Ann Wroe’s Perkin, A Story of Deception, is not really a history book at all, not in the conventional sense. JD Mackie’s The Earlier Tudors dismisses Perkin Warbeck in barely more than a handful of paragraphs, concluding that “he was a conceited, ambitious youth with an engaging address, who became the tool of Yorkist malcontents and gained a European importance, because great princes sought eagerly for an instrument which would harass [England’s newish king, Henry VII].”
Wroe’s work (first published in 2003: and one of the most important books of the decade) is, as you might expect from a book amassing more than 500 pages in meditation of the same subject, more fanciful. It pursues a man who wasn’t really there down a conjectural labyrinth of hidden byways sprawling across great tracts of the late Middle Ages; and as such it is, in its better moments, a work of poetry as much as it is a work of history, a meditation on myth as well as man, an occluded narrative as dense and allusive as Ezra Pound’s historical Cantos.
Here’s a paragraph from fairly early on in the book, where Wroe, continuing a story that has taken Warbeck from Flanders to Lisbon, draws together many of the images that, so far, she’s offered us only in glimpses. It’s hard not to fall in love with a writer who can turn out this sort of stuff:
It is not improbable that in Portugal the personality of the prince, whether judiciously hidden or deviously constructed, began to emerge from the shadows. Indeed, it is almost certain. He had taken courage, galante contra fortuna; he had breathed in the tang of the sea. At Afonso’s wedding celebrations, the most memorable pageant was a procession of dream ships. They sailed into the special wooden “fortress” constructed for the jousts on bolts of cloth that were painted as stormy waves of the ocean, behind a great swan with white and golden feathers. The ships had quarter-decks of brocade, sails of white and purple taffeta and rigging of gold and silk, the whole ablaze with candles and oil lamps. When the make-believe masters and pilots in silk and brocade swung and climbed in the gold ropes, with a tumult of shouting and whistling, the mysterious boy was perhaps among them. Richard Plantagenet unfolded like the unfurling of the sail, the crack of the boards, and the intoxicating swing and dip of the ship as it moved, away from dreams, into the open water.
By the by, as a concluding aside of no great significance, the sailing ship as plaything (though this time in the mind of a magus) is a start point also in The Tempest, not least as brought to us within the living, breathing, storm-tossed pages of Prospero’s Books, a volume of water beginning here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pdoUjdaIVM