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Tedious and inaccurate
on 16 November 2010
I'm not a huge stickler for accuracy in historical fiction as long as the book feels right and for me, this means getting the little details about everyday life correct. It's easy to get the date of a battle or a coronation correct, but knowing about how ordinary people went about their daily business is more difficult and is part of what I expect from a well-written historical novel. Getting these things wrong sets my teeth on edge normally, but getting them wrong when you spent ten years researching and writing a book (not to mention having a paid research assistant) just looks like laziness and sloppy work. When you have the time, money and resources to get things right there's just no excuse, as far as I'm concerned. This probably wouldn't irritate me nearly as much as it does if it weren't for the numerous reviews that suggest that people could read this book to find out about twelfth century history when all they would learn about is Ken Follett's twelfth century history, where women are `hot' and `sexy', people have scullery maids and labourers have clothes which do up with multiple buttons, which is about as accurate as Hollywood twelfth century history.
Follett obviously has very fixed notions about the middle ages, which he presents as a lawless, ignorant and violent time with only a few good, educated, enlightened people (strangely enough, the ones that we're supposed to like) among all the bad. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle observes that King Stephen's reign `when Christ and his saints slept' was definitely a lawless and troubled one, so William Hamleigh's actions are not unlikely, but the divide between good characters who posess modern virtues and bad characters who conform in every way to the medieval stereotype is very heavy-handed and does not make for balanced, believable characters. I half expected the bad characters to cackle while rubbing their hands with glee, they were so one dimensional.
One particular way in which Follett distinguishes his good characters from bad through giving them contrasting `modern' and `medieval' values is sex. The good characters know about things like love, mutual pleasure and orgasms, while the bad characters are either impotent or violent and prefer prostitutes and rape to loving partners. Even if the sex scenes (of which there are many) had been well done, this would have been a crass and obvious way to show characterisation, but they are either repellent or amusingly Harlequin-esque, both of which seem totally out of place in a book ostensibly about building a cathedral. I'm no prude, and I have no objections to the odd well-placed steamy scene in a book, but these seem totally out of context and make me cringe and wish that Follett had learned the technique of tastefully drawing a veil on proceedings. Also, how many times do we need to read a graphic description of William Hamleigh raping a woman to establish that he is A Bad Man? Apparently the answer is many.
The plot is quite repetitive. That might sound reasonable for a novel surrounding something like the construction of a cathedral which necessarily takes place over many decades, but there was never any sense of progression. Tom/Alfred/Jack builds something, William/Waleran causes problems and halts the building, Philip and co. come up with a solution and building continues. Over and over again. If quickly felt as if the book could happily have been much shorter without changing much at all. I thought the end section concerning the murder of Thomas Beckett was very odd and unnecessary, considering how removed it was from the entirety of the plot so far. Kingsbridge is supposedly near Winchester, so why Follett contrives to have it's Prior be in Canterbury on the night its archbishop is killed perplexes me. All it did was draw the book out even longer, and I was rather losing patience by this point.
When a plot meanders and repeats like this one does it needs strong characters to help drive it along and sadly I found Pillars of the Earth to be lacking in this area too. I was instantly put off by the fact that they all seem to be modern people (with the exception of the bad guys, of course) speaking in modern terms who just happen to be wandering about in period costume (and inaccurate costume at that). The two female characters are both beautiful, resourceful and educated and while I can believe that Aliena might be able to read, the likelihood of forest woman Ellen being able to do the same at a time when books were both exclusive and expensive is incredibly remote. Agnes is probably the most plausible woman in the book, which means naturally that she's killed off very early on because she's not terribly interesting. However, my problem with the female characters pales in comparison to my issue with Prior Philip. Follett states in his introduction that, though he is fascinated by cathedrals, he is not a religious man and sadly this shines through in the text. Philip, whom the reader is encouraged to look on as a good man of God in contrast to Waleran, a corrupt one, is undoubtedly the most secular monk I have ever encountered. He may be good, but very rarely does he seem genuinely holy in any way. He most frequently mentions God when he is striking a bargain with Him ("if you want me to build this cathedral, give me the money") and there is very little evidence of prayer and serenity. I think it says a great deal about the priorities of the author that there is more visible rape in this book than there is visible religion.