I fell into Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book with passionate gratitude, after wading through a run of disappointing novels. This novel, as Jo Walton has apparently said, is the one in which Willis got everything right, and it is superb. It won three awards, including the 1992 Hugo and the 1993 Nebula, and is a time travel novel in which an Oxford PhD student is sent back to the 1348 outbreak of the Black Death by mistake. Its structure reminded me immediately of Julian May’s The Many-Coloured Land (1981), in which characters go voluntarily back in time and find it rather different to how they had imagined it would be. Interspersed are episodes set in the present day, in which the evolving plot makes the fundamental problem, of not being able to communicate with the person in the past, a massive design flaw.
Willis recreates Oxford University academic arrogance so well, caricaturing just enough of the confident assertions of the Middle English tutor and the archaeologist that things will be exactly as they teach in tutorials. Nothing can possibly go wrong if Kivrin learns enough medieval Latin. Kivrin is eager, earnest and exceptionally hardworking. She has learnt dyeing and weaving in preparation for her role as a noble lady, memorised her languages, understands her cultural idioms and volunteers on an excavation of a tomb from the right period to get the hang of the church architecture. So does the tech specialist whose developing fever will skew his calculations to send her back in time by about thirty years, and so do some visiting students who later go to a dance in the city. Who could have thought that a virus could live so long?
For a novel with such a vast body count, it is unexpectedly funny, in the Oxford parts at least. The humour wells up first from the hysterical backbiting between academics determined to pull rank and gain position. It becomes darker as people begin to get ill and the city is put into quarantine, exasperation running ahead of desperation. It is positively graveyard when the bodies are piling up and still Mr Finch is worrying about the college running out of toilet paper and bacon. The visiting handbell group from the United States are mostly ludicrous, but their bells are essential for the plot. Tolling and chiming bells signify death and the passing of time, to remind us of the time passing for Kivrin in the plague period, and her deadline for catching the link back to the present day. Contrasted to this undernote of dread, the insouciance of the teenage Colin negotiating law, order and Oxford hospital nurses is simply joyous, an affirmation of nous and chutzpah all rolled up in polite Home Counties cheeriness.
Kivrin’s sojourn in 1348 is oppressive and unnerving. It is so beautifully written, we can feel the snapping frost, hear the cracking logs and frozen mud under the horses’ hooves, and imagine the textures of the clothes she has to borrow, and the filth in which they are caked. Kivrin arrives in medieval England with more than just a head cold. There are no drugs and no antibiotics to help her, other than the hi-tech boosters and immunisations she’s been given in the twentieth century. Surviving whatever it was that had knocked her flat for days, she becomes a children’s nanny, and then a makeshift hospital nurse, stacking up furs and blankets for the household to die in, and fighting for their survival alongside the dogged parish priest. She does all this because she cares so passionately for the people who saved her, and we come to care for them too, since every character is a person.
The children of this noble household are particularly heartbreaking: the enchanting six-year old Agnes who is everywhere she should not be, and the haughty, terrified Rosemund, destined to be married to a fifty-year old neighbour at the age of twelve. Against all the deaths and the inevitability of dying of plague, the hopeless feelings Gawayn the knight and Eliwys the lady of the manor have for each other are both futile and necessary: we all have to live for something or someone.