature, and then show that those who have internalized and tried to introduce modernization are the villains, those who represent virtues felt to be ancient and durable are both victims and survivors and -- most important of all -- detectives. (33)
n the case of Peters, the attractive place tends to be a Wales threatened by English modernization. A Morbid Taste for Bones provides a typical example in the reaction of a Welshman -- the later victim, Rhisiart -- to being offered money: "He knew about money, of course, and even understood its use, but as an aberration in human relations. In the rural parts of Wales, [...] it was hardly used at all, and hardly needed. [...] The minted coins that had seeped in through the marches were a pointless eccentricity." (53) Modernization in this instance means corruption, since the money offered is in fact a bribe. In Monk's-Hood, modernization even leads to murder: the illegitimate son of a Welshwoman and an Englishman, conscious of the fact that the Anglo-Norman law which his father has internalized debars him from inheriting the Welsh land which would be his according to Welsh law, kills his father to prevent him from leaving his manor to Shrewsbury Abbey, and proceeds to lay claim to the manor in a Welsh court. The murderer in this novel is Welsh, but the villain, in accordance with Knight's reading of the Christie pattern, is English. Gervase Bonel is represented as a hard man whose death is a blessing in disguise. Young Meurig, by contrast, in Cadfael's opinion "was never meant to be a murderer" (518); a victim of the clash of cultures, he can -- like his compatriot Eliud in Dead Man's Ransom -- be allowed to escape after he has confessed. This lenience is denied to the English murderers in A Morbid Taste for Bones and One Corpse Too Many: thoroughly evil, they die a violent death in the process of exposure.
eters's detective likewise corresponds to Knight's model. His Welshness provides Peters with a wider range of options for plots -- since he knows both cultures, he can solve cases in both -- and, more specifically, also influences the type of solution he brings about. Cadfael shares the Welsh sense of justice evoked by Peters: a justice aiming at reconciliation rather than punishment, which, in contradistinction to the formalized workings of English justice, can be satisfied by a murderer's repentance without demanding his death. It is worth noting once more in this context that Cadfael's investigations invariably succeed, whereas the representatives of the English system, including Cadfael's friend Hugh Beringar, merely mark time. Cadfael thus embodies efficient Welsh common sense, as opposed to inefficient English bureaucracy: an "ancient virtue" threatened by the "modern" state. This of course corresponds to a traditional function of Wales in English literature. Wynn Thomas's description of the character of Rhiannon in Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils applies to Cadfael as well: "Her dependable good nature of the old-fashioned kind shines like a good deed in the naughty modern world, and she becomes the embodiment of everything that 'Wales' should be; straightforwardly sensible, solidly provincial and altogether comfortable." (178) As Thomas does not fail to point out, this Wales is exactly what "(in Amis's conservative imagination) the best of English provinces used to be" (174). Place thus becomes an image of time: more precisely, an image of an idealized past.
n addition to common sense and a reconciliation-oriented law, the trappings of Welshness in Peters include a deep love for the land, a social organization based on kinship (repeatedly contrasted with English hierarchical thinking), and a Christianity which allows its priests to marry and prizes the hermitage more highly than the monastery. Phrases such as "dark, secret Welsh eyes" (104) even establish a standard form of Welsh looks. The Welsh, in spite of their alleged litigiousness (512), constitute a homogeneous group which shows no trace of what Wynn Thomas, quoting Emily Dickinson, refers to as the "internal difference" of Wales. If the Wales whose twentieth-century literature Thomas examines "is likely to be one of those countries where even the end of the world will have to come in several different forms before everyone gets the message" (156), the Wales of the Cadfael novels, by contrast, is a place in which everyone would get the message within seconds of its being released, and in which, moreover, everyone would in the same instant have agreed on what action to take about it -- witness the scene in A Morbid Taste for Bones in which the Welsh villagers are watching the Benedictines preparing to depart with the murderer's body in the reliquary:
Cadfael [ran] a long, considering glance round all those serene, secretive, smiling faces, all those wide, honest, opaque eyes. Nobody fidgeted, nobody muttered, nobody, even at the back, sniggered. [...]
They knew already! Whether through some discreet whisper started on its rounds by Sioned, or by some earth-rooted intuition of their own, the people of Gwytherin knew, in essence if not in detail, everything there was to be known. And not a word aloud, not a word out of place, until the strangers were gone. (166)
hat this is not merely a matter of local solidarity is made clear by repeated references to a sense of community between all speakers of Welsh: Cadfael finds himself responding immediately to "a Welsh voice that cried battle" (51), and is in his turn accepted as "being of the people" (500) in a region of Wales far from his place of birth.
he relationship of England to this Wales is an ambiguous one. On the one hand, as shown above, it poses a threat. In addition to modernization, bureaucracy and hierarchies, it also stands for colonialist appropriation. As the Welsh are quick to point out in A Morbid Taste for Bones, the Benedictines' right to Saint Winifred is a questionable one: "The little saint is here, not in England. [...] Is there not a church in Wales, a Celtic church such as she served? What did she know of yours? I do not believe she would speak to you and not to us." (51) The metamorphosis undergone by Prior Robert Pennant, the leader of the Benedictine delegation, is significant in this respect. Introduced as "of mixed Welsh and English blood" (13), he turns into a Norman when confronted by the angry Welshman Rhisiart, whom he regards as "half-barbaric" (51), and this is the identification which is subsequently kept up (cf. 146). Threats to Wales come from outside, from England. On the other hand, the Benedictine threat to Welsh autonomy in A Morbid Taste for Bones is neatly deflected by the Welshman Cadfael acting with and for the people of Gwytherin. Their concerted effort succeeds in making the English monks look foolish: not in their own eyes, but in those of the Welsh, whose inside knowledge the reader is allowed to share. Another threat, that of linguistic Anglicization, is downplayed throughout the series. The fact that Rhisiart's daughter Sioned has learned English from the man she loves might have been, but is not, construed as a sinister watering down of her monoglot father's position. In Monk's-Hood, the linguistic contest in Gervase Bonel's Welsh manor is used to emphasize Welsh strength rather than English intrusion, as becomes clear in the English steward's characterization of his Welsh subordinates: "they keep their own counsel, and it's wonderful how they fail to understand English when it suits them to shut the alien out." (498) As far as form is concerned, Cadfael is much closer to the narrative centre of consciousness than, for example, Christie's famous foreigner-detective, Hercule Poirot, who is not infrequently seen through the eyes of an English first-person narrator. England might thus seem to be marginalized in direct confrontation with Wales. However, in view of the idealization of Wales discussed above, it can likewise be argued that the Wales constructed by Peters mainly serves to provide a contrast to England: in other words, that it forms part of a Cambrianist discourse which resembles that of Orientalism as analysed by Edward Said. This reading would be in keeping with the implications of a remark reported by Margaret Lewis, which quite clearly defines Wales as not-England: "Peters has always valued her Welsh grandmother and finds the Celtic race endlessly romantic; 'the Welsh are more exotic', she has said." (89)