The Great Level

Written by Stella Tillyard
Review by Douglas Kemp

England during the interregnum in the 17th century. Jan Brunt, a Dutch engineer, is employed to assist in drawing up plans for the draining and embanking of the inundated waterways, known as the Great Level, that surround the Isle of Ely in the east of England. It is 1649, with society still shocked by the execution of Charles I, and the rule of General Cromwell’s Puritans making for dour and impoverished times. Jan Brunt is a solitary man, happiest working alone surveying the waterways and overseeing the work of digging and embanking, which used resentful Irish prisoners as slave labour. But his perspective and subsequent life changes when he meets a female fenland dweller, Eliza, with whom he quickly becomes besotted. Part of the novel is narrated by Brunt years later in 1664, when he is living in semi-retirement across the Atlantic in Nieuwe Amsterdam, which was on the point of being taken over by acquisitive English settlers and changed to the more familiar New York. Brunt’s days of peace and solitary predictability in the new settlement are disrupted, with the latter part of the book narrated by Eliza, telling of her own life after the passionate affair with Jan Brunt.

It is intelligent and gentle prose – Tillyard describes the beauties of the soon-to-be eradicated eastern wetlands with a poet’s eye. There has been a lot of research into both life in the fens and in the American colonies in the mid-17th century, but it is never obvious or unwieldy. A pleasure to read.

(Ed. note: published as Call Upon the Water in the US and Canada.)