Reviewed by Ian Lipke
A huge book of 800+ pages, The Evening and the Morning appears to be a useful source of information relating to the pre-1000 CE period. Having read general knowledge books in the history of this era as well as some specialist tomes, I am comfortable in asserting that the author’s research has been thorough and that Follett has produced an authentic description of life in these times. If his portrayal is inaccurate, which I doubt, then a specialist scholar is likely to point out any error.
What has to be remembered in this discussion is that this great epic is a work of fiction. The author is at liberty to change the facts of history if he desires, but to do so might be unwise. My knowledge of the period is satisfied that the characters with their challenging, Anglo-Saxon names inhabit a universe that matches the history of the period in every respect. As in other Follett books, the human beings and their interactions are at the forefront of the author’s thinking.
We learn much about physical structures i.e. the Great Halls, cathedrals, inns, villeins’ cottages, leper colonies and so on. We receive an object lesson in the power of church figures and great lords, and the lack of any sort of authority if you happen to be poor, or a woman. Cuthbert, unfairly judged, is treated abominably; the Lady Ragna, wife of Ealdorman Wilwulf, is told in such a manner that there could be no misunderstanding that she will have to share her bed with any woman her lord chooses to have sex with.
While the setting might be historically accurate, and the characters believable in their roles, the plot stitched together into a comprehensive unit and the action/love scenes authentic, there is something missing. The book is 800 pages of safe literature. Nowhere does the author take a risk. Lady Ragna is a woman who chooses one of her own class for a husband, as one would expect, plays out her role as lord of an area that her husband has given her as part of her wedding agreement, has his children, is tempted by another man when her husband loses interest – it is all so ordinary. She is a type. Even her sexual passion is told as a third party might report it. Edgar the builder is intelligent and makes himself responsible for some enlightened innovations. His re-told love for a dead girl has no fire or histrionics. His feelings are always confined within the ashes of a well-tended fire. We learn about his feelings about having sex with Lady Ragna from his examining all aspects of the act after his partner has departed. The monk Aldred has a large number of ‘monkish’ things to do, and acquits them well, but there is no fire there either.
No reason exists for this book to be so long. Passages of dialogue that could have been truncated are evident. Pages 465 to 470 is an example of padding out a story. Wynstan and his evil mother spend most of this period wondering and wishing. Their dialogue adds little. Pages beginning 480 describe Ragna’s preparations to win back her husband’s interest that was focused on a thirteen-year-old slave girl. I suspect this was written for an audience that would be unlikely readers of this book. On page 509 an ignorant servant girl explains to Lady Ragna that she had insulted her because she was ‘distraught’. Distraught? On pages 657 – 659 appears an incident at the home of a prostitute that advances the story not one jot.
Even so, there is much to like about the book. It’s a tale where one event follows unerringly from its predecessor. The tale is very 1950s-ish, heart-warming, interesting, and certainly not boring. It’s one of those tales that readers like to read because it is like a comforting, slow-burning fire that, everybody is assured, will never dart out of its bounds to start a conflagration.
Recommended for holiday reading for those readers whose backs are strong enough to tote it.
By Ken Follett
$44.99; 816 pp