The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976)

Counterfactual history

This is a startling surprise in Amis’s oeuvre, a counterfactual fantasy set in a meticulously-worked-out alternative England, an England in which Prince Arthur didn’t die and so Henry VIII never gained the throne, there was no Reformation, no Protestant tradition and no Industrial Revolution. Instead England in 1976 is dominated by the Catholic Church and its slightly sinister officials, from the great cathedral in Coverley (pronounced Cowley) outside Oxford to the various palaces of the Papal Curia in London. The streets are filled with horses and carts and serfs dressed in rough clothes who placidly accept their lowly status, while among them the princes of the church and the rich travel in luxury coaches. London has expanded nearly as far as Finsbury and there is distressing talk of new ‘manufactories’ being set up on the outskirts.

Counterfactual history jokes

This counter-history allows for all sorts of jokes, large and small. In this reality Martin Luther didn’t spark the Reformation but went on to become an eminent Pope, albeit a rather puritanical one: he put an end to the luxurious trimmings planned for St Peter’s basilica, driving one Buonarroti (ie Michelangelo) to suicide. Mozart didn’t die young and went on to develop a late style, unlike a younger colleague, one Beethoven, who amounted to nothing. The great cathedral in Coverley, the longest in Christendom, a Catholic masterpiece, was built by one Sir Christopher Wren. The unhappy Abbott puts aside the latest book De Existentiae Natura by Monsignor Jean-Paul Sartre. The airship which travels between England and New England is named the Edgar Allen Poe after the famous general who died leading his troops to victory against the Mexicans. And so very japefully on.

A totally Catholic world

Behind it all is the rather bigger point that, without the European civil wars – which is what the Reformation and Wars of Religion amounted to – the power of the Catholic church is never stemmed, there is no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era where the causes of freedom, democracy, liberalism triumphed over Christian repression. No Bolshevik revolution, no 20th century of holocausts and genocides.

Instead, Roman Catholicism rules supreme and unquestioned. There has been peace in a monoglot Europe for centuries, peace characterised by, on the one hand, the systematic repression of ‘scientists’, schismatics and deviants by a powerful Church backed up by a repressive Secular Arm; on the other hand, a continuous war with the Turks, with the muslim Ottoman Empire which continues to push at the borders established in the 16th century ie the Danube.

A different New England

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the New World was colonised but not by Protestant countries (as these never came into existence) so the colonisation was carried out by Catholic countries who divided up the continent piecemeal and, as there was no English tradition of Protestant democracy, the New Worlders have a rough and rude manner about them, with greater freedom of expression and behaviour (due to the rough culture of their log cabins hewn out of the vast untamed continent), but nothing like the economic and military might of our Americans.

There was never a slave trade. So the ambassador from the New World to England who we meet is attended not by blacks but by native American Indians. Nonetheless, no matter how free and easy their manners, the New Englanders devoutly believe the Indians are a different and inferior race, their brains smaller, not to be taught much because not capable of real intelligence.

Mise-en-scène

The novel opens at the high State Funeral for the dead King Stephen III, at which we meet various church figures who go on to discuss the fate of one particular ten-year-old boy, Hubert Anvil, a highly esteemed boy soprano in the choir at the service. So highly esteemed that the church and music school functionaries we are introduced to, go on to discuss in some detail the appropriateness of having him castrated so that he may continue to hymn the glory of God as a castrato.

Characters

A lot of time and effort is spent examining the responses, feelings and actions of everyone involved in this decision, in this alteration of just one boy. It is a plot device to explore this strange alternative world Amis has conjured and to meet a cross-section of its inhabitants:

  • the honest Abbott of the singing school Hubert attends, plus his composition teachers, who are upset that the boy will be steered towards singing and not composing
  • the three boys who share the dormitory with him: the oldest and most cynical, Decuman; the devout and timid Mark; the bystander, Thomas
  • Hubert’s father, Master Tobias, a well-off merchant in London, devout and worldly wise, his older, clever son Anthony, and rather cowed mother, Margaret
  • the rakish family priest (they are wealthy enough to have their own priest) who is swapping the glad eye with Margaret and will soon embark on a passionate physical affair with her
  • two eminent castrati who have traveled from Rome to ascertain Hubert’s skill

For the first hundred pages or so, very slowly, we are introduced to all these characters and it is Amis’s immense skill to imagine all their thoughts and emotions, their flickers of doubt, their sly smiles, their calculating each others’ motives, entirely within the framework of this imaginary world.

For example, when his father tries to explain to Hubert what an honour it is to be castrated for the glory of God, his mother cannot help hinting at the joys of physical love. It is only much later that Hubert realises she is channeling the physical ecstasy she is enjoying with the family priest-turned-fornicator.

Plot

After 120 or 130 pages or so of his predicament being considered from all angles by all characters – including a flying visit to Rome where they are shown round his apartments by the (Yorkshire-born) Pope himself, and Hubert is invited to have the operation performed in Rome and spend the rest of his life there; after all this build-up Hubert runs away. Helped by Decuman who finds a local pony and has saved money and food, they sneak out of the singing school dormitory and Hubert rides into Oxford and knocks at the door of the New England ambassador who he met on the day of King Stephen’s funeral. But the ambassador is in London.

The two native American servants take pity on him and one loads him, heavily disguised, onto an Express to London. Here Hubert catches a taxi but the taxi driver takes him into a warren of slum streets, then chloroforms him.

