Through the plashy fen

Stella Tillyard’s novel The Great Level is a strange and elusive beast

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“Drainage Mills in the Fens, Croyland”, by John Sell Cotman, c. 1835

What a strange and elusive beast is The Great Level! Hard to decide what it is: Tillyard as novelist (and scholar of English literature), essaying almost the opposite of what she did so well in her 2011 debut novel Tides of War (an intelligent romp through the peaks and troughs of the Peninsular War, which rarely paused to sit, watch and listen to the hinterland of busy events, or to unwind gently the spool of profound love until its true extent could be measured); or, a celebrated historian’s imaginative glimpse of English and Dutch colonial history, narrated from the England of 1649-1652 (in London, Ely, Kings Lynn and thereabouts) and the East Coast of America in 1664 (successively “Nieuw Nederland”, “Niew Amsterdam” and “New Amsterdam” in the southern extremity of what became Manhattan Island), with occasional detours to Holland over the same period. It is both things, of course, but arguably less successful as fictional storytelling than as the re-rendering of history. Readers are more likely to find The Great Level compelling if already drawn to the conundrum of creating order and edge from the marshy wilderness of the Fens, or cultivatable land from the spongey swamps of Virginia. If this book would make the perfect gift for a civil engineer with a liking for poetry, one could equally tease that it would be perfect for a student of the 17th century seeking an oblique insight into the look and feel of the times — but that would be mean, as it is much, much more.

Still, The Great Level has the reader bumping repeatedly against the question of what Tillyard is trying to do, just as the Dutch surveyor and civil engineer Jan Brunt bumps up against the islands as he drifts through the reeds. The lassitude that Tillyard conveys in the first four Parts and particularly in the Fenland scenes is utterly credible but demands considerable patience of the reader, who must turn many pages before anything much happens, and must wait until Part Five before the point of the alternation between locations and dates becomes properly clear.

The love affair the blurb promises is an evanescent thing which Brunt seems content to let drift wherever it takes him. The action is often borrowed from the wider historical context — the England of the Civil War, and the Americas when King Charles II decided to gift a portion of his new colonial lands to his brother James. But whereas Tides of War was vigorous in its depiction of political and military events, The Great Level can seem almost too subtle: the reader lulled — almost hypnotised — into the period, rather than thrown gloriously into its cut and thrust.

Brunt is a convincing but frustrating character to choose as the focus for such a stretch. A reticent foreigner who talks to himself rather than to real people, he is utterly unlike the woman of the Fens who bewitches him and reappears towards the end of the novel, there providing amusement, action and narrative drive such as fans of the unconventional Harriet in Tides of War may have been hoping for. Brunt seems almost perversely naive and incurious — you want to shake him out of his passivity and his trance-like state, whereas Eliza is savvy, ever watchful, almost scheming — and yet holds back from abusing the reader’s trust.

It is not Brunt the character who is compelling for the first 150-odd pages, but his calling as an engineer, which is meticulously and wondrously detailed. Then, from Part Five onwards, you find yourself rooting for Eliza, who emerges from the shadows (or the reeds) as a marvellous character, vividly drawn. During the long portion based on Brunt’s reflective musings, an air of melancholy seeps through the pages, just as water seeps through an ill-constructed dam; whereas in the later and sadly short period in which we inhabit Eliza’s lively and practical mind, the pace quickens like water coursing towards the sea. The underlying currents may be similar — the work of drainage and shoring up — but the narrator’s tones and the reader’s experience are very different.

Perhaps Tillyard was just bewitched by water herself and felt she had to evoke it in prose, come what may. And her evocations are certainly beautiful. Unsurprisingly, given that she has studied art history, much of the book has a painterly quality — Brunt’s modest dwellings conjure the still simplicity of images from the Dutch golden age (a Vermeer perhaps), while the depictions of the Fens and the Virginian flatness made me think, oddly, of Corot’s tranquil landscapes. I suspect Tillyard did a lot of looking at paintings before she wrote, to complement her already deep pool of academic research. She must have spent a lot of time unrolling old maps and walking (or paddling) the different waterlands, too. She has a wonderful way with words and arresting images, and the writing is delightfully limpid throughout.

If I have a quibble, it is with the publishers, whose promotion of this intensely memorable and complex piece of fiction reduces it to the love story that is interlaced within. This cheapens both the whole and that part , and does readers a disservice, suggesting they will get something that they will not.

The Great Level is a very difficult novel to sum up. Best to read it when you have time to adjust to its pace, poetic language and preoccupations and decide for yourself what it is. I will certainly be reading it again — and looking out for Tillyard’s next book, whatever that proves to be.