To Calais, In Ordinary Time

Written by James Meek
Review by Edward James

James Meek is a greatly respected author (The People’s Act of Love, 2005), and his latest book has been well reviewed.  Hilary Mantel commends it for ‘fans of intelligent historical fiction’.  Alas, I began to fear I had the wrong sort of intelligence.

The first challenge is that the book is written in Mediaeval English, or rather, since 14th-century England was multi-lingual, in three languages used in England at the time, with three narrators.  The first, a peasant from a village near Gloucester, speaks Middle English, the second, a land-owner’s daughter (a ‘damoiselle’), speaks Anglo-French, and the third, a cleric, keeps a journal in Latinised English. It is addressed to a colleague at the papal court, so one would expect it to be in Mediaeval Latin, but the cleric apologises for the Latinised English because he is writing in haste. Confusingly, Queen Isabella, French-born mother of Edward III, alternates between Anglo-French and modern metropolitan French. Happily, the book uses modern punctuation and spelling throughout.

With perseverance it becomes easier to read. Is it worth it?  The characters are authentic, and it is refreshing for a novel about mediaeval England to recognise the diversity of language. The story is, however, quite silly by modern standards, full of cross-dressing, mistaken identities and extraordinary encounters; a mediaeval pastiche, not a modern novel in a mediaeval setting. It is structured as a journey by a group of travellers from Gloucestershire to the Dorset coast to take ship for Calais.  Despite the title it ends at the coast.  The year is 1348, when the Black Death reached England, arriving first in Dorset. The travellers ride straight into it, with tragic consequences.

This is a clever, challenging book about life and death, love and war, language and belief in the 14th century.  Fans of the Middle Ages will enjoy the challenge.