By Gillian Polack
This is the third, or maybe the fourth, time I’ve written about Connie Willis and her relationship to the Middle Ages. I keep returning to her because she does something particularly clever in her novel, Doomsday Book. In fact, she does this same thing in most of her novels, but it has a special importance in Doomsday Book: it creates a Middle Ages for readers through writing techniques rather than through knowledge of the period.
Her history can be quite worrisome, but her books always read well. This leaves many readers feeling that the history is particularly accurate and that Willis is a reliable narrator of matters historical.
I’m fascinated by what she does that convinces people of her reliability. What I discuss here, you can find in much more detail (with many quotes from Oscar Wilde and from Willis herself) in the UK publication, Vector in the article “Dialogue and Doomsday: Comedy and Conviction in Connie Willis and Oscar Wilde”. Wilde’s Middle Ages are different again, so I’m taking him out of the equation today, and looking solely at Willis. Additionally, I’m taking Willis’ other time travel novels out of the equation. No World War II, no Victorian England: only the time of the plague. It’s an appropriate subject to talk about in 2020.
Her plague-time is fictional and the research imperfect, so the novel has not actually discovered a new moment this year. It found its moment when it was published, for it was witty and thoughtful and full of clever interpersonal interplay.
Willis’ dialogue is critical to her presentation of the Middle Ages. Through it, we discover the relationships between people and the relationships of those people with the world around them.
The premise of the story is one of time travel gone very slightly awry, with devastating consequences. Kivrin Engle is a scholar who investigates history through travelling to the place and time she is researching. When she is sent to the Middle Ages, an influenza epidemic has broken out in her time. I won’t talk about how different her plague and epidemic are to our current pandemic – that’s another analysis entirely. Besides, I’m here to talk about the Middle Ages as we read them in fiction.
Except… the most profound aspects of this novel often involve how she thinks a future society would deal with a virus such as the one we have among us now, and how people in the fourteenth century actually handled it. Her novel is a perfect little microcosm of period assumptions and gives an insight into how she sees societies functioning.
Her England is more like the current US in the way it handles the influenza outbreak than it is like the way the UK is handling things, though there is overlap. Her Middle Ages also reflects the US. This suggests (strongly) that Willis uses her own background to ground her development of the concept of how individuals handle difficult times. Nearly thirty years after Doomsday Book was first released, this is far easier to see than when the novel was first released.
Willis creates a North American vision of future England and past England. This governs how people react in time of crisis. I pointed out in my Vector article how little some of Willis’s historians know of how historians research, nor what kinds of outcomes are possible from that research. This is one of the most interesting facets of her writing for me. So many fiction writers create a Middle Ages. Willis also creates historical techniques and a different knowledge base for research into it.
I’ve explored the craft elsewhere: that a critical way Willis makes her Middle Ages credible is by having her historical specialists know less about the world than the narratorial voice presents, for example. Throughout the novel, therefore, historians look stupid and many readers accept this. Review after review comment on the depth of her research and the validity of her world. That knowledge gap – where historians do not understand the world they study but the reader does – is a very powerful writing tool. Time after time in chats about the book at science fiction conventions, I’ve had to argue my own credentials as a Medievalist and, even then, someone will always say “You can’t be right. She knows her history.”
Why doesn’t this difference between the reality of historians in our world and the reality of historians in the novel set up a mistrust between most readers and Willis? I argued in my Vector article that this was partly due to her writing craft. I’d add to that, now, that most readers were expecting that kind of interpretation. They were seeing a Middle Ages affected by their own cultural expectations. Those who want a carefully constructed piece based on years of historical research may not be seeking out novels like the Doomsday Book to fulfil those needs.
The 1992 science fiction gold standard for medieval history is, then, actually the gold standard for understanding how the North American centred science fiction world understood medieval history in that decade.
Willis presents an emotional relationship with the past, and convinces readers that this emotional relationship is a true depiction of history. That’s very clever writing and very powerful. It’s also an excellent tool for sharing her own understanding of history, through American glasses.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack