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Monthly Archives: April 2018

“a fair field full of folk” Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)

Doomsday Book is the first novel in  a series  set by Connie  in the same world  of time travel which I have discussed  in my previous  posts on the other novels,   To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear. Historians in the C21st travel back in time from the unit at the University of Oxford to research the past hand-on. In this case Kivrin Engle  is a student  historian,  keen to see the Middle Ages for herself, in  the  face of misgivings from  her boss Mr Dunworthy,

“Life expectancy in 1300 was thirty-eight years,” he had told her when she first said she wanted to go to the Middle Ages, “and you only lived that long if you survived cholera and smallpox and blood poisoning, and if you didn’t eat rotten meat or drink polluted water or get trampled by a horse. Or get burned at the stake for witchcraft…

“An unaccompanied women  was unheard of in the fourteenth century. Only women  of the lowest class went about alone, and they were fair game for any  men or beast who happened along. Women  of  the nobility and even the emerging middle class were constantly attended by their fathers or their husbands or servants, usually all three., and even of you wren’t a woman, you’re a student. The fourtheen century is far too dangerous for Medieval to consider sending a student.”

In the end Kivrin is sent back  by  the Medievalists to Oxfordshire in  1320, equipped with a cover story  of being a Lady who has been robbed and left on the road, abandoned by her servants.  No sooner has she departed than Oxford is beset  by a viral outbreak whose origins are unknown. Worse, the time travel operator  Badri becomes very ill  and it appears  that Kivrin may be lost in time as something  unexpected happened when she went through.

Back in the Middle Ages Kivrin  becomes very ill  on arrival but is taken in and nursed  by  a priest and local  gentry family:

I’m ill, Kivrin thought, and knew that the warm liquid had been a medicinal  potion of some kind , and that it had brought her fever down  a little. She was not lying on the ground after all, but in a bed in a room, and the woman who had hushed her and given her the liquid was there beside her. She could hear her breathing. …I must be in the village she thought. The redheaded man must have brought me here.

After her recovery she stays on with the family,  despite the suspicions of the  family matriarch, Imeyne. She adopts the name Katherine and makes friends with the village  priest, Father Roche, who comes to believe that she is   a saint,  sent  from heaven to earth to  help in a time of trial.

Back in Oxford Dunworthy is almost  totally preoccupied with the  deadly illness sweeping through the town which is now quarantined from the outside world.  Slowly he begins to make sense of  the  illness and its link with the past,  and of Kivrin’s plight and  the danger that threatens her. The question is : is it too late to  track her down and rescue her?

In this novel Connie paints a vivid picture through Kivrin’s eyes of the Middle Ages,  a world utterly unlike ours  in beliefs and mores and yet at the same time a place  where there is poverty, wealth,  greed,  jealousy, pride, snobbishness,  friendship, love and compassion, a world therefore very much like our own. Highly recommended.

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