I’ve never troubled to hide my feelings about history. With very few exceptions, if it happened before 1800 I’m just not interested. I realise that this is a wholly indefensible attitude to have but it’s still the one I hold. At the same time, I am a great admirer of Paul Dowswell’s historical novels for young adults. Most of them are set in the first half of the twentieth century so they represented a double whammy for me: a period of history in which I am genuinely interested encapsulated in superbly written books.
But now Paul has messed with the system and produced The Great Revolt which, as you might guess, is set in the 1380s. I ask you – the 1380s? That’s not even close to real history! Honestly, I couldn’t care less about what happened in England (at that time a foreign country from my standpoint) then. Had it been written by almost anyone else, I wouldn’t even have picked it off a shelf. However, a new book from Paul is not to be missed.
Matilda Rolfe and her father Thomas are serfs working for their generally despised and feared lord William Laybourne. It’s a bleak and downtrodden life with little expectation that it will ever improve. Tilda is, however, filled with a youthful desire for change and a corresponding impatience with her risk-averse father. And Tilda is not the only one dreaming of change. There are murmurings and mutterings and signs of disquiet. Suddenly the names of Wat Tyler and John Ball are on everyone’s lips as accounts of rebel uprisings filter from village to village. Tilda and Thomas are caught up in local events and find themselves making for London.
Guy de Clare comes from a life unimaginable to Tilda. He has been sent to work as a scribe at the court of King Richard by the Earl of Northumbria, in whose service his father is a knight. Guy is clever but afraid of his new life and of being sent home, rejected by the court. When news of the continuing uprisings reaches the king at Windsor, he and his court also set out for London. Even someone with my slender understanding of Mediaeval English history knows that Tilda and Guy are now set on a collision course that is unlikely to end well.
So, the moment of truth. I’m still singularly uninterested in this period of history but I cannot deny that Paul Dowswell uses it to tell a gripping story. I care about Tilda, Guy and their widely different families and friends and I was engaged enough that, for the time I was reading, I actually did want to know how history unfolded. And, of course, as Paul suggests in his historical note, some of the issues in his novel have never really gone away. And then there was the setting. As I have said elsewhere I’m always fascinated by reading about places I’ve visited (or vice versa). Who knew that John of Gaunt lived on the Strand in a palace called the Savoy? Okay, probably lots of people but to me that address suggests toe-tapping tunes and witty lyrics. I had no idea that the name reached back to the fourteenth century.
No, I won’t be reading any more historical fiction set in this period. But I will be recommending this book. And actually, if Paul Dowswell decides to continue straying away from the twentieth century in his books, I’ll be reading them too. He’s a skilled writer and a consummate storyteller whatever period of history he chooses. But please Paul, as a favour to me, consider setting your next book sometime in the last two hundred years!