There’s a modern trend for historians to try their hand at fiction. As far as I can tell, it started with Alison Weir’s Tudor novels; more recently, Lucy Worseley and even Neil Oliver have jumped on the bandwagon. Now it’s the turn of Ian Mortimer, a brilliant medieval historian and the author of the various Time Traveller’s Guides to British history. You can understand the appeal. After all, historians have immersed themselves in the modes and manners of their specialist periods and should be perfect guides to fictional recreations of those worlds. But, but, but. Knowledge alone isn’t enough to make a good historical novel. Mortimer’s speculative time-slip moral fable is packed with instructive observations about daily life in the past, but does it work as a story?
It’s 1348 and Devon is ravaged by the plague. Brothers John and William are walking home to Moreton near Exeter, but the pestilence catches up with them on the road. Sickened unto death, they stumble into a stone circle, where a mysterious voice speaks to them from the darkness. They have six days of life left and they have a choice. They can spend it here, in their own time, and accept whatever is coming to them after death. Or they can use those six days to do good in the world, each day to be lived 99 years after the one before, and to grow closer to redemption in the process. No prizes for guessing which they choose. As days and nights pass, each new dawn does away with almost a hundred years and, from 1447 to 1546, 1645, 1744, 1843 and 1942, our narrator John witnesses the changing face of the British countryside and its people.
Much of what I have to say in this post might be accounted spoilerish, so please beware if you think you might like to read it. This is the kind of book where I have to think aloud, as it were, because I can’t figure out what I make of it. On paper, the time-slip concept is great and reminded me of a picture-book I had as a child, called The Village. You turned pages to watch a village develop from a circle of thatched Saxon houses to a thriving town in the present day. But Mortimer’s book is obviously aimed at adults and, as John passes through time, he witnesses human nature in all its ugliness, becoming increasingly cruel and intolerant as the luxuries of the world become ever more unimaginable to a medieval mind. Yet the conclusion is hardly original: that the medieval world, for all its hardships, was a time of community spirit and good-fellowship while modern life, despite amazing technological advances, lacks compassion and social conscience. People have always found the present lacking in comparison to the true values of the ‘good old days’. There’s an almost Victorian moralism about this message.
And the same is true for the spiritual qualities of the book. I have to say that Mortimer does a fantastic job of getting inside the medieval mindset: everything is weighed down with spiritual significance and nothing matters more than the ultimate achievement of grace. I suppose much depends on whether a modern reader is willing to buy into the ‘race against time’ for John to save his soul. And there are still some slightly heavy-handed moments. The story begins with a pact with the devil (or an angel?) and ends with the judgement of the protagonist’s soul, so do we really need to have that hammered home by a 19th-century theatre trip to see Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus? (And, once there, do we really need extensive extracts from the script as well as, later on, a summary of the plot of In Which We Serve?) John’s journey feels less like a drama and more like a meander, an excuse, if you like, to visit different periods of history.
Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guides are written for the benefit of modern people who wonder what it would be like to suddenly wake up in the past. Effectively, what he’s doing here is using the same theory but in reverse. John and William become time-travellers in their own right, outsiders whose observations pick up on all the little things – not so much the names of the kings, or the fact we’re at war with France again, but the fact that houses now have glass in the windows, or the horses are taller, or there are strange tapestries on the floors, or people eat with strange two-pronged silver tools, or that ale has gone out of favour and people prefer to drink beer or strange hot mud-coloured drinks. They also note the absurdities. Why, when people are so much more comfortable, is war still necessary? Why are women suddenly forbidden to practice medicine? Why is one interpretation of religion seen as heresy, while another is accepted? In the greater scheme of things, all becomes ridiculous.
It is no accident that John’s name (‘of Wrayment’), interpreted phonetically in so many different ways throughout his journey, ends up being transliterated as ‘everyman’. As he passes through time, John witnesses the fate of the poor, the homeless and the needy. Sometimes he’s fortunate enough to meet a generous host who gives him food and shelter; sometimes he’s in the workhouse, spinning and being beaten as a vagrant. And, just like the protagonist of the medieval morality play, John realises that ultimately he can count on nothing – no possessions, no status, no manual abilities – good deeds account for all. It’s a strikingly medieval message for a modern world.
Personally I found it hard to get on with this book. I could see what Mortimer was trying to do but, while appreciating his rich insights into history, I didn’t find this a particularly gripping novel. Ultimately it’s a slightly saccharine mashup, two parts Everyman to one part Doctor Faustus and one part It’s a Wonderful Life.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review