Hubert wakes up in the bare room of a Jew named Jacob who reveals his star, explains the persecution his people experience under Church rule, and then reluctantly explains that they plan to contact his parents and demand a ransom. He is a hostage. Hubert, more resourceful than he thought himself, pushes Jacob’s face towards the fire at the same second he throws brandy into it, causing the surge of flames to burn Jacob’s face, as Hubert runs out the room and out the house.

Some time later he taps at the window of his beloved older brother Anthony in Edgware Road, explains he’s run away, and Anthony helps disguise him and they walk together to the New England embassy where Anthony bluffs their way in. He is welcomed by the unconventional ambassador and his wife who are kindness and courtesy personified. Hubert sleeps, wakes, bathes, eats and then joins in the planning for his escape: they will smuggle him aboard the next airship bound across the Atlantic.

There is quite a lot of tense getting past security guards using forged papers involved in allthis, but finally Hubert is safely aboard the transatlantic vessel when – he is convulsed with pain and falls to the floor, screaming and clasping his groin.

Pessimism

The onboard doctor diagnoses Hubert with a twisted testicle; the blood supply to one has been cut off and it is swelling and will die unless operated on immediately. Hubert is taken off the ship and to the nearest hospital. Here he recovers consciousness to discover that, after all that effort, all that help and support from friends and those opposed to the totalitarian Church – fate (or is it God Himself) – has intervened in the most bitterly ironic way possible: the doctors had to remove both testicles. He has undergone the alteration willy-nilly.

Anti-Catholic

I am anti-Catholic for the same reason Amis was. a) There is quite obviously no God, so you judge these ideologies by their practical outcomes. b) Catholic countries have tended to be markedly unequal and repressive societies, lurching in the 20th century, from violent extreme to extreme of fascist junta or Marxist guerrillas. c) All the liberal freedoms we take for granted are Protestant in origin, deriving from the never-ending process of Protestant schism into countless non-conformist sects which eventually forced the authorities to accept that they had to concede their populations the right to freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and so on. This tradition flourished in the Protestant non-conforming Anglophone countries America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand; not so much in the homogenously Catholic and Fascist countries, Italy, Portugal and Spain and all the latter’s colonies.

The accusation against Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and all the other English Catholic writers of the 20th century is that they went on about the superiority of the Roman Catholic religion, while enjoying all the trappings of the peaceful, prosperous Protestant country they lived in. To put their money where their mouth was they should have moved to unambiguously Catholic countries and enjoyed the unquestioningly Catholic zeal of General Franco or Salazar.

Conclusions

Part of what makes this novel so brilliant is not just that Amis has imagined a complete alternative reality, but that he has done what so many science fiction writers fail to do, not seen it as a monolithic whole, but has imagined it so deeply as to grasp the various ways all the different characters respond to the heavy, sometimes violent, grasp of the Catholic hierarchy over their society. So drenched are all the characters in the Latin and terminology and prayers and iconography of their Catholic world, that it comes as a real shock when one of the characters admits he no longer believes in God. Others resent the oppressive control of every aspect of their lives by the Catholic Authorities. The boys in Hubert’s dorm present a little pre-teen cross-section, Hubert himself a wavering believer, Decuman the older cynic, Mark the zealot shocked at  his friend’s blasphemy.

It is a mark of the completeness of this imagining that Amis doesn’t present the New Englanders who rescue Hubert as perfect: the kindly priest who smuggles Hubert aboard the airship also very kindly takes it upon himself to explain that God made the Indians stupider than us so we have to treat them like children; one of the Indians explains that back in New England they don’t castrate just fancy singers, they castrate anybody found guilty of fornication, of broadly defined sex crimes. It makes this alternative reality all the more plausible to learn that man’s inhumanity to man crops up all over it, as it does in ours, even in the dwellings of our closest friends.

The Blemish

Of Amis’s forays into genre fiction, this is by far the best, the most complete and convincing. Only at the end is it let down by a crudely satirical chapter in which we witness the Yorkshire Pope and his closest advisers discussing His Holiness’s plans to control Europe’s runaway population explosion, and by really evil means. They review an experiment to put contraceptive chemicals in the drinking water which, alas, resulted in too many deformed babies being born – too noticeable. They then review recent experiments to introduce plague, carried out in Cornwall and the south of France. Alas, the victims died too quickly, before they could infect others, and so both outbreaks fizzled out.

No, His Holiness irritatedly dismisses the technical adviser who had developed both approaches (Cardinal Maserati) and is left moaning to his closest adviser that, oh well, looks like it’ll have to be another massive war with the Turks, then…

Up to this point, the oppressive and manipulative nature of the Church which dominates this alternative world had been implicit in the story, only revealed in the comments or behaviour of characters and their occasional, limited but threatening, brushes with authority. With this stand-alone chapter Amis rather spoils the integrity of the text by stepping out from behind the scenery and saying, ‘Look, the rulers of this Church are diabolically evil’. It is forceful satire – and maybe, for a teenager who isn’t familiar with the notion that rulers can be disgustingly Machiavellian, the pulling away of the mask right at the end of the novel to reveal the full scale of the Church’s wickedness in this parallel world might work as a powerful shock – but I found it rather blunt and crude after the carefully imagined subtlety of (most of) what had gone before. If I’d been his editor I’d have cut it.

Summary

This is certainly Amis’s best genre or experimental novel, his most astonishingly detailed, thorough and convincingly imagined work of fantasy, and deserves to rank with the top three or four of his novels as a whole.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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