Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
For many in England, November 5th is a time for fun and frivolity, where we get together around bonfires, and watch firework displays; while consuming warming winter treats like hot dogs and beef burgers, caramelized apples and toasted marshmallows.
With the sky alight with Catherine Wheels, Rockets and Roman Candles, among other fireworks, it’s easy to forget why we celebrate ‘Bonfire Night’ or ‘Guy Fawkes Night’.
Just as our American cousins celebrate Independence on July 4th, we celebrate the failed treason plot, which thankfully failed to kill King James I of England and VI of Scotland in 1605.
One of the key figures in the 1605 gunpowder plot was Guy Fawkes, who’s face many still recognize, as it was used on the mask in the comic book series and movie V for Vendetta, and is now often used when protesting groups wish to remain anonymous from the government they’re protesting against and the world at large.
The stylized image of Guy Fawkes featured on the mask is perhaps most famously used by ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous.
In honour of Bonfire Night this Thursday, I take a look at literature about or inspired by Guy Fawkes and the gun powder plot.
[For those interested, more about the gunpowder plot can be read here.]
Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens
The greed of his family has led wealthy old Martin Chuzzlewit to become suspicious and misanthropic, leaving his grandson and namesake to make his own way in the world. And so young Martin sets out from the Wiltshire home of his supposed champion, the scheming architect Pecksniff, to seek his fortune in America. In depicting Martin’s journey - an experience that teaches him to question his inherited self-interest and egotism - Dickens created many vividly realized figures: the brutish lout Jonas Chuzzlewit, plotting to gain the family fortune; Martin’s optimistic manservant, Mark Tapley; gentle Tom Pinch; and the drunken and corrupt private nurse, Mrs Gamp. With its portrayal of greed, blackmail and murder, and its searing satire on America Dickens’s novel is a powerful and blackly comic story of hypocrisy and redemption. In her introduction, Patricia Ingham examines characterization, the central themes of the novel, and Dickens’s depiction of America. This edition also includes two new prefaces, Dickens’s postscript written in 1868, his working papers, a note on Mrs Gamp’s eccentric speech, a chronology, updated further reading, appendices and original illustrations by ‘Phiz’.
V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore
“Remember, remember the fifth of November…”
A frightening and powerful tale of the loss of freedom and identity in a chillingly believable totalitarian world, V for Vendetta stands as one of the highest achievements of the comics medium and a defining work for creators Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
Set in an imagined future England that has given itself over to fascism, this groundbreaking story captures both the suffocating nature of life in an authoritarian police state and the redemptive power of the human spirit which rebels against it. Crafted with sterling clarity and intelligence, V for Vendetta brings an unequaled depth of characterization and verisimilitude to its unflinching account of oppression and resistance.
Guy Fawkes: A Historical Romance, by William Harrison Ainsworth
The story of Guy Fawkes starts in summer 1605, when a plot to blow up Parliament was underway. The first book of the story begins with the execution of Catholic priests in Manchester. During the execution, Elizabeth Orton madly raves before being chased by an officer overseeing the execution. To avoid capture, she leaps into the River Irwell. She is pulled up by Humphrey Chetham, a Protestant member of the nobility, and Guy Fawkes, a Catholic. After she is brought out of the water, she predicts that both men will be executed before she dies. The novel transitions to Lancashire and the Radcliffe family. William Radcliffe is a supporter of the plot, and his daughter, Viviana Radcliffe, is revealed to love both Chetham and Fawkes. Fawkes travels to John Dee, an alchemist, who is able to call forth the ghost of Orton. The ghost warns Fawkes again. This is not the only time Fawkes is warned, as he receives a vision from God that the plot will end in disaster. During this time, the Radcliffe family is exposed as hiding two priests, which provokes the destruction of the home by the British Army. Having lost their home, the conspirators in the plot travel to London.
In the second book, Fawkes and Viviana Radcliffe marry, and she tries to convince her new husband not to continue with the plot. Fawkes argues that he is bound to follow through with events. The book ends when the conspiracy to blow up Parliament fails on 5 November 1605 and Fawkes is arrested.
The third book deals with the trial of Fawkes and the other plotters. They are all held in the Tower of London, and Viviana, who is by then dying, convinces Fawkes to repent. Eventually, he does so as she dies, following which he is executed. The book ends with the execution of the last of the plotters, Father Garnet.