Now is the Time | Melvyn Bragg | 2015 | Sceptre | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
By the spring of 1381, the commoners of England had been brought to their knees by merciless taxation and seemingly endless recurrences of plague, bound together within the misery of a serf’s life. The introduction of the Poll Tax, compounded by its ruthless and criminal enforcement, was the final straw. The people fought back, fuelled by the sermons of preacher John Ball and steered by the leadership of former soldier Wat Tyler. Nothing like it had been seen in England before. The Peasants’ Revolt forced its way into London, even inside the Tower of London, destroying the houses of their lords and masters, burning their possessions in the street, casting their jewels into the Thames. Their demands were simple but went to the heart of medieval feudalism – they demanded the end of serfdom as well as death for the advisers of the boy king Richard II. And for a time it even looked as if Richard might be listening.
Now is the Time is an astonishing retelling of the Peasants’ Revolt, focusing on the events that took place during just a few extraordinary weeks in May and June of 1381. The focus falls on a few key individuals but the full weight of the revolt is felt with such a force, an almighty flood on the heels of its leaders, a great pressure pushing up against London’s finest buildings, an enormous cry for justice reverberating around Richard II’s palace walls. And as the rich and the powerful batten down their hatches, it would seem that nothing could turn the tide.
The people at the heart of the affair are brought to the fore, these few in particular: Wat Tyler, John Bull, Richard II and his mother Joan, known as the Fair Maid and the widow of the much-loved and greatly-missed Black Prince. Both Tyler and Bull are inspirational men, one offering the people the support and vengeful love of God while the other provides the sword. Many of the men they lead are the bowmen who brought such fear to France and we meet a number of them as well as the women, a fair few of whom take up their own weapons.
England is on the move – the wheel turned by Bull and Tyler – and we follow it every step of the way. While Tyler believes he is fighting to create a country in which everyone is equal, a new Jerusalem, Bull is determined to bring the old order down, in blood. Against the idealism and the fury, we have the old guard – the advisers around Richard II. While a few might see the revolt as an army of everyman, comprising people just like them, more regard the revolt as an inhuman mass to be crushed. These arguments, conflicting opinions and motives, are brought to the fore throughout, sharply and convincingly. These are the arguments that resulted in the most significant revolt of the Middle Ages and beyond. Their force still resonates.
There is a strong sense of an emerging Englishness – Richard II enjoys a fancy French turn of phrase, after all the Plantagenets really do not think of themselves as English, but English poets, not least Chaucer, have made the English tongue popular. It is the language of revolt. Joan warns her son to take to the English language, but Joan’s influence on Richard reaches far deeper than this. It is insidious, chilling, quietly effective. The relationship between Joan and Richard is, for me, one of the highlights of the novel. Joan, with her obsession for counting her jewels, and the precocious, conflicted Richard, who reminds himself how much he loves beauty, considering himself a connoisseur, knowingly aware of his role, and yet thrilled by the sight of a man’s head rolling from his shoulders. The portraits of Joan and Richard are exquisitely drawn, their true natures slowly emerging as the threat increases.
Wat Tyler isn’t painted quite as well. There is little exploration for the reasons behind his transformation from loyal soldier to rebel leader. Nevertheless, as the novel continues, we grow close to Wat and there are times when I wept for him. Likewise, John Bull is changed utterly and there is something very moving in his search for a quiet churchyard in which to sit and find peace.
Melvyn Bragg’s prose in Now is the Time is wondrous. I can’t praise it enough – I don’t think I’ve read anything else this year that matches it and that’s not lightly said. It isn’t easy to explain but for me the narrative and its phrasing manages to be both modern and medieval. There is also almost a hindsight in parts of the novel, colouring its language, making the events seem even more momentous and significant. Its sense of history is strong and vital but so too is its insight into character and injustice, something that is timeless. Medieval London is vividly brought to life but Now is the Time most excels in its dialogue, in its characters’ reflections and contemplations.
History comes alive in Now is the Time. Now is indeed the time – the events of the past are powerfully shown to have relevance to our own world. At times it reads like a call to arms while at other times it reminds us of the almost inevitable failure of such an enterprise. It is compassionate and gentle. There is idealism co-existing alongside melancholy, and cruelty feeding upon hope. Now is the Time didn’t just mesmerise me with its utterly wonderful writing it also made me think and I am enormously grateful to have read it. This book exemplifies the relevance of historical fiction, going beyond the confines of genre. With no doubt at all, this is a contender for my novel of the year.