I like Mark Twain’s writing but somehow I managed to miss reading this 1882 novel of his until now. I guess I felt I knew the story from the Disney version I saw on TV in 1962 at age 11. I also lettered a comic book version of the Mickey Mouse version in the 1990s. What I thought I knew about the story was mostly wrong beyond the initial idea that two identical boys from the year 1547, one the crown prince of England and one a poor lad from the slums of London, change places.
Tom Canty is the poor boy, and his life is a hard one, though he’s used to it. His job is to beg on the streets of London and bring back any coins he gets to his father and grandmother, a pair of unsavory characters who will whip Tom at any excuse, though Tom’s mother and sisters try to comfort and help him. Edward Tudor, the son of Henry VIII is the other boy, who Tom tries to see up close in front of the royal palace. He’s beaten by the guards for his trouble, but the prince calls them off and invites Tom into the palace to his rooms. Once there they realize how exactly similar they look. Edward offers to let Tom try on his royal clothes, and decides to don Tom’s rags as a lark, but once they’ve done that, the Prince is ejected from the palace as an interloper, and neither he nor Tom can ever convince anyone of their true identities, not even their parents. (This is the hardest part of the story to swallow, but necessary to make it work.)
The rest of the book follows each boy trying to understand and fit into the very different life and world they find themselves prisoners of. The prince refuses to take any crap from Tom’s father, and of course is beaten for it. He runs away the first chance he gets, and ends up with a former soldier returned to England from Europe, Miles Hendon. Miles is a good man, but nearly as poor as the penniless Edward, and the two are thrown into bad company, painful treatment and jail as the prince learns about the lives of his poorer subjects in a way he can’t forget.
Tom, meanwhile, is thought to be temporarily insane or to at least have amnesia since he knows so little about his life as the prince, but he gradually learns from Edward’s sisters and servants, and eventually does a credible job with things he previously knew nothing about. Decisions he makes in judgement in royal audiences impress the court. But the death of his father throws Tom into a panic. Soon he will be crowned King, a job he does not want.
This is not only entertaining and at times exciting reading, it’s thought provoking and educational. Highly recommended.
About the book on Wikipedia.