Review 1726: To Calais, In Ordinary Time

It’s 1348, two years after the battle of Crécy, which won Calais back from the French to the English. Will Quate is betrothed to Ness, the prettiest girl in his Cotswold village, but his liege lord, Sir Guy, wants him to join a group of archers on their way to defend Calais. Will would rather stay, but he bargains for a document showing he’s a free man. Sir Guy tells him he will send along the paper with Captain Laurence Haket in exchange for five pounds once he has won his fortune.

Will agrees to go. In fact, his attitude toward Ness seems ambivalent. He doesn’t seem to care that she had an affair with Haket and became pregnant. Will’s friend Hab is plainly in love with him, but Will doesn’t seem inclined.

Sir Guy’s daughter Bernadine is incensed that Sir Guy has betrothed her to a man his own age when she is in love with Laurence Haket. Inspired by La Roman de la Rose, she feels she is entitled to a more romantic life, so she runs away, following Haket on his way to Calais.

Another voice on the journey is Thomas Pitkerro, a proctor, who is sent along with the archers on his way to his home in Avignon to give last rites, if needed. Thomas is afraid of the plague, which is said to be moving north from Italy and France.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time echoes its medieval inspirations with its tale of adventures while on a journey. It does so in more than just plot, however, for it is written with only words in use in the time it was set. Thomas, who is writing letters and keeping a diary, writes in a stiff, bombastic style that thankfully loosens up . The novel is narrated in a style a little less formal than the speech of Bernadine, which contains some French modes of expression. Several times the point is made that her workers do not understand many of the words. The speech of Will and the characters around him is littered with expressions native to the Cotswolds.

This attempt is similar to that of Paul Kingsnorth in The Wake, which I read several years ago—written to be readable to modern audiences but to have the feel of Old English (in the case of The Wake, that is). This effort doesn’t seems as likely to me except in the speech of the characters of the lowest status, which has a flow to it. The dialogue between characters of higher status seems overly elaborate, even pretentious, and perhaps echoes written work of the time.

Meek doesn’t do much to get readers interested in his characters, so at first I had difficulty becoming involved in the novel. After a while, I got more interested. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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4 thoughts on “Review 1726: To Calais, In Ordinary Time

  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead September 21, 2021 / 10:46 am

    Enjoyed the review and was delighted to find a fellow reader of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which I read, with some difficulty, the year it was nominated for the Booker. Although it was slow going at first, I became used to the language pretty quickly and actually ended up loving the book.
    I’ve been interested in Meek’s To Calais since I read a very favorable review in The Guardian. Did you see it? If you’re interested, it’s at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/sep/12/to-calais-in-ordinary-time-by-james-meek-review
    I had almost forgotten about this book until I read your review; now it’s on my TBR again. Although they can be quite challenging, I usually find novels that employ these audacious experiments in language pretty interesting, if I can stay patient that is! I probably read Clockwork Orange, with it’s incredibly inventive language, at too impressionable an age!

    • whatmeread September 22, 2021 / 11:25 am

      I thought it was interesting, too, and if he had been more interested in characterization, I probably would have liked it more. Thanks for the review link.

  2. Penelope Gough September 22, 2021 / 2:07 am

    I seem to have clicked on the wrong spot to put a comment about this novel and did so in the Walter Scott prize page overall. Hope it isn’t too confusing.

    • whatmeread September 22, 2021 / 11:27 am

      No, that’s okay, and your comment was about both the book and the shortlist, so it’s fine where it was.

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